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September 20, 2011 at 8:37 AM

After 50 years, Italy gets in on MLB’s home run parade

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NOTE: An alert reader points out that Bertoia hit an additional homer after being traded back to the Tigers late in 1961. I’d missed that because it was on a separate stat line from his Twins numbers that year. Oh well, so much for a good story. I’ve edited parts of the post to update.
Plenty has changed in the game of baseball over the last half century, including the frequency with which baseballs tend to leave the yard. A half-century ago, during the 1961 season, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle both challenged Babe Ruth’s home run record. Maris eventually broke Ruth’s record of 60 with homer No. 61 on the final day of that season.
No one would really come close to breaking that until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had a similar duel in 1998, with both breaching the Maris mark and McGwire finishing with 70. Then, along came Barry Bonds with No. 73 a few years later.
Yes, we all know about the Steroids Era. Point is, a lot of home runs have been hit since 1961.
There was one homer hit in a Yankees game that 1961 season that got very little attention, until right now. It happened on Opening Day of that season in a game in which none of the Yankees managed to go deep. The reason we’re remembering that homer today, hit by a visiting player at Yankee Stadium, is because it would be one of only two long balls clubbed that year by a guy named Reno Bertoia. Unless you’re a diehard Tigers fan, you probably don’t know anything about Bertoia except that, until recently, he’d been the last Italian-born player in the majors.
A few months later, on Aug. 30 in Detroit, Bertoia hit another homer off Juan Pizarro of the White Sox.
That home run was Bertoia’s last.
And that means, the home run yesterday by Alex Liddi, the first Italian-born player since Bertoia, was also the first long ball for his native country in 50 years.

Liddi’s first career blast had an impact on yesterday’s game, helping the Mariners get back in a contest they trailed 3-0 before rallying for a nine-run third inning en route to a rout. About time the offense got going again. Next year, the team won’t be able to wait for every trip into Cleveland to get something started.
But the homer had to have been a thrill for Liddi, and for the baseball fans back home in Italy.
Bertoia was playing for the Twins at the tail end of his career when he homered on April 11 to begin that fabled 1961 season, since immortalized by Billy Crystal in an HBO film. Maris and Mantle stood in the field watching, their team already down 3-0 in the eighth, when Bertoia stepped to the plate and took reliever Ralph Terry over the wall.
Whitey Ford had started the game for New York and wound up the losing pitcher in a 6-0 game. I got excited for a while, thinking Bertoia had homered off Ford, but after looking it up, found that Terry will have to do as the last road home run victim.
Maris and Mantle went 0-for-7 combined that day. Instead, it was Bertoia putting Italy in the home run spotlight for one of the final times until Liddi went deep yesterday.
Bertoia would be traded twice that 1961 season, first to the Kansas City Athletics, then back to his longtime Tigers team, where he wound up facing Pizarro for his final career homer. By that point, the entire nation was transfixed on the long ball exploits of Maris and Mantle.
Bertoia finished his career in April the following season with Detroit, posting a .244 batting average 27 homers over his 612-game career from 1953-1962.
Unlike Liddi, who grew up in Italy, Bertoia’s family moved him at age 1 to Windsor, Ontario in Canada, just across the Detroit River from where the Tigers played ball. And Windsor is where Bertoia died earlier this year at age 76 — 50 years and four days after clubbing his final road home run at Yankee Stadium.
A half century later, Liddi has picked up the torch and then some. Everything he does in the majors from here on in — regardless of whether he sticks as a Mariners regular — will be one for the record books in the country where he grew up.



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