|An Incubator of Baseball Talent|
|Escrito por David Waldstein|
|Martes 01 de Noviembre de 2011 21:39|
ST. LOUIS — Few cities resonate with as much baseball tradition as St. Louis, and few seem as doused in team colors as this city, where even the downtown fountains are spraying water tinted Cardinal rouge this October.
Some of the best teams and players in the sport’s history have played in St. Louis, at Sportsman’s Park, Robison Field and the two Busch Stadiums. And the game echoes in other parts of the city, too, particularly in a neighborhood called The Hill, which is seven miles from downtown.
It was there, on a vacant lot on Elizabeth Avenue, that two sons of Italian immigrants honed their soccer, football and, more than anything else, baseball skills.
One of them was Lawrence Berra, who later became known nationwide as Yogi, and the other was Joe Garagiola. They were still babies when the Cardinals won their first World Series in 1926. Each is now a baseball elder whose name endures.
"We played all the time," Berra said in a telephone interview Thursday as he recalled the neighborhood in which he grew up. "We would go right after school and play until the 4:30 factory whistle. That’s when our fathers got off work and we had to go home and open a can of beer. Then it was back outside to play."
Today, the Elizabeth Avenue lot has been replaced by a house, but the same homes that Berra and Garagiola grew up in still stand, directly across the street from one another at 5447 and 5446 Elizabeth Avenue. A niece of Berra’s, Mary Frances Brown, still lives in the old family home, now renovated.
In fact, much of The Hill’s orderly working-class streets, homes and shops remain intact, not all that much changed from an era when sons of Italian immigrants became Americanized, often through sports.
Elizabeth Avenue has been renamed Hall of Fame Place, and sidewalk plaques mark the homes of Berra and Garagiola, and the legendary Cardinals announcer Jack Buck, who bought a house down the block at the corner of Elizabeth and Macklind when he was broadcasting Cardinals games.
There are also plaques in front of the homes of five members of the United States soccer team, which upset England in the 1950 World Cup.
Like everyone in the area, Berra and Garagiola grew up worshiping the Cardinals, but only Garagiola was fortunate enough to be signed by the team. He went on to play six seasons with the Cardinals and was a catcher on the 1946 club that beat Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series.
Although Berra was overlooked by the Cardinals and the other local team, the St. Louis Browns, he managed to do all right. He signed with the Yankees in 1943, won 10 World Series and 3 Most Valuable Player awards, played 19 seasons in all and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.
But he said Thursday that his older brother Tony, nicknamed Lefty for his slugging power from the left side, was the better player.
"My father wouldn’t let him or my other brothers Mike and John play," Berra said. "He didn’t know about baseball. They had to go to work and get a paycheck. But you ask anyone up on The Hill: Tony was the best."
With the Cardinals now in pursuit of their 11th championship, The Hill remains an Italian neighborhood, with St. Ambrose Church, which Berra and Garagiola attended, still a focal point for the residents.
The numerous Italian restaurants and shops, the presence of Milo’s Bocce Garden, where people can gather for a beer and a game of bocce, evoke a time when Italian was the predominant language spoken in the streets and where workingmen’s hands were calloused from their labors at the nearby clay mines, brick factories and spaghetti plants.
"You go to a lot of Italian neighborhoods in a lot of American cities and you ask, "Where are the Italians?’ " said Joe DeGregorio, a second-generation Italian-American who runs tours of the neighborhood.
Not in The Hill, though. DeGregorio said that when immigration began here in the latter part of the 19th century, many people arrived from a cluster of five towns outside Milan in northern Italy, rather than from Sicily and the south, the source of so many other Italian immigrants to the United States.
"Joe Garagiola used to tease my father because he was from Sicily," DeGregorio said. "That’s the way it was."
Clara Scozzari, 85, still lives on Elizabeth Avenue, near where she grew up. She has known Berra, she says, virtually all of her life, or since they both attended Shaw’s School.
"They used to play baseball in the street, and we would watch sometimes," Scozzari said. "He would act tough, but in the end he was always very nice."
Today, there is still a large population of Italian immigrants in The Hill, people like Salvatore Licata, who came here from Sicily in 1959 and now owns the Marconi Bakery. Giovanni Dominic Galati is the owner of Dominic’s restaurant at 5101 Wilson, where the regulars include Tony La Russa, the Cardinals’ manager, and Joe Torre, who played and managed here. Galati said that The Hill had changed some, but that it still maintained an everyday charm and simplicity that gave it a sense of place.
"It’s a place where you can walk to the bakery and get a loaf of bread," he said. "And after work, have a beer at Milo’s and play bocce, go to church and walk home. It’s still a very unique place."
Eight decades ago, it was where Garagiola and Berra played sandlot games. All those decades later, it remains just seven miles from the focus of the baseball world.
[ From http://www.nytimes.com ]