Yes, We Baseball

The first baseball players in Italy weren't Italian, but that soon changed.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army – Photo by Sarah Gross licensed under CC BY 2.0

The first baseball players in Italy weren’t Italian, but that soon changed

It was the year 1884, Lancaster versus Guinnebaug: this was the first baseball game in Italy. But the players were not Italians. In fact, Lancaster and Guinnebaug were two US military ships docked in Livorno, the renowned port city of Tuscany. Their navy officers, once landed, improvised a series of games in the city, arousing the curiosity of the people and local press. Five years later it was the turn of the American pitcher and manager Albert Goodwill Spalding, who organized a world tour to promote baseball and his Spalding sporting goods. The tour touched three Italian cities — Naples, Rome and Florence — with the best major league American players like John Montgomery Ward and Cap Anson performing in front of the Italian royal family at one point. Then, baseball disappeared for thirty years in Italy, until two Italian pioneers of the sport tried to arrange some baseball games between 1919 and 1923. These pioneers were Guido Graziani and Mario Ottino (known as Max Ott), emigrants to the United States at the turn of the 20th century and then returned to Italy. They are both in the Italian Baseball Hall of Fame.

Then came fascism. While in 1929 the Fascist School of Physical Education had sent a group of young students to the US, the advent of the war changed things. In fact, after the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, Italy was subject to economic sanctions, and so baseball — epitome of American sports — was practically forbidden by Benito Mussolini’s regime. But, as we know, history is cyclical. And so, the US army not only kicked out fascism from Italy but also brought baseball back to our nation. Its epicenter was the city of Nettuno, in the province of Rome, and just a few miles from Anzio, where in 1944 the renowned landing by the Allied troops known as Operation Shingle occurred. American soldiers, in easing tension during the terrible Second World War and later maintaining military bases in these two coastal cities, dabbled in baseball, involving the locals. For this historical reason, the city of Nettuno, which also houses the touching Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, is known all over Italy as ‘the city of baseball’, with the two teams playing the major Italian Baseball League.

The Sicily–Rome American Cemetery and Memorial in NettunoU.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Weston Jones/Released licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Italian Baseball League and the Italian national team

The first official Italian Baseball League took place in 1948, with just five teams. It was won by Libertas Bologna. A year later the Italian prince Steno Borghese, designated by the US army as the first mayor of Nettuno, organized a parallel championship in central Italy, won by SS Lazio Baseball. In 1950, the two leagues formally merged, creating only one championship. Since 1953, rather, Italian Baseball Federation has officially been recognized by the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI). In 2010, the Italian Baseball League made some significant changes to become a more official, professional league. They followed suit of the American Major League Baseball by introducing the franchise format league. This means that at the end of the season there are no promotions or relegations, and the league is a closed-team system. This format allows them to maintain a higher standard, also aiming to increase merchandising, whose success is independent of the performance ranking of the team. The Italian Baseball League (known as Serie A1) has ten teams, destined to become twelve in 2021. In the city of Nettuno there is a rivalry between Nettuno Baseball City and Nettuno 2 Baseball Club, while one of the 10 teams is also representing the Republic of San Marino. The most successful city in the League is Nettuno with 17 titles, followed by Bologna and Rimini tied with 13. Currently the Italian Serie A1 is, along with the Netherlands, the most competitive league across all of Europe.

But at an international level, it has been a more difficult journey. August 31, 1952: this was a very important day. At the Flaminio stadium in Rome, the Italian national baseball team appeared for the first time, playing and losing the game against Spain. But revenge was very sweet, because in 1954 there was the first edition of the European Baseball Championship in Belgium, and Italy became the European champion, beating out Spain in the finale. Our national team would be able to win the European Baseball Championship nine more times, the most recent one in 2012. Nevertheless, in the intercontinental tournaments, such as the Olympic Games, the World Cup or World Baseball Classic, Italy has not yet been successful, crushed by giants like Cuba and the US. The best ranking we’ve been able to achieve so far is 4th in the World Cup and 6th in the Olympic Games. But there is hope; the current manager of the Italian national team is Mike Piazza, a legend of American baseball. As the US army turned the tide of the war in 1944, maybe another American hero will be able to perform a new miracle in Italy.

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