I Felt Like I Belonged!
He sounded young! It was like I had the wrong person on the line but this is the number he gave me. That was my first impression after talking to Tony Gianunzio for the first time in over forty years. I had left him a note on Facebook telling him that he was my English teacher my junior year in high school and that I had written a feature story about him that made the school newspaper back then. I had looked at his Facebook page and it was filled with pictures of the event. The event was something I ran across in the paper days before. A 92 year old WWII Veteran was going to throw out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game on Sunday. After reading his name and the places he had taught I suddenly realized that he was my former teacher! I had waited a few days after the event before I contacted him on Facebook. I figured that he would be very popular for awhile and I would not be able to get his full attention. After sending him the message I kept checking my Facebook page but there was no reply. Two days later I checked again and there was a reply and it was short “Lewis, Call me..and he gave his number!”
We talked for a little while as I told him about the story I wrote about him as a student. He didn’t remember which came as no surprise to me. He has helped thousands of students in the past and to him it was just a part of the job. To me it was a caring teacher coming to my rescue. I suggested that we meet somewhere and talk but I could tell his defenses were up. “I don’t know”, he went on to say. “It depends on what you are going to write about me.” As I tried to explain what my story might be about I felt a slight nervousness as I talked. It was like going back over forty years and trying to get my teachers approval and a good grade. The fact was I wasn’t quite sure how I would write the story and I think it showed. As I was talking an idea came to me. Maybe I could take a baby step and just ask him a question or two over the phone. I had read some articles written about the event but none of them seemed to go into much depth. He seemed comfortable with that so I asked the question I hadn’t seen asked before. What did it feel like being on that mound at Wrigley Field? He pondered my question for just a few seconds..”that is a very good question”, he replied. Just then he informed me he had another call. “Call me back in 5 or 10 minutes”, he said and we quickly ended our chat.
When I called back ten minutes later I had taken the time to write more questions down. It proved to be a wasted effort as I reminded him of the original question. He again assured me that it was a very good question. Then without warning I could feel his defenses come down. His answer was amazing and articulated his feelings more than I had ever expected. “I felt like I belonged there”, he started. Tony explained that having the baseball background and story with the Cubs helped with that feeling. “I felt like I wasn’t just a veteran asked to throw the pitch, I felt I belonged because of my connection to baseball.” They had me warm up in front of the dugout with Justin Grimm, a pitcher for the Cubs. “I threw maybe 10 balls for warmup and was told to take the mound.” “I strided out to that mound”, he said as he made sure I realized that it wasn’t a slow walk. “I couldn’t wait to get there and feel the dirt under my feet”. “I felt like I owned the place and I wanted to be there.” “I wanted to throw that pitch and I wanted to look good doing it!” “I was in the moment, It wasn’t like it was 1942 again.” His pitch was firm and he told me it was short and to the left of the plate as his catcher Grimm moved swiftly to catch it on the skip. Amazingly he analyzed the pitch even more! “I felt good and confident”, he said “but I hadn’t cultivated the rhythm and the timing. “The ball came out of my hand a little late which accounted for it not reaching the plate.” However he made a point that was important to him. “I threw a line drive and my catcher had to move quickly to his right to grab it.” I commented that it must have had a little zip on it, not like he lobbed it. “Absolutely” , he said, “and that was the proof!” For Tony’s effort he got a standing ovation from the crowd! He would soon realize that his day at the ballpark was far from over!
It was 1942 and Tony was pitching in a Cubs tryout camp. There were many other prospects there and originally they had put him at third base. It was an unfamiliar position for him and he made it clear to them that he was a pitcher. Finally they moved him to the mound. It was a higher mound than what he was used to pitching from for his team in Iron Mountain, Michigan. That was where he was discovered and where he received a letter for a tryout with the Cubs in Jamesville, Wisconsin. Tony and his catcher Leo Paolo were invited. “Leo could really hit but couldn’t throw or run very well”, Tony commented.. Tony was showing his skills in the game and after he adjusted to the mound nobody was getting on base. He had pitched three innings and he wasn’t able to show the scouts his abilities from the stretch to hold runners on because nobody had been on base. Suddenly a huge rainstorm came and the rest of the game was cancelled. The Cubs ended up picking five players from that camp that they wanted to give a thirty day advanced look at. All of their expenses and spending money would be paid and it was pretty much guaranteed that if they showed anything at all they would be assigned to a high minor league team. They liked how Tony pitched! He had great control and threw four very good pitches which included an overhand fastball, a sidearm curve, a 3 quarter curve that was thrown hard and broke sharply from the waist to the knees with a 6 inch break, and an overhand sinker that sharply broke down. There was a lot of movement on Tony’s pitches but the main one the scouts wanted to see was his fastball. So Tony pumped his fastball and the scouts liked what they saw and chose him as one of the five they picked. He was told to go home and relax and they would send for him. In the attempt to hide Tony from the other teams they misspelled his name and put down that he was a second base candidate. Teams did that type of thing to keep other teams from swooping in on their prospects at that time. While he was back at Iron Mountain President Roosevelt had the draft age lowered to 19. Tony ended up enlisting in the Coast Guard and received a letter from the Cubs a short time later telling him to take care of himself and they would see him after the war.
