Baseball: The game that helped America become America

It's more than the national pastime, says JOE GUZZARDI

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As proof of my six-decade emotional commitment to the Pittsburgh Pirates, I offer this evidence.

On Oct. 3, I listened to every pitch of the Pirates 105th and last listless loss, this one 5-2 to the middling Florida Marlins. With the Pirates finally out of their 2010 misery, I was left to face the long winter months contemplating the team's final three at-bats: back-to-back strike outs by Ryan Doumit and Ronny Cedeno and a feeble Andy LaRoche pop up to third.

Not long after the Pirates cleaned out their lockers, my spirits got an unexpected lift when New York University president John Sexton invited me to address his undergraduate class titled "Baseball as a Road to God."

Mr. Sexton, a former NYU law school dean, a Fordham University Ph.D. in American religion and once chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, developed his class to encourage students to seek life's deeper meanings in even its most basic pleasures. As Mr. Sexton likes to put it: "Think strange."

My specific assignment was to lecture about how baseball provided early 20th century immigrants with the surest method of assimilating. To that end, I was to discuss the significance of two books from the class reading list; first, "The Celebrant," a novel by Eric Rolfe Greenberg about how the Jewish immigrant Kapinski family adopted as its hero the New York Giants' all-American pitcher Christy Mathewson, and second, "A Great and Glorious Game," former Major League Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti's collection of essays that included several about baseball as means of assimilation.

With Mr. Sexton's offer, I was immediately transported back to a happier era in Pirates history when the 1903 and 1909 teams first won the National League Championship, then the World Series, and were the pride of Pittsburgh.

Prepared with enough notes to talk for a week and armed with archival photos of turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh, I told the students the heroic story of the early Pirates.

By the 1900s, Pittsburgh offered so many industrial job opportunities that it became a primary destination for Eastern European immigrants. Typically, an immigrant would work 60 hard hours a week next to a blazing open hearth furnace for about $15.

Although a ticket to the old Exhibition Park represented a luxury, immigrants saved their pennies to enjoy the rare treat of an afternoon outdoors to watch the Pirates. When they got to the game they saw a more affluent crowd and realized that an America different from their grueling steel mill existence might await them. Through baseball, the nation's fastest growing and most popular sport, immigrants aspired to become part of it.

German-born Pirates' owner Barney Dreyfuss and star player Johannes Peter "Honus" Wagner, the son of German immigrants, unknowingly served as their beacons.

Dreyfuss worked his way up from a distillery accounting clerk who could barely speak English to become one of baseball's most creative owners and eventually a member of its Hall of Fame. In 1903 he created the first World Series when he challenged the American League champion Boston Americans to a best of nine series. Under Dreyfuss, the Pirates' president from 1900 until his death in 1932, Pittsburgh won six pennants, two World Series and finished in third place or better 21 times.

When immigrants watched Wagner, the "Flying Dutchman," at shortstop, they saw a mirror image of their hard-working selves. Wagner was one of five children born to German natives, and at age 12, he left school to join his father and brothers in the coal mines.

Wagner's working conditions in professional baseball were far superior to the mills, but they were nothing like today's, with their manicured diamonds. No matter how humid or wet, the players played. According to Exhibition Park ground rules, unless the outfield water was higher than ankle level, the game went on.

Wagner, dressed in wool from head to toe and drenched in sweat, played his position better than anyone -- then or now. Here's how novelist Greenberg described Wagner, "the Lord of the infield":

"Honus Wagner matched Mathewson for size, and in the infield he stood like a gnarled oak with bowed roots, his large arms branching nearly to the ground; with his oversized hands, he'd scoop up anything hit to his enormous range, gathering with the ball a large measure of infield dirt, and he would fling the whole package toward first base, debris trailing off like a comet's tail, the toss ever straight and true."

Immigrants passed their baseball passion on to their children.

In "The Celebrant," Yakov Kapinski explains how baseball transformed his life:

"First by imitation, then by practice, we learned the game and the ways of the boys who played it, the angle of their caps, the intonations of their curses and encouragements. Our accents disappeared, our strides became quick and confident. 'Get those knuckles dirty, Jackie!' my infielders would shout -- Jackie, not Yakov."

Luckily for the new young fans, they didn't need to buy polo ponies or golf clubs to play baseball on the closest empty lot. Creative kids played barehanded and made their own baseballs from old Life magazines soaked in kerosene and milk, then sun dried. Rough-cut planks served as bats.

To emphasize baseball's importance to the immigrant community, I turned the class' attention to Giamatti, whose paternal grandfather Angelo was born in Naples around 1900. In Giamatti's 1981 essay, "Men of Baseball, Lend an Ear," written as a plea to end a mid-season strike, he wrote:

"The game is quintessentially American in the way it puts the premium on both the individual and on the team; in the way it encourages enterprise and imagination and yet asserts the supreme power of the law."

I ended my lecture with a chapter from my own history.

Late in her life and with her family gathered around her, my Sicilian grandmother and lifelong Dodgers fan reminisced about her eight American decades.

Her five happiest moments, she recalled, were the days each of her three children were born, the day she became an American citizen and Oct. 5, 1955, when Brooklyn finally won the World Series.

When Yakov Kapinski, Giovanna Guzzardi and a generation of Pittsburgh immigrants fell in love with the Giants, the Dodgers and the Pirates, they took their first step toward becoming Americans.

Joe Guzzardi is a retired public school teacher and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. He lives in Bradford Woods ( ).


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