By Rick Firfer
Ever since its founding in Chicago in 1977 by local sports enthusiast George Randazzo, the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame (NIASHF) has held its annual induction ceremony in the Fall to welcome an ever-expanding universe of sports heroes of Italian descent.
The roster of prior inductees runs the gamut of every conceivable sport, both amateur and professional, and includes such luminaries as baseball’s Yogi Berra, auto racing’s Mario Andretti, boxing’s Rocky Marciano, football’s Vince Lombardi, and horse racing’s Eddie Arcaro.
Some of the greats have been inducted into the NIASHF posthumously, as was the case with Marciano, but the overwhelming number of inductees have, fortunately, still been alive when inducted, which means they have been present to receive the accolades so deservedly directed toward them at the annual gala. Since the gala and the induction ceremony are open to the public, that means the fans have an opportunity each year to come and hear their heroes talk about their careers and thank the fans for remembering them and supporting them throughout those careers.
Years ago, the induction ceremony and the celebratory gala were held separately, with a free induction ceremony usually being held outdoors during the day at the NIASHF’s museum building, with the ticketed gala being held at night in one of Chicago’s downtown hotels. In those days, a number of former inductees would also show up to welcome the newbies, so it was not unusual to see Joe DiMaggio or Carmen Salvino or Angelo Dundee show up to work the crowd, including signing free autographs for those who asked. Now, however, the ceremony and the gala are held together as an evening hotel event, and the tickets are a bit pricey.
In 2016, the 39th annual Induction & Awards Gala was held at the Westin River North Hotel Nov. 12, and featured the induction of six new members into the NIASHF, plus the awarding of the Sportsman of the Year award and the Athlete of the Year award.
Fortunately, five of the six new members of the NIASHF were still alive and able to come to the gala. Those still with us include boxing great Nino Benvenuti, who flew in from Italy to be with his fans and admirers, Vinny Del Negro, the former NBA player and coach, former Major League Baseball player Joe Pepitone, former championship boxer Paulie Malignaggi, and a charming lady known to everyone in the collecting hobby, Mollie Ann Bracigliano, the founder and proprietor of MAB Celebrity Services. Without Mollie, it could truly be said that the hobby show circuit today would not be nearly as successful as it is. The sixth inductee was the late boxing champion Lenny Mancini, whose induction was acknowledged by his son, another boxing champion, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.
In addition to the inductees, this year’s gala also saw the Sportsman of the Year award go to one of the NIASHF’s principal sponsors, Eddie Greco, and the Athlete of the Year award go to the winner of the 2016 Indianapolis 500, Alexander Rossi. Rossi, as everyone knows, won the race this year as a rookie on the Indy Car circuit, a feat not accomplished by very many other drivers in the history of the race.
Past winners of the Athlete of the Year award have included current Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, as well as former Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko. Other recognizable names from the list of winners are Joey Votto, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Mary Lou Retton, Vinny Testaverde, Mark Bavaro, Brian Boitano, Fred Couples, Jennifer Capriati and Mike Piazza.
Interestingly, the original class of NIASHF inductees all came from the world of boxing. The class included Marciano, Dundee, Primo Carnera, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, and Carmen Basilio. That was because, as founder George Randazzo originally conceived of it, the NIASHF would be a boxing hall of fame. But, fortunately, by the time the second annual induction came around, George realized that the scope of the Italian athletes’ contributions to American society was much greater than just that one sport, and so the scope was broadened.
This move also helped to bring in such other important contributors to the NIASHF’s success as Jerry Colangelo, the current head of USA Basketball and the former owner of the Phoenix Suns. It was also the motivator for folks like DiMaggio and Andretti to get personally involved in promoting the NIASHF, including donating many of their sports artifacts to the NIASHF’s museum for permanent display.
In addition to the opportunity of scoring free autographs from many of the current and former inductees and awardees in attendance at the gala, the fans and other attendees were treated to an excellent array of silent auction prizes up for bidding prior to the dinner. Included in these prizes were an official MLB World Series baseball signed by all seven of the umpires assigned to the 2016 World Series won by the Chicago Cubs.
This item was easily the highlight of the auction, and had been obtained by founder Randazzo himself. It was easy for him to get that ball because one of the umpires was his son, Tony Randazzo. This ball received the highest winning bid of the night, $2,500. Perhaps adding to the value of this item was the fact that one of the signatures on the ball was that of John Hirschbeck, who retired from baseball after the World Series. Hirschbeck, who was once notoriously spat upon by baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, had a long and meritorious career in baseball and is a sure-fire future inductee into the Hall of Fame himself.
Other items of note in the auction were a “Miracle on Ice” jersey signed by most of the living players from the USA Olympic hockey team that defeated the Russians in the semi-finals of the 1980 Winter Olympics. That item, in all likelihood donated by Mollie Ann Bracigliano, who represents the players in connection with their card show appearances, went for $2,000. In addition, a boxing glove signed by Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini went for $780; a seat from the Orange Bowl Stadium signed by Joe Namath went for $830; a photograph and lineup card signed by Cubs manager Joe Maddon went for $550; and a hockey stick signed by Phil Esposito went for $350.
There were also numerous signed photos of various current athletes that were hammered down in the general range of $50 to $200.
On the way into the dinner, we had a brief opportunity to ask Rossi how he felt about winning the Athlete of the Year award. Rossi positively gushed as he said, “To be able to receive this award and to meet so many extraordinary athletes like this with a similar heritage is very exciting to me. I am grateful to have this honor.”
When asked if he saved any souvenirs from his career or collected memorabilia of any kind, he said, “Not so much. For me, it is more about being with the people.”
It was a humble response from a truly humble guy.
(Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to SCD.)