When Tony got out of the service three years later he didn’t have the desire to play major league baseball anymore. He ended up pursuing a teaching career which was where his real passion was! Tony explained to me that there wasn’t any money in baseball back then. Yes, there was a chance of fame which he really didn’t desire and it was extensive travel without much monetary reward. Maybe the real turning point in his career choice happened a few months into his service duty. It was the next spring after he had enlisted when a group of ten servicemen (Tony included) were killing time playing a pepper game. Tony had brought his spikes,glove and hat along just in case he got a chance to play the game that he loved. Later Tony was warming up on the pitchers mound when someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was another serviceman with broad shoulders named Glenn McQuillen. He asked Tony to pitch to him so he could get some batting work in. Tony was glad to do it and asked McQuillen how much he wanted? Usually someone taking batting practice might want slower pitches they were sure to get the good part of the bat on. “Everything you got”, came Mcquillen’s reply. Tony was glad to test his arm out again throwing all of his pitches as well as he could! He found that McQuillen was having a hard time centering his pitches. He was hitting weak grounders and even his hits were of the Texas league variety. In other words there were no sharp hits off of his bat. Tony pitched to McQuillen for 45 minutes and even though Mcquillen was a dead pull right handed hitter he more often than not dribbled balls to second base or further to the right side. After McQuillen had given up he had a grin on his face. Tony described his eyes as “fierce like anger” as he walked to the mound and put out his hand. Tony accepted his handshake even though it was apparent McQuillen wasn’t happy. “You have a damn good curve ball”, he said and walked away. An officer came up to Tony. He knew he didn’t do anything wrong but the officer coming up to him caught him off guard. “Just a minute”, he said as he stepped in front of Tony as he was walking away. “Do you know who you were pitching to?” Honestly Tony didn’t and he told him so. That was Glenn McQuillen of the St. Louis Browns! Tony walked away with the officers words still in his ears. He had heard of McQuillen because he made it a habit of studying the major league box scores. From that day on he knew that he had the stuff to get big league hitters out! It was all he wanted, just to know in his heart that he could have pitched in the big leagues if he wanted to was good enough for him!
So we fast forward 31 years and I’m this student in his class. I am also in a journalism class with Mr. Sheldon. I’m not really sure why I took journalism. I really didn’t like it at the time. I think it was the time involved I really didn’t like. In order to write a good story you need to talk to people and get the story right. You need to find out the who, what, where, when, and how and organize it accordingly. It was just the idea that if I desired to write something I probably would have been alright. However when I’m told I had to write something it was completely different. I remember I tried to write a story about a tennis event I didn’t take time to go to. The event was a tennis exhibition where Mr. Rossio the tennis coach was playing the best girls on the tennis team. It was similar to the battle of the sexes tour that Bobby Riggs was making at the time. I winged a story without any real details about what actually happened and turned it in. Mr. Sheldon asked me point blank if I had taken the time to attend the event? Quietly and honestly feeling ashamed I told him no. Well here was another assignment and it was to write a feature story about someone. I really don’t know why I picked Mr. Gianunzio. I’m thinking the assignment was coming due and I had nobody to write about. After class one day I asked him if I could do a story about him for the paper. Usually my stories were not making the paper. They gave that space to seniors and juniors who were making the effort to write good stories. I was not either of these. However, Mr. Gianunzio was very cooperative! We decided to meet in his classroom on my lunch hour. Obviously it was his lunch hour too but he was willing to give it up for my benefit. He told me the Cubs story and how he went into the service and how he was passionate about teaching. He took me back to his roots in Iron Mountain, Michigan and how he got into teaching after his service duty. He was very easy to talk to and I could tell he liked the fact that I was doing the story about him! They had a photographer come in and take his picture and the story came out very nice with my name under the title.
