UW-Milwaukee Italian professor Larry Baldassaro is one of our best baseball historians and writers, writing for the Milwaukee Brewers’ publications and penning books like “The Ted Williams Reader” and “Baseball Italian Style: Great Stories Told by Italian American Major Leaguers from Crosetti to Piazza,” among others.
His latest book is a biography of Tony Lazzeri, who played alongside the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and won five World Series titles in 12 years.
“Tony Lazzeri: Yankees Legend and Baseball Pioneer” is published in hardcover by University of Nebraska Press.
As Baldassaro prepares for a virtual book event with the National Baseball Hall of Fame Senior Curator Tom Shieber on Thursday, April 15 at Boswell Books (details are here), we asked him about Lazzeri and the new book.
OnMilwaukee: Of all the Italian-American ballplayers you've written about in the past, how did you come to write a full-fledged bio of Lazzeri?
Larry Baldassaro: I knew a little about Lazzeri, but I had no idea what a significant figure he was in the 1920s and 30s. until I began doing research for Beyond DiMaggio. Of all the people I researched for that book, none surprised and intrigued me as much as Lazzeri. I discovered that in his days with the Yankees (1926-37) he was one of the most celebrated athletes in America.
Because Joe DiMaggio is such an iconic American figure, most people assume he was the first great baseball star of Italian descent. But that title belongs to Lazzeri, who made his debut a decade before Joe D.
Both the press and his peers considered him not only as one of the best players of that era, but also one of the smartest and most respected. And of all the Yankees, only Babe Ruth was more popular with the fans.
Why is his not a household name anymore, like, say, DiMaggio?
Lazzeri has been forgotten because, one, with time his Hall of Fame career was overshadowed by the careers of his three iconic teammates: Ruth, Gehrig and, later, DiMaggio, and, two, he died in 1946, at the age of 42, so he has been out of the public consciousness for more than seven decades.
I decided that he deserved to have his achievements well-documented and put into historical perspective.
Is this the first bio of him?
“Tony Lazzeri: A Baseball Biography, by Paul Votano (McFarland, 2005) covers the basics of his career but neglects or gives insufficient attention to major issues: family background, ethnic identity, epilepsy, Lazzeri's social significance as the first major Italian star.
What makes Lazzeri important to Italian-American baseball history?
As the first great star, someone who was cheered and admired by countless assimilated Americans, he instilled in IAs a sense of pride at a time of widespread discrimination. And he created an entirely new fan base of immigrants who, previously, had considered baseball a child's game and a waste of time. Now they flocked to stadiums to cheer their young hero.
Surely, he's of interest to baseball fans less focused on ethnicity, too, right? What was his main contribution to the game?
He was one of the first middle infielders to hit with power, and he paved the way for all the other IA players, like DiMaggio, who would follow him.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.