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."