“The Dodgers,” the man in the Yankee Stadium lounge was saying enviously, “are the luckiest team in baseball.
“Look at the record,” he went on. “They’re the first team to break the color barrier. They get their pick of the Negro leagues, they get instant parity with the Yankees and they’re the darlings of every black fan in the country forever.
“I won’t say anything about their claiming the Los Angeles territory for themselves. I mean, that’s like Columbus discovering America.
“But when they get there, they got Sandy Koufax. Do you know what John McGraw and the Giants would have given for Sandy Koufax, for a star Jewish player in New York in the ‘20s? What even the Yankees would have given? There wasn’t a scout who wouldn’t have dropped everything to rush up there if he heard of some kid named Cohen tearing up the bushes some place.
“Koufax was just a wild kid in Brooklyn. He turns into Super Sandy in L.A., the greatest Jewish athlete since Samson.
“Then, when he’s gone, they come up with Fernando Valenzuela. They’re sitting in the center of the greatest Spanish-speaking population in the country and they come up with the greatest Spanish hero since El Cid!”
Ethnicity has always played a big role in the melodrama of baseball anyway. Babe Ruth was universal. He belonged to everybody. Ty Cobb was unilateral. He belonged to no one. Cobb was a guerrilla, preying on everybody. A guy such as Rogers Hornsby was never a success in the big Eastern cities because he was too unidentifiable. No group could claim him, unless it was the Ku Klux Klan. No one ever said he was a Rogers Hornsby fan.
New York had local favorites but was never successful in corraling the good Jewish ballplayer, even though it tried manfully. Years later, someone would ask the great Hank Greenberg how the Yanks let him get away, living as he did in their shadow in the Bronx, and Hank reminded them, “They had a pretty good first baseman--fellow by the name of Lou Gehrig.”
Boston would have killed for a good Irish ballplayer. Chicago wanted a Polish one.
But the New York Yankees in one respect have always had the most fortuitous personnel policy in the big leagues--they have always cornered the market in eligible Italian players. They have more Italians in the lineup usually than can be found in the second act of “Aida.”
It began simply enough with Tony Lazzeri, a second baseman, in 1926. A marvelous hitter--.354, one year--Lazzeri was nevertheless overshadowed by Ruth, Gehrig, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Bill Dickey, but, in 1932, the team went to a San Francisco connection again to sign Frank Crosetti.
Crosetti stayed until another paisano took over at shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, but the player that raised the consciousness of Italians everywhere--to say nothing of the Italian flag over the bleachers--was Joe DiMaggio in 1936. That really made the Yankees the new Roman legions.
No one ever played the game of baseball any better than Joe DiMaggio. And no one ever called him “Dago.” It was usually “Mister” when Joe showed up, a man of monumental dignity as well as ability.
Yankee scouts to this day take special pains to check every ballplayer everywhere whose name ends in A, I or O, or who can wrap spaghetti around a fork. They figure every Italian can either sing, bank--or hit the curveball.
They’ve had pretty good success with that assumption, considering Yogi Berra, Vic Raschi and Rizzuto.
And it may explain why they lingered long over the name of Michael Timothy Pagliarulo when it came up in the draft and why they finally signed him.
Mike Pagliarulo was not your basic light-up-the-scoreboard type of star in his native Massachusetts, where he was as well known for soccer as baseball. The Red Sox, in whose back yard he grew up, had no trouble passing on him. All he had going for him, it seemed, were all those A’s and I’s and O’s in his name. Mike had more vowels in there than a Hawaiian love song.
There were too many for the Yanks to handle and the rookie soon became Pags around the locker rooms.
A natural athlete--he’s 6-2 and 195, with the clear, alert eyes of a guy you don’t want to give the first punch to--Pags was a Graig Nettles-type of third baseman who could make a play on everything he could get to. And he got to more balls than any third basemen in the three minor leagues he played in.
What the Yankees didn’t know was that Mike Pagliarulo had the most natural home run stroke of any player in pinstripes since Roger Maris. He hit 22 in Greensboro his first full year in organized baseball and 19 at Nashville in his second.
He was languishing on the bench in the Yankee chain in Columbus in July of 1984 when Toby Harrah got hurt and Pagliarulo was brought up to play third base. He hit seven home runs as a part-time player the rest of that season. Harrah not only didn’t get his job back, he got traded.
The next year, Pagliarulo gradually played his way onto the team and finished the season with 19 home runs and 62 runs batted in.
This season, he has electrified the league with 28 home runs. “He has the most devastating quick home run stroke of any young player I’ve seen,” veteran Angel pitcher Don Sutton, who has seen a few, says. “You can get a gopher ball from even a good pitch.”
“It’s nothing I cultivate,” said Pagliarulo as he sat in a Yankee Stadium dressing room the other night, nursing a slight hamstring pull. “I never try to hit a home run. I just meet the ball where it’s pitched.”
Yankee Stadium, of course, with its short right field, brings out the best in left-handed hitters. But it also brings out the best in paisans in pinstripes. They should rename it Goomba Stadium. It owes more to Italy than the Met. Or Pizza Hut.