What’s in a name? Plenty if you ask this columnist

There I was, sitting in my high school gymnasium one brisk Saturday morning in late spring, wanting to still be in bed. The smell of butter-drenched pancakes and steaming coffee filled the gym, as faculty and staff served the crowd.

The room was as full as a clown car as parents packed in to be a part of the morning’s event.

It would go down as another frustrating experience regarding my name.

The festivities of the day were to recognize students posting a high semester and career GPA.

Students gathered by class in the lobby, lining up in alphabetical order. Their names would be read by the assistant principal while they walked across the stage to receive their certificates.

As one of the students to be honored, I had an inkling that something wasn’t going to go right.

Throughout my childhood, any time my name was said at award banquets it was mispronounced. It was usually some hybrid of the correct pronunciation: “DiMaggio” without the “Di”.

As my name approached, my hands started to clam up and I broke into a sweat.

“…Dan MacDonald…,” my assistant principal read.

Now for my name. The one moment where I am recognized for my achievements. All of my hard work and studying led directly to this five-step jaunt across the makeshift stage to shake hands with the superintendent and principal and receive my certificate.

“Anthony…”, pause, “Mah-li-o.”

What!? Are you kidding me? There’s not even an `L’ in my last name!

I never really understood why my name couldn’t be pronounced. As I’ve grown older, though, it has bothered me more and more. Then last week, I found the answer.

Thursday evening, a seminar was put on by Lawrence Baldassaro, a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, entitled “Italian Americans and American Baseball: The Pre-Joe DiMaggio Era.”

The seminar seemed to speak directly to me. I am, after all, an Italian-American who is always eager to learn more about his heritage. Not to mention I have a passion for sports history.

The speech focused on six Italian-American baseball players whom I had never heard of: Edward Abbaticchio, Ping Bodie (born Francesco Stefano Pezzolo), Babe Pinelli, Anthony “Tony” Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti, and Ernesto Natali “Ernie” Lombardi.

In the mid to late 19th century and early 20th century, Italians were immigrating to America in record numbers. Most of these people were farmers and laborers who knew little or no English.

When the immigrants arrived in the new world, they remained strongly attached to old customs and did not readily assimilate. This left their children sometimes torn between the world in their parents’ home and the world outside of it. These children wanted to be like those around them, but had few opportunities to overcome barriers of language and income – except baseball.

Baseball became a common denominator and an important constant in many Italians’ lives. It allowed them to be a part of the Anglo-Saxon culture. Baseball made them American. However, Italians in the major leagues were sparse.

Abbaticchio was the first known Italian to have a significant baseball career. He played for the Philadelphia Athletics, Boston Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates – even earning a bigger salary in Pittsburgh than Hall of Fame teammate Honus Wagner.

There may have been others in the league, but they were not known to be Italian because they changed their names. A major issue for Italian ballplayers was their names, which they often changed because teammates had trouble pronouncing them, and sportswriters had trouble writing them.

But even a name change couldn’t draw the focus of being Italian away from players, fans and writers.

Babe Pinelli, born Rinaldo Angelo Paolinelli, used to say that he had firecrackers in his blood. He would get into fights with opponents and teammates alike when called ethnic slurs.

Those slurs were prevalent in the media as well. The New York Times would call Lazzeri the “Walloping Wop.” The media practice of using derogatory names existed until right around the Second World War.

That was also around the time when an center fielder named DiMaggio first donned Yankee pinstripes.

The Yankee Clipper, as DiMaggio was known, became an American icon and a household name.

Professor Baldassaro said DiMaggio is pronounced correctly because it is closely associated with baseball. My name, while only one syllable off, is not associated with anything, and is therefore usually mispronounced.

Lighting struck again last April. I went to a scholarship banquet where once again a speaker botched my name. At that moment, I acquired a second career goal: Any time my name is mentioned in public, it will be pronounced correctly.

My first career goal is to be a broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. I told Baldassaro about this dream of mine, then jokingly added, “Too bad my last name isn’t Caray.”

He replied with, “Neither is his. Harry’s real last name was Carabina.”

Harry Carabina. Doesn’t quite have the same ring Harry Caray does.

But I think Anthony Maggio sounds just fine.