What did the first Major League baseball player of Italian descent have in common with Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders?
Being first in America at anything is a big deal.
As an Italian American, I had never really thought about who the first professional Italian American baseball player was.
This is an interesting question, but more intriguing is perhaps why I don't know the answer to that question or even thought about it. Growing up a first-generation Italian American in New York City, I was aware of Joe DiMaggio. According to a lot of the old-timers DiMaggio wasn't just the best Italian American baseball player of all time, he was simply “one of the greats.” They never used the term “Italian-American.” He was just Italian, and the greatest baseball player ever. While the argument can certainly be made that Joe DiMaggio was one of the baseball elites, none of these guys ever said anything about who the first Italian American big leaguer was.
The answer to this question is that the answer is not so simple. What are we asking? Do both parents have to be of Italian descent? If not, are we considering half-Italian players? What if the player had an Italian mother and a non-Italian surname? This was something that Lawrence Baldassaro, author and Professor Emeritus of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee decided to tackle. He is regarded as one of the utmost experts on Italian Americans in baseball. He and other researchers including Angelo Louisa and Charlie Bevis have posed questions that we must consider. Are we asking who the first Italian American Major Leaguer was, or who was the first Italian American professional baseball player?
Turns out Italian Americans have been involved in the history of baseball for a long time. According to Angelo Louisa, many Italians during that era changed their names due to discrimination. This makes it harder for us to know how many Italians and Italian Americans were in the sport. However, there was a man whose name had not been changed. Both of his parents were Italian immigrants, and sometime in 1897, he signed a contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was the first Italian American Major leaguer, and his name was Ed Abbaticchio.
Abbaticchio played 855 major league games throughout nine seasons. He was born on April 15, 1877, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. He was the sixth of nine children born to Italian immigrant parents. His parents, Archangelo and Maria were originally from Lecce, Italy, and Castellammare, (what is now Castellammare Di Stabia) Italy, respectively. When his mother and father moved to Latrobe, Abbaticchio was the first of four children to be born here in the United States. There is not much information to be found about Edward’s childhood. There are records showing that he played on the 1894 Latrobe town baseball team.
While his playing career and rise to fame may have started on the diamond, he quickly rose to fame on the gridiron. He signed with the Latrobe Athletic Association 1895 for $50 a game, as a fullback and a kicker. In 1896, he notably scored all the points in Latrobe’s victory over West Virginia University, as well as a win against the Duquesne Country & Athletic Club in 1900, and archrival Greensburg. His professional football career lasted five seasons with Latrobe. Football pioneer, Fielding H. Yost, credited Abbaticchio with developing the spiral punt. While Abbaticchio never wanted to sacrifice his baseball career, in 1897 he signed with the Greensburg Athletic Association Baseball Club. This signing led to his signing with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1877. He made his debut as a second baseman. Abbaticchio eventually found his way to Minneapolis and the Milwaukie Brewers. It was here that he recorded a bartering average of .363, had 39 stolen bases, and lead the 1901 league in runs scored with 127. The next season he stunned the league with a batting average of .353, 96 runs scored, and led the league in triples with 18. Later in his extensive and impressive career, Ed Abbaticchio, or “Batty” as he preferred to be called, would go on to play on the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates World Series Championship team. It was here that he became good friends with legendary shortstop and inaugural Hall of Famer, Honus Wagner.Abbaticchio, a member of the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, was the “Italian American Bo Jackson,” being active in both professional baseball and football over a span of three seasons. Though he died in 1957 at 79 years old in Fort Lauderdale, FL, but will be remembered as one of the great Italian American contributors to two sports.