Mike Piazza, twelve-time MLB All Star and recent electee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as an outspoken Catholic and proud Italian American, gave a moving speech this past Thursday at The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) Gala. The recipient of NIAF’s Special Achievement Award in Sports, Piazza, in a speech The Italian American Podcast will excerpt in an upcoming episode (along with our interview with Piazza), spoke not of himself, but of us. And by “us,” of course, I mean Italian Americans.
“When I go into the Hall of Fame,” Piazza said to the crowd of more than 700 paesani in attendance, “your mother, your father, your grandparents, they all go in with me.” A sentiment that drove the crowd to its feet and filled the room with cheers.
Piazza gets it: There is no him without the people he came from, and the people he came from are the people you came from. The struggles they endured the same struggles your family endured. His success the fruit of the same sacrifice that bore your success. For these reasons and more, we share a bond.
Why does it matter that hundreds of us converged in New York City, flooding into the elegant Cipriani 42nd Street, not as simply Americans, but as Italian Americans? Because it is a form of testifying – to the throngs of tourists crowding the sidewalks and flooding out of Grand Central Station, to the media, to the people at home who could not attend but see photos and video footage – that this thing we share matters to each of us, individually, and even more importantly, collectively. It testifies to our pride; to our enormous success and influence in American society; and to our remembrance of and appreciation for those who came before us. It is an expression of our dignity.
We Italian Americans used to gather like this effortlessly in decades past, perhaps not at upscale galas, but in neighborhood apartments, on front stoops, back porches, tight-knit, side-by-side. It was simpler to get together because we lived near one another in neighborhoods that identified as Italian American and catered to our tastes and traditions. In today’s day and age, this has changed, and the way to keep ourselves connected and self-identified with our heritage must change, too, or it will simply be lost.
Many groups in our nation, both ethnic and religious, support one another. Their members hail from the same origins, share the same traditions, and face the same issues, so they unite, working to assist and uplift one another. There is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Network of Arab-American Professionals; Organization of Chinese Americans; Japanese American Citizens League; Mexican American Political Association; and the American Jewish Committee, among many other organizations. We need to do the same, gathering as Italian Americans, working to support and uplift one another, just as our ancestors did. The National Italian American Foundation connects us in order to make that solidarity possible; people become members and attend its events because they believe in contributing to that connection and solidarity.
I admire Piazza not only for his formidable accomplishments as a ball player, but also for his unabashed pride in being a Roman Catholic and an Italian American. There aren’t many people these days, especially in the glitzy, tabloid world of sports entertainment, still touting the virtues inherent in the values of our parents and grandparents. Those values are the real cosa nostra – our Catholic traditions, the veneration of la famiglia, the honor in hard work, the blessing of a Sunday table. The true thing that belongs to us, not as Americans and not even as Italians, but as Italian Americans, something different and unique in and of itself.
Anthony and I want the podcast to be a means for you to connect to something larger than yourself – your people, your ethnicity, your roots. That bond to one another and to what is larger, that’s what Mike Piazza was aiming for in his comments: It’s not just him walking into the Hall of Fame, but the Italian Americans who walked before him. Without them, the moment itself would not be possible.
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