Perry Pilotti Jr., the American representative of the Italian Baseball Federation, is a 5'4", 68-year-old bachelor with twinkling eyes, a puckish smile and gray hair that protrudes at odd angles from his mostly bald head. He has a curious gliding gait, like that of a man who has spent his entire life walking north while being buffeted by a strong west wind.
Years ago, as a teenager growing up in Bridgeport, Conn., he played sandlot baseball, a sport his father loved and taught him to love as well, but because he was a lefthanded second baseman who couldn't throw or hit, he soon realized his future was limited. Instead of abandoning the game, however, Perry simply pursued it from a different angle. He devoted his next 50 years to baseball, first in the U.S. and later in Italy, his father's native land.
Pardio Pilotti was 14 years old when, in 1902, he left Teano, north of Naples, and came to America. As he stepped out of steerage onto Ellis Island, he was promptly informed by an immigration clerk that there was no such name as Pardio in America. "From now on," the clerk said, "your name is Perry." Pilotti settled in Bridgeport, which in the early 1900s was a sort of minor league New York City for European immigrants. The town was divided sharply along ethnic lines. The Italians lived in the north; the Slovaks and Poles in the east; the Hungarians in the west; and the Irish in the south, where, by accident, Pilotti first made his home and began working as a carpenter. His Irish neighbors called him Patsy, and through them he became interested in football, as close a sport as those immigrants could find to their beloved soccer. It wasn't until Pilotti married, started a family and moved to the Italian section of Bridgeport that his love affair with baseball began.
"The first name I remember hearing at the dinner table," says Perry Jr., "was 'Poosh 'Em Up' Tony Lazzeri. And then Joe DiMaggio. I was five. My father took me to every minor league baseball game in Bridgeport on weekends. We'd sit through doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday. He never took a day off from work for anything except to go see the Yankees at the Stadium. The funny thing is, my father never played baseball. And I stopped playing when I was 15. But I was still determined to find a place for myself in the game."
And yet for a time in his early 20s it was basketball that attracted his attention. He was coaching a local semipro basketball team when he walked into a sports store one day to buy uniforms for his squad and became fascinated by all the gloves and bats and balls. The store exuded the aroma of sport. He made up his mind then and there that someday he would own his own sporting-goods store. And he would stock it with dozens of lefthanded gloves. He fulfilled that dream in 1947 when, at 28, he opened the Artie Sport Shop in Bridgeport.
"How small was it?" Pilotti says of that first store. "So small that I took all the gloves out of the boxes and put the boxes on display, too, so it would look like I had a lot of merchandise. It was the right time for a sporting-goods store, though. Kids were coming home from the war and they were starved for sports."
The Artie Sport Shop was on shaky financial ground until Perry got a Rawlings franchise, and with it an entrée into all the major league locker rooms. Pilotti would go to spring training, his station wagon filled with gloves and spikes, and give them to players like Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle, men with whom he remains friendly to this day. They repaid his generosity by stopping by the shop from time to time. It became known as a baseball hangout, even in midwinter. There was always someone of note there, and Pilotti got items into the local newspaper announcing such appearances. Young players converged on the store, got autographs, talked baseball and before leaving bought the very same glove that, say, Musial had just tried on. Pilotti always offered high school players a discount. In fact, the joke was that everybody got a discount. Twenty percent off, 30% off. Players would hold up a glove to Pilotti, and he would shout to a salesman "Forty percent off!" without even looking at the price tag.
After a while, Pilotti began to hire top local athletes to work for him. The shop was soon filled with muscular teenage salesmen who seemed more interested in trying on gloves than selling them. One star pitcher used to spend his time firing baseballs off the concrete wall whenever the boss left the store. Customers dodged fastballs while he worked the count to 3 and 2. Nevertheless, by the summer of 1971, Pilotti was a prosperous merchant, with three Artic Sport Shops in the Bridgeport area (he stocked more than 100 lefthanded baseball gloves in each), and a friend and confidant of big-leaguers past and present. In his spare time he went to Little League, high school and semipro baseball games throughout Connecticut. One night he found himself in Stamford, at a Babe Ruth League tournament. One of the visiting teams was from Italy.
"I didn't even know Italians played baseball," Pilotti says. "I was fascinated by those kids and the way they played. They were so emotional. Their shortstop had major league potential."
After the game, Pilotti met the team's administrator, Massimo Cecotti, and took him out for a drink. "Cecotti invited me to Rome to see how the Italian Baseball Federation was organized," says Pilotti. "I didn't know there was an Italian Baseball Federation."
