What’s More (Italian) American Than Baseball?

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It’s that time of year. “One, two, three strikes your out at the old ball game.” As we wallow in the World Series, who can help but remember the greatest of the greats. The line is long, but for some reason a lot of uniforms in that line sport pinstripes. Sandwiched in between Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on one side and Micky Mantle on the other side is the Yankee Clipper himself, Joe DiMaggio.

Joltin’ Joe was long retired and within a few months of renewing his relationship with Marilyn Monroe by the time I was born. Still, for some reason I always felt an affinity to him. In sixth grade the teacher gave us the assignment to write the biography of our hero. I chose Joe DiMaggio. What could I say. He’s Sicilian.

I learned his family migrated not to the east coast, but, like many Sicilians, to San Francisco. You wouldn’t know he was the son of an immigrant, though. His Yankee career made him first an American icon of American’s pastime. His Hollywood style made him an American icon, period.

Perhaps that’s why Simon and Garfunkle chose to feature him in their hit single “Mrs. Robinson.” You remember their mournful lyrics “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Joe DiMaggio wasn’t the only Italian-American who helped define Americana. In fact, you don’t have to leave San Francisco to find the financial backbone of everyday Americans.

In 1904 Amadeo Pietro Giannini established The Bank of Italy in San Francisco. Like DiMaggio, he was the son of Italian immigrants. His banking innovations helped rebuild San Francisco following the earthquake and fire of 1906. Giannini’s bank eventually merged with a large Los Angeles bank called the Bank of America. Giannini decided the latter name would offer greater marketing nationwide opportunities.

His idea turned out to be quite astute. Giannini helped finance the California wine industry, the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and even bankrolled Walt Disney’s first full-length animated movie Snow White. You can’t get more American than that.

Or could you?

Think back to the fuzzy Christmas memories. Under the tinseled tree, every child dreamed of receiving a Radio Flyer red wagon. Born in Venice, Antonio Pasin immigrated to the United States in 1913. Unlike the DiMaggio and Giannini families, he arrived on the east coast. Ellis Island, to be specific. The sight of the Statue of Liberty inspired him. He built his first toy wagon in 1917, christening it the “Liberty Coaster” in honor of Lady Liberty herself. Ten years later he transformed these wooden wagons into steel ones. He called them “Radio Flyers” and the rest is childhood history.

If there’s one thing American kids like more than little red wagons, it’s candy. Do you remember buying candy when you were young? What was your favorite candy? Maybe it was the one invented by “The Lollypop King.” In 1940, Vincent R. Ciccone, son of Italian immigrants, began work as a janitor for the Charms Candy Company. By the time he retired from in 1990, he had become CEO and had more than 20 patents under his belt. He invented the “hard candy” cough drops we’re familiar with today. He’s perhaps best known for creating the company’s top selling product – the Charm’s Blow Pop – a candy-covered lollipop with a bubblegum center.

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, Americans spent their leisure time going to county fairs and local parks. The confectionary business blossomed in this era. Sure, that meant candy, but it also meant peanuts. To satisfy this demand, two Italian immigrants – Amedeo Obici and Mario Peruzzi – teamed up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. By 1906, they were successful enough to found a company, which they incorporated in 1908. The name of that company was Planters Nut and Chocolate Company.

Yep, Mr. Peanut, one of the most recognized advertising icons in America, comes courtesy of Italian-Americans. So, the next time you down a handful of those nuts, don’t forget to say “Grazie.”

Of course, you can’t survive on just snacks. Sometimes you need to eat a more complete meal. One of the most popular fast food meals just celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Italian-American Michael James “Jim” Delligatti became one of the first McDonald’s franchisees in 1957. He opened his first restaurant in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He would eventually own 48 branches.

In 1965, Delligatti had an idea. He took a double burger and began experimenting. Eventually, he put these two all-beef patties, added some special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and placed them on a sesame-seed bun. By 1967, he was ready to serve them in his Pittsburgh franchise. Impressed, McDonald’s rolled them out nationwide in 1968. Only a year later, this new product – the Big Mac – represented 19% of the company’s total sales.

Delligatti never got a royalty, but he did get a plaque. He also ate a Big Mac every day. He died in 2016. He was 98 years old.

Don’t like McDonald’s? You can stay within the Italian-American universe and still enjoy fast food. Three high school friends – Angelo Baldassare, Anthony Conza and Peter DeCarlo – opened the first Blimpie’s restaurant in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1964. Today, there are hundreds of these sandwich shops spread throughout the nation.

Not impressed with this sandwich shop? Then how about this one?

In 1965, Frederick Adrian “Frank” DeLuca borrowed $1,000 from his friend Peter Buck and opened up the first Subway restaurant in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Frank believed offering healthier, less fattening fast food would differentiate Subway from its competitors. He was right. Today, there are 43,700 franchise locations throughout the world.

From this “hero” (a.k.a. submarine sandwich) we’ll return to the hero we first mentioned. There are people who remember Joe DiMaggio not for his hitting prowess, but for his pitching prowess. And by “pitching” I’m not talking baseball. In 1973, Joe DiMaggio began appearing in commercials for a brand-new coffee maker called “Mr. Coffee.” Soon, people who didn’t know Joltin’ Joe’s baseball career began to refer to him as Mr. Coffee.

You’d think this might have upset the real inventor of Mr. Coffee. Nope. They laughed all the way to the bank. Within a year after the Yankee Clipper began starring in their commercials, they had sold more than a million units. By the end of the decade, Mr. Coffee had captured 50% of the market.

What’s more American than coffee?

Now, before you think the only Italian American connection is Joe DiMaggio, you need to know it was another son of Italian immigrants that invented the device. Vincent Marotta was co-inventor of Mr. Coffee and was the one who convinced the former Yankee to pitch his product. Marotta was actually signed by the St. Louis Cardinals to play centerfield – DiMaggio’s position – but ended up playing running back for the Cleveland Browns. By odd coincidence, he retired from football the same year DiMaggio retired from baseball (1951).

Yes, there are many Italian American heroes. They come in all sizes and shapes. From the world of business to the world of entertainment. They are builders, they are athletes. They enforce the law and make the law. And Americans – not matter their ethnic heritage – see them as American heroes, not simply “Italian” American heroes. Heroes that protect you when bullies come and kick sand in your face.

We can’t all be Charles Atlas – or could we? Using ads in comic books, the bodybuilder famously sold his training program to teach skinny kids how to stand up for themselves and become their own hero.

Oh, and by the way. Charles Atlas wasn’t his real name. He was born Angelo Siciliano in Acri, a small town in the province of Cosenza in the Calabria region of southern Italy.

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