This spring at Venice a passenger in a gondola to Murano, the island where exquisite glass has been spun since the 15th century, saw a sight to mystify a doge. It was noon, hot and still. But the urchins who pump bellows and stoke fires for the glass blowers were not fishing or swimming in the green lagoon. They were capering around a glass-littered wharf, playing a game with a broom handle and a rubber ball. "We saw some American soldiers playing the game," the apprentices said, "and we remembered how."
This sort of thing has been going on in Italy since 1943, when baseball literally invaded the country. Mussolini's Fascist encyclopedia had tried to bury the game as "a violent sport." Three times baseball rose and expired: in 1919 when Turin and Rome saw their first games and were bored, in the middle '20s when baseball failed again for the same reason and in the late '30s when physical instructors were sent to the States to learn it from, of all people, Bernarr MacFadden.
The slow start was due mainly, besides politics, to the "4,000 rules" that supposedly encumbered the game. Italians were used to soccer, basketball, polo, field hockey and billiards, games where "the ball scores the point." To chase a ball all over a field with their eyes and then learn that nothing had happened to the score left their theatrical sense in a muddle. Later in the Duce's Hitler period, baseball was automatically ridiculed as vulgarly American. Italy's Communists snub the game today for the same reason; they fear it. With some 2,000 players who know baseball, and at least 100,000 fans, all with one eye on the U.S., the Communists have an enemy which is growing dangerously.
At the time of the invasion, American baseball was full of easy, natural names like Rizzuto, DiMaggio and Crosetti. The fact obviously impressed Italian youth. Moreover, the conquerors were eager to share the keys of the kingdom. Italian baseball came gradually into the hands of unpaid American volunteers: dungareed sergeants, black-robed seminarians and hibiscus-shirted embassy clerks. Italy got two leagues and soon found it needed three. Today the eight big league teams are still coached for the most part by Americans, but as players the Yankees are quietly being supplanted by a home-grown corps. Each team is allowed three Americans, but only two can take the field at a time and the pitcher must be Italian.
This casual heritage has given baseball about a hundred American fathers. The official Adam, however, is an Italian, Max Ottorino of Milan, a plump, bald importer. Max, after learning the game at college in the U.S., shortened his name to Ott. He bravely put on the first exhibits in Turin and Rome. His delayed triumph came on June 26, 1948, when Milan saw its first game of league hardball. Two years later Max was elected "father of Italian baseball." Through his insistence the hardball game of the north gradually supplanted the softball game from Rome. For reasons of decency the game was temporarily renamed pallabase. Base was so close to bacio, meaning a kiss, that any game, retold, sounded like a night scene from Boccaccio. A ball is called a palla, which offends nobody.
Max was the inspirer; the builders came later, postwar. Baseball in Italy today owes its organization to an Italian nobleman, its rules and poetry to an Italo-American consular officer, its fire and sportsmanship to an American cemetery keeper. The nobleman is Prince Steno Borghese, a stubby, 44-year-old sportsman who heads both the Italian federation and the all-European league. Prince Borghese, who happened to own a large estate at Nettuno, saw the game first under Nazi fire a few days after American troops staggered ashore in the bloody Anzio and Nettuno landings of 1944.
"I very well remember," he says today, "how we stared at the GIs who were playing with a ball, throwing it to each other, wearing gloves. Our first impression was, 'What a childish game! Is it possible they find it amusing?' " Captivated, the prince surrendered a valuable beachside acreage to make the first, best and only exclusively baseball diamond Italy possesses.
The rule-maker is Louis Campo, an intense but amiable New Yorker turned Italian who works for the State Department and manages and coaches Ambrosiana, a B league club of Milan. At 46 Campo still substitutes at second, often making a smooth double play with his 15-year-old shortstop. His team once surprised him with a special diploma: "To Dr. Luigi Campo who, at age 42, stole home." Lou's real achievement, however, has been in translating the rules and persuading our embassy to print and distribute them. To show that baseball could be gay, Campo translated Casey at the Bat into Milanese dialect, making it El Brambilla a la Battuda. Now he is trying to adapt the rules to Italy's independence. He wants Americans barred from catcher or shortstop, "to encourage Italian rookies at these positions."
But the American most hallowed is the Great McGarity, a thin, earnest GI married to an Italian girl, who came back to Nettuno in 1950 to supervise the unbuilt cemetery for our 7,862 dead. Horace J. McGarity, a basket-bailer from Babylon, L.I., saw in baseball something to knit Italy and America together better than paper pacts or perpetual handouts. When his grave-diggers asked to graduate from soft to hard, McGarity agreed to coach them. What won the Italians was partly his tough discipline, but mostly his modesty. "When Mac didn't know something," the players say today, "he would stop practice, say 'Wait,' take the book of rules out of his hip pocket and look up the answer, then read it to us." Nettuno, under McGarity, won the national title three out of four years. The fact that a team from a town of 12,000 could beat Lazio and Roma, the richer teams of the huge capital, piqued the Italians. Soon no mother at Nettuno could find her rolling pin (Italian rolling pins resemble bats). Soccer balls were turned inside out to make gloves. The Nettunese called McGarity II Mago, the sorcerer, as if he could brew love philters and steer the evil eye. But the Battle Monuments Commission, his employers, saw McGarity only through a dim haze of efficiency reports. He was accused of using the Pentagon's sacred water sprinklers on Borghese's base paths. When McGarity lost heart and went home, the bureaucrats saved their machinery at the price of a million dollars in good will.
Italy's games are as unpredictable as her volcanoes. When an umpire hesitates, down from the scorching bleachers rolls a wave of molten abuse. To delay an umpire-hungry crowd, every diamond is supposed to be fenced and guarded by police. As an extra deterrent, whenever the lava runs wild, Prince Borghese's federation fines the home team. When an Italian manager jumps from the bench and begs the crowd for calma, he is trying to save not only the umpire but the gate receipts. The umpires, paid only 85� to $1.60 a game plus their second-class travel expenses, face the crowds with the dedicated fatalism of gladiators.