What Pilotti saw in Rome astounded him. The staff. The organization. The professionalism. It was a facsimile of major league baseball. The federation president, Bruno Beneck, was a combination of Finley, Steinbrenner and Veeck. He was brash and flamboyant, favoring cowboy hats and gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses. He bore a striking resemblance to Benito Mussolini, a resemblance he did nothing to dispel. He told Pilotti on their first meeting, "A lot of people call me a dictator. And I am."
Pilotti learned that after World War II baseball had grown steadily in Italy, although soccer, as in most European countries, had always been the national obsession. At first the participants were Italians who had ties to America or Americans. The earliest teams sprang up in the south of Italy, where most Italian-Americans had emigrated from, and around U.S. military bases where servicemen played the game. By 1950, however, baseball in Italy had become popular enough to warrant the formation of the IBF.
Among the first teams were Bologna and Nettuno, the latter a tough little seaport where organized baseball was first played in Italy. The Nettuno team was likened to the old Brooklyn Dodgers and its fans were the most rabid in the league. They would hoot and jeer in unison when a ground ball rolled through an opposing shortstop's legs.
Today there are 12 cities in the league, each with three or four teams of various degrees of skill. The top level is quasi-professional, made up of the best players, regardless of age. The lower levels, in descending order, are composed of younger and less talented players down to the least experienced, who are with outfits equivalent to Little League teams in the U.S. The season for top-level teams begins in April and ends in October. They play three games a week in lighted stadiums that seat about 15,000 and have more in common with Fenway Park than the Astrodome. The IBF rules are taken verbatim from American major league baseball.
Except for the language, a typical IBF game has the look and feel of baseball played in a much earlier America. Three generations of a family, male and female, arrive at the stadium carrying baskets of fruit and cheese and bread and wine and brightly colored pennants. During special series there are fireworks, bonfires and men in brilliant 13th-century costumes who carry medieval pageant flags and engage in pregame duels. Italian girls, dressed much like the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, kick their legs high, almost in unison, while trying to hold on to their ungainly hats with one hand. The fans chant practically from the moment they enter the ball park, not stopping until they leave. Anything can be cause for applause. Even a routine foul ball brings a spontaneous cheer. The caliber of play is equal to that of a good small-college American baseball team. The players look and dress like big-leaguers. Like most newcomers to the game, they are good fielders but weak hitters. Soccer requires speed, agility and foot coordination. But baseball is a hand-eye sport. Most Italian boys who turn to baseball often do so because they are not talented enough to play soccer. Almost invariably, they have learned baseball from American players and coaches. They play stiffly, like athletes who are thinking about each movement rather than reacting instinctively.
When Pilotti visited Rome in 1971, what the IBF needed was an American representative in the States who could funnel good players and coaches to Italy. Perry signed on immediately, first as a volunteer, and then as a salaried employee, with a card that read: "Perry Pilotti, American Representative of the Italian Baseball Federation."
"I did everything," Pilotti says. "I'd send over kids to play, usually ex-collegians and ex-minor-leaguers whose string had run out in the States but who still wanted to play. It was rough for them at first. They had to get used to the food, the language, the people, but if they got through their first week, they usually stuck. One kid got so homesick, he didn't last the day. He got off the plane in Rome one morning and was headed for home by nightfall." Others, like Lenny Randle, an ex-major-leaguer, and Tony Russo from the Bronx, lasted considerably longer. Russo has played 12 years in Italy and married an Italian girl. Randle became a celebrity in Nettuno, where he doubled as a disc jockey for a local radio station.
Perry also performed other services for the IBF. He sold it equipment, at a discount, naturally; he arranged tours for Italian sportswriters visiting the States; he brought Italian teams to major league spring training sites; he got visiting IBF dignitaries and players tickets to the World Series.
Today, Pilotti spends more time on promotion, because the IBF has instituted a rule limiting the number of Americans that can play on any one team. At one point the IBF allowed each team three American players and two Americans who could qualify for Italian passports. Now the IBF allows each team two American players, period. It is trying to improve the quality of play among Italians, and it is succeeding. In the early '60s the IBF produced a player, Giorgio Castelli, from Parma, who had major league potential. He was offered a contract as a catcher by the Cincinnati Reds, but declined. He played 23 years for Parma, became a celebrity and is still on the roster, although his only role is as a coach/adviser.
Two years ago, the Italian national team won the European Championships, which were held in Grosseto, Italy. "The IBF is beginning to stand on its own," says Pilotti. "But still, it gives me great satisfaction to help out. Why, just a few years ago I had lunch with the owner of the Nettuno team. Prince Borghese! Imagine that! Me, a kid from Bridgeport who sells socks and jocks having lunch with an Italian prince! My father would have been thrilled."
Stateside in one of his Artic Sport Shops, Pilotti shows off a supply of his favorite items.
Pat Jordan, the author of "A False Spring" and "The Cheat," once worked for Pilotti.