Out of Left Field: Italian-Americans riding the sports elevator

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Dr. Tom Ferraro, the marvelous commentator for Blank Slate Media, last week highlighted that there are 319,602 Italian-Americans in Nassau County.

In the 2000 Census, there were 408,572 in Suffolk.

Our two suburban counties ranked among the highest population percentage of Italian-Americans in the U.S.  (Suffolk was 2nd with 28.8), and Nassau was 7th (23.9).

I grew up in an immigrant household and have been privileged to teach immigration history. I am keenly aware of the challenges for categorizing any ethnic group.

The book I co-edited 30 years ago had the subtitle: “Salad Bowl or Melting Pot?”  My North Shore co-author, Josef Sirefman, and I focused on the spectrum experienced by all immigrants: ethnicity (staying primarily in their own ghettoes); acculturation (blending American culture with their ethnic inheritance); and assimilation (becoming primarily “Americanized”).

All those phases and phrases are complex; they call for elucidation.

However, the trend from “salad bowl” to “melting pot” is inexorable — the gauge is how many generations it takes for ethnic newcomers to fuse with other groups.

For early Italian-Americans (of which I was one), there was a tendency to be “IN America, but not OF America.”

My immigrant dad (from the beautiful Adriatic seacoast town of Casalbordino) almost never left our Little Italy ghetto.

My mother’s illiterate parents (from bella Pescara) stayed even closer to home and to “la famiglia.”

The immigrants in my 13-person household experienced a ghetto life that was later described by scholars as a “decompression chamber.”

As in the case of deep sea divers, if you tried to adjust too quickly, you were likely to get a version of the cultural ““bends.”

For those of us who grew up in those immigrant households of the 1930s and ‘40s, sports were seen as the quickest way out of the ghetto (not unlike blacks and other minorities).

We saw that professional athletics valued youth and skill over ancestry, residence or education.  The key was to get good enough at your sport to get a shot at the big time.

In our Italian-American ‘hood, like other ethnics of those decades, we were described as “sports crazy.’  Whatever the season, that was the sport we played.

We had the audacity to envision being outstanding playing every sport (unlike today’s teens, who increasingly tend to focus only on a single sport, often with special coaching).

In contrast, we advanced by playing games every day for many hours at a time.  \

So fanatical were we, that during winters, we shoveled snow off an outdoor basketball court so we could play regardless of how cold the temperature was.

Sometimes, we resorted to the creative approach of “breaking into our school” (through a coal chute) so we could shoot hoops.

Our approach to a fantasy of sports stardom was epitomized when we were in grammar school.

I have never forgotten the exchange in the late 1940s between Dominick Yozzo and one of the Culetto twins.

We all had trouble distinguishing the twins because one was called “Tony” and the other simply went through our ghetto life known as “The Twin.”

Yozzo said to one of the twins: “How are you guys doin’ in school?” The Culetto who responded said: “I ain’t doin’ too good in school, but I’m doin’ ok down the street.”

Some of us tried to bridge the ethnic “street corner society” with education skills.  No one did that better than Frank Cosentino, son of immigrants, who was the best athlete in the history of our high school.

He was also a superb student. He went on to graduate from Princeton where he was the starting tailback in the early ‘50s, and the number one golfer (losing only a single match during his college career).

Frank’s golf achievement is especially noteworthy.

How in the world could the son of immigrants in an Italian ghetto become so proficient at golf?

Long Island author Pietro DiDonato would understand. Frank excelled because of what DiDonato cited as Italian commitment to “Job.”

For Frank, his paying job began at age 10 as a caddy; same for all of us at a beautiful private country club.

We regularly joined Frank in playing 64 holes every Monday (which was caddy’s day).

We began at 7 a.m. and finished when light faded at 8:45 p.m. (sometimes holding lighters over the cup to complete final puts).

Like our “creative” approach using the school basketball court when the building was locked, we regularly “sneaked on to the back holes in late evening to play several holes, betting on each one of them).

Our group, the sons of immigrants, regularly won the county golf championship.

I played in the number two slot on my college team.

1 COMMENT

  1. We don’t all have to eat the same foods, but we do have to hold some things in common for our multiethnic, multiracial society to work. So here’s my top-ten list of what we should expect from those who want to become Americans (and those who are already Americans, for that matter). The list was first published in a National Review Online column [link: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/378393/e-pluribus-unum-roger-clegg ], and it is fleshed out in Congressional testimony [link: http://www.aila.org/content/fileviewer.aspx?docid=23115&linkid=164788 ]:

    1. Don’t disparage anyone else’s race or ethnicity.
    2. Respect women.
    3. Learn to speak English.
    4. Be polite.
    5. Don’t break the law.
    6. Don’t have children out of wedlock.
    7. Don’t demand anything because of your race or ethnicity.
    8. Don’t view working and studying hard as “acting white.”
    9. Don’t hold historical grudges.
    10. Be proud of being an American.

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