"Here, you'll like this," says George Randazzo, a 38-year-old Italian-American with fire in his eyes. Randazzo walks into a storage room and begins moving cardboard boxes around. "Now where is it?" he mutters, lifting a box that has LAMOTTA inked on it and placing it on top of one that says COLAVITO. There are many boxes, all with names written on them. BASILIO rests on top of MARCIANO, which is propped between CANADEO and DIMAGGIO, which is perched on GIARDELLO.
"Here we go," says Randazzo, pulling forth a box labeled CARNERA. To his left are a row of headless manikins wearing sports gear. There is Ron Santo's No. 10 Cubs jersey, Yogi Berra's Yankee uniform shirt, Jake LaMotta's satin robe. The Green Bay Packers jacket over there belonged to Vince Lombardi.
With a flourish, Randazzo pulls from the Carnera box a pair of enormous shoes. "Size 18," he says proudly. Next he produces two dark-leather pillows—boxing gloves, actually—one for each of the 6'5¾", 260-pound Primo Camera's gigantic fists.
"Now, a guy like Larry Holmes is pretty big," says Randazzo, again reaching into the box. "But can you imagine somebody who fit these?" He holds up a pair of boxing trunks large enough to gird an oil drum. "We got all these things from Camera's wife. We got everything in here through donations, through talking and writing to relatives of athletes, friends of athletes, even the athletes themselves. And it's all going to be on display when we open up the Hall in November."
That was a few weeks ago, and the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame Museum & Theater, located at 7906 W. Grand Ave. in Elmwood Park, Ill., just west of Chicago, is now open for business. The Hall features cases filled with old newspaper clippings, photos, programs, championship belts, pads, hats, sweatshirts, jerseys, socks, glasses, even mouthpieces of nearly 300 of America's finest athletes of Italian descent. There are motion pictures of the athletes in action, recordings of speeches they've made and a 100-seat theater where a documentary film on the Italian-American sports heritage is shown.
The Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame Museum & Theater? Is this, ahem, something we really need? A valid question, perhaps, though not for Randazzo, president and co-founder, with his friend Joe Granata, of the Hall. Three years ago Randazzo quit his job as a buyer for an electronics firm to work on the nonprofit, tax-exempt project full time.
"Actually, it all began when I was a kid saving boxing pictures," he says. "A few years ago I thought about having my collection published and calling it A Pictorial History of Italian Ring Heroes. Then I thought of starting an Italian-American Boxing Hall of Fame. Then we had a big dinner honoring Italian-American boxers, and it was so successful that a couple of us figured, why not start a hall of fame for all Italian-American athletes?"
The point, says Randazzo, is not to champion one ethnic group over another, but to counteract negative publicity—"that gangster-Mafia image people have of Italians"—and to entertain at the same time. "The Hall is for everybody to enjoy," he says.
There's no denying the contributions Italian-Americans have made in the sports world. In football they've given us such stars as Charley Trippi, Leo Nomellini, Gino Marchetti and Daryle Lamonica. In baseball there have been, among many, many others, the DiMaggio brothers, Carl Furillo, Joe Torre and Lee Mazzilli; in basketball Forest (Red) DiBernardi, who in 1921 was called "the world's greatest basketball player," and Hank Luisetti, the first man to score 50 points in a college game. "We've got the ball," says Randazzo.
The Hall of Fame has exhibits honoring Willie Mosconi (pool), Eddie Arcaro (horse racing), Phil Esposito (hockey), Angelo Trulio (handball), golf's Gene Sarazen (nè Saracini), and Sue Digitale (women's pro basketball). Even the umps are represented; one of the manikins wears NFL referee Tony Sacco's striped shirt.
The great boxers with Italian names are there, of course: the two Rockys—Marciano and Graziano—Carmen Basilio, Jake LaMotta. And so are the fighters whose Anglicized names make them sound like interlopers: Willie Pep (Guilermo Papaleo), Lou Ambers (Luigi D' Ambrosio), Joey Maxim (Guiseppe Antonio Berardinelli).
What qualifies one as an Italian-American athlete? Well, says Randazzo, you must have some Italian blood and be able to prove it. What about boxer Mike Rossman, whose real name is DiPiano but who took his mother's maiden name and promotes himself as "The Jewish Bomber"? "I guess in the long run we'll sort of let the athlete himself decide if he wants to join the Hall," says Randazzo.
Someday, one suspects, the American melting pot will make most ethnic delineations obsolete, but Randazzo doesn't expect that to happen soon. He even envisions moving the Hall to a larger building in downtown Chicago and eventually changing the name to The Italian-American Sports and Performing Arts Hall of Fame, which would include entertainers as well as athletes. A few names, George?
"Well, how about Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, Liza Minnelli.... I could go on."
Thank you, George.