Recently an independent film maker was in town doing a story about Kalamazoo, Michigan. On hearing the story about Tony and the Cubs and the fact that Tony was a WWII veteran, the Cubs were contacted to verify the facts. After the facts were verified the Cubs contacted Tony about throwing the first pitch out before a game. Tony practiced some before the big day. After all he hadn’t touched a baseball in more than 45 years. He wanted to dedicate his appearance to all of the young men who could have been major league players but lost their chance because of the war.
So now we are back at the Cubs game again. Tony has thrown out the first pitch and got his standing ovation. They had asked him to write three paragraphs about his presence at the game. He did and was very satisfied as to how it came out. There was a scheduled break in the fourth inning as they were honoring Tony again. He was asked to take the field again but this time he was all by himself. He asked the lady in charge named Kaitlyn August what she wanted him to do? She answered back “anything you want to.” Her only rule was to stay between the third base dugout and third base. So Tony went on the field as the players sat in their dugouts. He was out there a good 10 minutes as he was shown on the jumbo screen in center field and the paragraphs he wrote were read. Tony walked around doing odd things like winding up and making a pitching motion to throwing the ball up in the air and catching it. He spun the ball and caught it and demonstrated how he threw his curve ball. He was a one man show and his every move was on the big screen! Tony told me that “nobody got bored!” After he was out there for close to ten minutes Kaitlyn came to get him. “You were great!”, she said. The fans once again gave him a standing ovation!
When thinking about Tony and his experience at the game, I’m reminded of a story I heard from a friend. They happened to be at the mall and they spotted an elderly couple probably in their 80’s. They were offered a cream cheese pretzel and the man was all in! He actually was excited while his wife on the other hand rolled her eyes. My friend told me that from that quick observation it was very clear that the man was living and enjoying life while his wife was just trying to get through it. Tony is living and enjoying life too! He mentioned to me that the fans were great! He felt like they were with him from the beginning! The moment they saw him at 92 filled with energy and commanding that mound they fell in love with him! “They saw in me someone who was willing to make a fool of himself for the love of baseball” he offered! It was such a sight seeing him move around (not in a wheelchair as they expected) like he was 40 years younger than his actual age! Tony confided in me that he didn’t think the fans really wanted him to throw a strike. “That would be almost too superhuman”, he stated. Still I have read other articles where it was apparent that his competitive fire was still burning! “If I had another couple of weeks to train I know I could have thrown a strike with good velocity”, he stated.
As one of the ever decreasing number of living world war II veterans Tony wrote a book in 2013. It is called “The Last Romantic War.” Several of his shipmates wanted him to write “our book.” Tony has a real passion for creative writing. He loved to teach it and he writes in a style that is understandable and very heartfelt! One of my questions to him was going to be what the word romantic means to him? I don’t think I have to ask him that question anymore. It seems clear that it means being emotionally attached to, caring, loving, and hurting all rolled into one.
The Cubs have a rule that they don’t want anyone on the field before their time. Two or three times Tony mentioned that him and his entourage which consisted of himself, his wife, his nephew, a close friend, and four camera people had to make their way through the stands to get to their position. One time he noticed a young boy maybe 9 or 10 years old standing in front of him. It seemed almost perfect as Tony placed his hand on the boys head and gave him advice. “Play baseball and don’t stop”, he said. “You are an American!, Play baseball.” After he had encouraged the boy he looked up and behind him was the boys mother and she was crying. She gave Tony a huge hug! He confided in me that his moment with that kid and his mom was just as much of a thrill to him as throwing out that first pitch! Maybe in that moment the passion Tony had and has for teaching was revealed. Though the attention of the crowd and pitching was great, giving a one on one lesson to a kid for his benefit was just as thrilling and maybe even a little bit more so! Baseball might have brought him fame but he wouldn’t have touched the many lives he did (including mine) with his passionate teaching! Thank God that he used his life to enrich the lives of so many! When I asked Tony what keeps him going he said “find enjoyment, appreciate everything, find enjoyment!” Lesson learned Mr. Gianunzio! I have enjoyed writing your story! You made it easy just like you did 41 years ago and I did my best again! And one more thing Mr. Gianunzio, you have always belonged because the world needs people who passionately care! I shake my head admiring you because at 92 you are still teaching, still caring, still loving, still youthful, still living, and still enjoying your life!