As a former catcher, manager Bob “Grump” Scheffing liked having a few grizzled veteran pitchers around to balance the inexperience of the kid phenoms on the 1956 Los Angeles Angels pitching staff. Marino “Chick” Pieretti, a 35-year-old right hander with six years in the majors under his belt, was ideal for the job.
Pieretti won seven games and mentored the whiz kids in the art of pitching after joining the Angels a month into the ’56 season. With the last-place Sacramento Solons in 1955, he won 19 games with a 3.01 earned run average. He led the Pacific Coast League in innings pitched (293), and was second in complete games (25). Most amazing, was the 270 innings he averaged pitching the previous five years. “When you took Marino out of a game, you had to have a gun and point it at him,” said Johnny Briggs, a teammate in Sacramento as well as L.A.
Described variously as a “prodigious half-pint” and “vest-pocket pitching gamecock,” Marino was listed at 5-foot-7 and 153 pounds. “Forget about 5-7; he was only 5-foot-5,” said Charlie Silvera, a former New York Yankees catcher who grew up with Marino in the North Beach area of San Francisco. And he weighed closer to 140 pounds.
On retiring from professional baseball after the 1958 season, Marino continued playing with local semipro teams in San Francisco as well as coaching kids at Crocker Amazon Park near his home. “Every day he’d be out there from three o’clock until eight at night working with the kids,” said Dino Restelli, a former outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “He was always willing to help somebody.”
In 1977 Marino was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. Depressed, he stopped eating and locked himself in his room at home. Boyhood buddies Frank “Babe” Strazzullo and Dante Benedetti swung into action. They rousted Chick out of bed and hauled him off to Nick’s Rockaway Beach restaurant in Pacifica where they ate and drank like there was no tomorrow. “If you want to do this again next week,” Frank told Chick, “you’d better straighten out and live a little.”
“We started with three,” Frank said. “It kept growing and growing and growing.”
By the time he died January 30, 1981 at age 60, Marino also was battling diabetes and heart disease. He asked his friends to continue the luncheons and raise money to buy baseball equipment for kids. “If you don’t do all of that, I’m going to haunt you bastards,” he said. “You’re gonna be sitting around and feel a little flick behind your ears. When you do, you’ll know it’s me, serving you up one of my little knockdown pitches…my little warning.”
Benedetti died in 2005, Restelli in 2006, Strazzullo and Dante Santora in 2012. Nick Gust, the owner of Nick’s restaurant in Rockaway Beach, died December 5, 2013, at the age of 92. Santora was 96, one of six nonagenarians attending a 2011 luncheon. “We need three more 90 year olds to field a team,” Santora quipped.
The Friends of Marino Pieretti meet the third Wednesday of every month at a restaurant in the San Francisco area. “This group represents Marino Pieretti’s spirit,” Benedetti said.
“Marino had a heart of gold,” added Ernie Golding, one of Marino’s many friends. “He was a giver.”
Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club and a Friends of Marino Pieretti honoree, pays tribute to the group with the following poem honed and polished by Rob “Korn King” Kennedy, the prince of limericks:
It was just before Christmas and all through Nick’s Rockaway
Old timers were reminiscing about baseball in the city by the Bay.
A half-century ago there were the Oaks and the Seals,
Nobody had heard of Barry Bonds, A-Rod or multi-million dollar deals.
Every month they gather to honor Marino “Chick” Pieretti,
A man who was as Italian as ravioli and spaghetti.
Born in Lucca, Italy, and raised in North Beach,
Marino thought nothing was beyond his reach.
He played baseball well into the night
Then dreamt about it till dawn’s early light
“You stupid American,” his mother’s voice boomed off the walls,
“Play with your balls instead of all those baseballs.”
At 5-7, 153 pounds, the Seals said he was too small,
So Chick won 14 games for Washington to show them all.
What he lacked in size, he made up for with guile and guts,
An occasional fastball that knocked batters on their butts.
In their bright green jackets, the old timers were like schoolboys,
Eating Nick’s rack of lamb, drinking wine and making lots of noise.
Frank Strazzullo, the emcee, was battling cancer and not too sturdy:
“Listen up! Let’s go, I’ve got a hot date at 1:30.”
Nobody could hear Frank so he had to yell,
“While I’m on this earth, I’m going to give you some hell!”
The motto of Pieretti’s friends is the will to live,
Inspired by Marino, there’s also a will to give.
Marino loved teaching kids how to play the game
Fundamentals and discipline – they were his aim.
He gave away caps, uniforms, gloves and shoes,
And instilled a burning desire never to lose.
“If I had to pick a Mr. Baseball, it would be Marino Pieretti,”
Offered his long-time friend, Dante Benedetti.
He was at Crocker Amazon Park all the time
Coaching thousands of kids, loving the dirt and the grime.
And, then, doctors said he had the Big Three:
Cancer… heart disease…diabetes – how could that be?
Marino stopped eating, locking himself in his room,
Until Frank and Dante came calling with a wide-brimmed broom.
“If you’re going to die,” they said, “let’s die happy.
Let’s go to Nick’s, and make it snappy.”
They ate and drank until they were merry
Laughing so hard at bawdy jokes it was scary.
Ex-Yankee Rugger Ardizoia came, Joe and Dom DiMaggio, too
The luncheons got bigger and louder, much like a zoo.
I feel lousy but not as lousy as you look,”
Marino joked as his weakened body shook.
San Francisco named a ball field after Chick
At Crocker Amazon Park, not far from Candlestick.
A mural there features Marino in a ‘56 Angels cap,
His game face is on and he’s takin’ no crap.
A local politico promised the park would be the best
So at the dedication ceremony Marino put him to the test.
If the field ever suffered from neglect and blight,
He’d come down with a flashlight, ready to fight.
Nearly 33 years have passed since Marino died,
The luncheons roll on like an ocean’s full tide.
Money is raised so young boys can play
Like the grand game ‘back in the day’.
There were no earrings or necklaces, no Fancy Dan stuff
Kids came ready to play and sometimes it got rough.
Everybody had a nickname – Niggy, Potatohead and, of course, Chick,
Pity the poor kid named plain ol’ Rick or Dick.
The green jacket is a symbol of Marino’s fighting spirit,
It’s not for hanging in a closet ‘cause you’re so proud to wear it.
It also serves as a reminder that Marino is on your back,
Putting a bug in your ear to never give up and just stay on track.
To find out more about sandlot baseball in the Bay Area, check out the Good Old Sandlot Days website: http://www.goodoldsandlotdays.com/
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.
The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:
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