Sunday, February 11, 2007

Nino Bongiovanni: The 11th Oldest Living Major League Baseball Player

As part of my participation in SABR (The Society for Baseball Research) and for my web site:, I interview old retired baseball players. Last weekend I got the opportunity to interview Dario Lodigianni, who played for the Philadelphia A's and Chicago White Sox, as well as the San Francisco Seals and Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. We spent two hours talking about his life and it was a wonderful experience.
Here is an interview I did 2005 with a former player named Nino Bongiovanni. Nino played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1938 and 1939. He is 95 years old and the 11th oldest MLB ballplayer still alive. When I interviewed him, he was #25. Here are a few excerpts from our interview:

"We didn’t have any little leagues like they have now. To make our own diamonds, we used to cut the weeds, and make baselines, and that was our ballpark. And the rest of the infield and the entire outfield was nothing but weeds. I wanted to play ball so badly, I took a 2 by four and took a pocket knife and made a bat out of it. Then, I took a round rock and then wrapped it up with all kinds of string and stuff and I made a baseball and then wrapped it all up with bicycle tape, and you don’t know what it felt like to hit that kind of a ball with that kind of a bat – it was really rough on the hands. But, we had nothing else in those days.

In Portland, 1934, I hit in 56 straight games, but only got credited with 44. A sportswriter, Screwball Gregory took two hits away from me in that 44th game. I went on to hit in 12 more, so I would have tied DiMaggio.

Played against some big names. Bobby Doerr, Joe DiMaggio, who broke into the Pacific Coast League around the same time I did. I remember him as the greatest hitter I ever saw.
The best baseball player I have ever seen.

I could run and I was a pretty good contact hitter. I never struck out very much. In 1939, we won the pennant and got into the World Series against the Yankees. I got to pinch-hit once, in the third game. They called Ernie Lombardi the goat in that series, because of the ball he failed to hang on to, and he laid down, slowly getting up. What happened was, Charlie Keller, who was built like an ape, was coming in from third base, running full steam, and he hit Ernie Lombardi on the side of the temple, and knocked him about 20 feet away from the plate. And Ernie was a little slow getting up, so they called him a goat. He didn’t get up right away, because he was almost knocked out. I think a smaller man would have stayed there, but Ernie was a big guy, so he took the blow pretty good. Joe DiMaggio scored while he was lying there.

Relationship with Reds manager Bill Mckechnie: I did not like him because he did not like me. He used to call me dago, which I didn’t like. But, I was afraid to go over and tell him that I didn’t like him calling me that. So, I just let it go. But, uh, I’m sure he didn’t like me. Because every time I’d do something he didn’t like out in the outfield, I could hear him yelling at me all over the park. He did that twice, and you know, that showed me up in front of all those fans, and it there was no reason for it. "

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