Before Joe D: Early Italian Americans in
the Major Leagues
When Joe DiMaggio died on 8 March 1999, news of his death was on the front pages of all the major newspapers and was the lead story on the network newscasts. Cable networks broadcast tributes and documentaries, and Newsweek put his picture on its cover. Very few figures in American life could generate such a response. More than fifty years after his final baseball game, Joe DiMaggio was still a cultural icon, someone who transcended the world of baseball.
No Italian American athlete, in any sport, achieved as much enduring fame as Joe DiMaggio. But even before DiMaggio made his major league debut in 1936, many other Italian Americans had paved the way by playing big league baseball. Several had notable careers, and two are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rather than attempt an overview of the entire span of Italian American participation in baseball, this essay will focus on those athletes who made significant contributions to the game before the appearance of DiMaggio. In many ways, their stories reflect the general experience of the Italian Americans of their time.
By the early 1880s, what had previously been a trickle of Italian immigrants to the United States suddenly turned into a flood tide. Over the next forty years, more than four million Italians immigrated, most of them unskilled laborers from the rural southern regions, and they all came in search of the American Dream. Those immigrants encountered