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Perry Pilotti Jr., the American representative of the Italian Baseball Federation, is a 5'4", 68-year-old bachelor with twinkling eyes, a puckish smile and gray hair that protrudes at odd angles from his mostly bald head. He has a curious gliding gait, like that of a man who has spent his entire life walking north while being buffeted by a strong west wind.
Years ago, as a teenager growing up in Bridgeport, Conn., he played sandlot baseball, a sport his father loved and taught him to love as well, but because he was a lefthanded second baseman who couldn't throw or hit, he soon realized his future was limited. Instead of abandoning the game, however, Perry simply pursued it from a different angle. He devoted his next 50 years to baseball, first in the U.S. and later in Italy, his father's native land.
Pardio Pilotti was 14 years old when, in 1902, he left Teano, north of Naples, and came to America. As he stepped out of steerage onto Ellis Island, he was promptly informed by an immigration clerk that there was no such name as Pardio in America. "From now on," the clerk said, "your name is Perry." Pilotti settled in Bridgeport, which in the early 1900s was a sort of minor league New York City for European immigrants. The town was divided sharply along ethnic lines. The Italians lived in the north; the Slovaks and Poles in the east; the Hungarians in the west; and the Irish in the south, where, by accident, Pilotti first made his home and began working as a carpenter. His Irish neighbors called him Patsy, and through them he became interested in football, as close a sport as those immigrants could find to their beloved soccer. It wasn't until Pilotti married, started a family and moved to the Italian section of Bridgeport that his love affair with baseball began.
"The first name I remember hearing at the dinner table," says Perry Jr., "was 'Poosh 'Em Up' Tony Lazzeri. And then Joe DiMaggio. I was five. My father took me to every minor league baseball game in Bridgeport on weekends. We'd sit through doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday. He never took a day off from work for anything except to go see the Yankees at the Stadium. The funny thing is, my father never played baseball. And I stopped playing when I was 15. But I was still determined to find a place for myself in the game."
And yet for a time in his early 20s it was basketball that attracted his attention. He was coaching a local semipro basketball team when he walked into a sports store one day to buy uniforms for his squad and became fascinated by all the gloves and bats and balls. The store exuded the aroma of sport. He made up his mind then and there that someday he would own his own sporting-goods store. And he would stock it with dozens of lefthanded gloves. He fulfilled that dream in 1947 when, at 28, he opened the Artie Sport Shop in Bridgeport.
"How small was it?" Pilotti says of that first store. "So small that I took all the gloves out of the boxes and put the boxes on display, too, so it would look like I had a lot of merchandise. It was the right time for a sporting-goods store, though. Kids were coming home from the war and they were starved for sports."
The Artie Sport Shop was on shaky financial ground until Perry got a Rawlings franchise, and with it an entr�e into all the major league locker rooms. Pilotti would go to spring training, his station wagon filled with gloves and spikes, and give them to players like Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle, men with whom he remains friendly to this day. They repaid his generosity by stopping by the shop from time to time. It became known as a baseball hangout, even in midwinter. There was always someone of note there, and Pilotti got items into the local newspaper announcing such appearances. Young players converged on the store, got autographs, talked baseball and before leaving bought the very same glove that, say, Musial had just tried on. Pilotti always offered high school players a discount. In fact, the joke was that everybody got a discount. Twenty percent off, 30% off. Players would hold up a glove to Pilotti, and he would shout to a salesman "Forty percent off!" without even looking at the price tag.
After a while, Pilotti began to hire top local athletes to work for him. The shop was soon filled with muscular teenage salesmen who seemed more interested in trying on gloves than selling them. One star pitcher used to spend his time firing baseballs off the concrete wall whenever the boss left the store. Customers dodged fastballs while he worked the count to 3 and 2. Nevertheless, by the summer of 1971, Pilotti was a prosperous merchant, with three Artic Sport Shops in the Bridgeport area (he stocked more than 100 lefthanded baseball gloves in each), and a friend and confidant of big-leaguers past and present. In his spare time he went to Little League, high school and semipro baseball games throughout Connecticut. One night he found himself in Stamford, at a Babe Ruth League tournament. One of the visiting teams was from Italy.
"I didn't even know Italians played baseball," Pilotti says. "I was fascinated by those kids and the way they played. They were so emotional. Their shortstop had major league potential."
After the game, Pilotti met the team's administrator, Massimo Cecotti, and took him out for a drink. "Cecotti invited me to Rome to see how the Italian Baseball Federation was organized," says Pilotti. "I didn't know there was an Italian Baseball Federation."