Tony Lazzeri is 82 and living in a retirement home in Issaquah. He moves slowly these days, but his mind is still sharp, and he revels in memories of his father's career.
Tony Lazzeri still remembers youthful days at Yankee Stadium, when The House That Ruth Built — the original, not the recently opened version — was almost brand-spanking new.
He would watch one of the most successful teams in baseball history, led by the Babe and Lou Gehrig, and later the great Joe DiMaggio. Lazzeri would pass the idle times by picking up bottle caps and sticking them on his shirt like jewelry.
“We had a lot of fun with that,” he said.
If the name sounds familiar, it should, if you are a baseball fan. His father of the same name, Tony Lazzeri, was a Yankee stalwart in their most golden era. Lazzeri’s career spanned from the iconic ’27 Yankees that spawned the famed “Murderers Row” (of which Lazzeri himself was a member in good standing) to the DiMaggio-led teams of 1936 and ’37, which won the first two of four straight World Series titles.
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A quiet but highly productive second baseman, Lazzeri was overshadowed by his legendary teammates, but still made an indelible mark. For instance, 77 years ago Friday, Lazzeri knocked two grand slams, a solo homer and a two-run triple in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics, his 11 runs batted in establishing what still stands as the American League record.
And now, Tony Lazzeri is 82 and living in a retirement home in Issaquah with his wife of 52 years, Marilyn. The couple settled here after he retired from a career with Texaco, for whom he worked in a variety of marketing positions in San Francisco, Medford, Ore., and, finally, Redmond.
Tony moves slowly these days, but his mind is still sharp, and he revels in memories of his father’s career. Like the time, after his dad signed with the Cubs in 1938, he sneaked back into the Yankees clubhouse and nailed down the shoes of his former teammates and clipped their gloves. Or the time Lazzeri secretly substituted a scuffed-up, doctored baseball into a lopsided game for the amusement of watching the Athletics’ hitter, Bob Johnson, flail at it.
“They used to have a lot of fun playing ball,” Lazzeri said. “There were stories of him doing stuff like that. He was a kidder around. Not a clown, but he’d get in and have fun. Let somebody else take the blame.”
‘A quiet, modest man’
Tragically, Lazzeri’s father died young, of an apparent heart attack at age 42 in 1946, at their home in Millbrae, Calif., outside San Francisco. The New York Times obituary noted of Lazzeri, whose playing career had ended in the minor leagues just four years earlier, “his cool disposition and slugging prowess earned him the reputation of being regarded as one of the game’s finest ‘clutch’ hitters.”
Young Tony was just 14, and the subject of his father’s death still makes him visibly upset. In a recent lunch visit with a reporter, he recalled how he and his mother, Maye, were away when his father died, but he broke off abruptly.
“I don’t like to talk about it,” he said.
But Lazzeri, an only child, delights in talking about his father’s remarkable career, which culminated in his posthumous election to the Hall of Fame in 1991 (an event that his son attended, along with his mother and wife).
And what a legacy Lazzeri left along the way, including a season with the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League in 1925 that stands as one of the greatest in professional baseball history.
Lazzeri bashed 60 homers, surpassing the record of 59 Ruth had set in 1921 with the Yankees (albeit Ruth did it in the majors, and in 154 games, compared to the 197 games Lazzeri played with Salt Lake). He hit .355, scored 202 runs and drove in 222, earning a contract from the Yankees for ’26.
Lazzeri also landed the nickname that would follow him to New York: “Poosh ‘Em Up Tony,” which according to legend was a phrase yelled to him by a fellow Italian fan in Salt Lake City. Lazzeri was the first Italian-American baseball star in New York, a fact that attracted a huge fan base, as well as paving the way for fellow Italian baseball stars from San Francisco, including longtime Yankee shortstop Frankie Crosetti and the DiMaggio brothers.
Lazzeri has memories of meeting them all — Ruth and Gehrig as a near-toddler, and later the regal DiMaggio. There is a famous anecdote of Lazzeri, his close friend Crosetti, and DiMaggio all driving to spring training in Florida from San Francisco in Lazzeri’s snazzy new Buick. Lazzeri and Crosetti shared the driving, but at one point they asked DiMaggio if he wanted to take a turn behind the wheel.
“I don’t know how,” he replied, according to Crosetti’s telling of the story years later.
“Nice fellow, but very quiet,” Lazzeri said of DiMaggio, before adding cheekily, “Never met his wife (Marilyn Monroe), though. Oh, well.”
Another encounter made nearly as big of an impression on the young Lazzeri. While he and his mother were traveling by train to spend the summer in the Bronx after the school year ended in San Francisco, as they did every year, they encountered heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.
“Wow,” he said, echoing the sentiment of a guest. “You’d better believe it.”
Tony Lazzeri compiled a .292 average in 14 years, exceeding 100 RBI seven times. He played in seven World Series, winning five of them, and earned renown as one of the “glue” guys on the vaunted Yankee powerhouses of the 1920s and early ’30s.
“Lazzeri was a quiet, modest man,” Fred Glueckstein, author of “The ’27 Yankees,” wrote in an email. “He was popular with his teammates and respected by his opponents.”
His son played baseball only recreationally, focusing instead on basketball. The 6-3 Lazzeri played at Santa Clara, squaring off against the likes of Bill Russell (University of San Francisco) and Jim Loscutoff (Oregon).
He and Marilyn have three sons, who are also well-versed in their grandfather’s baseball exploits. Much of Lazzeri’s remaining memorabilia has been divided among them, including a letter from the legendary Connie Mack — the opposing manager in Lazzeri’s 11-RBI game — congratulating him on the feat.
Lazzeri also has many souvenirs from his father’s career, including scrapbooks of newspaper articles, and several photos of him with Ruth and other legendary Yankees.
Mostly, he has the memories, and though Lazzeri says he wishes he could remember more about his father, the snippets come back to him.
Like the time he caddied for his dad, an avid golfer, at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
“He had a bag that was about 70 pounds, plus the clubs,” he said. “I lasted about four holes. The other kid had to take double.”
Lazzeri remembers Yankees Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez, a friend of his father’s, coming to watch one of his son’s Little League games in Medford. He tells of his father’s apprenticeship at age 15 as a boilermaker at an iron foundry.
“He’d catch rivets and throw them to the next guy,” Lazzeri recalled — a job credited with building up his father’s strength as a power hitter. He mused that the Hall of Famer, chosen in 2003 as the greatest second baseman in Yankees history (a title being challenged by Robinson Cano), never made more than $14,000 in a season.
Lazzeri was known among reporters of the day for being reluctant to talk about his achievements. Interviewing him, according to a writer of the day, was like “trying to mine coal with a nail file and a pair of scissors.” It was a trait that apparently extended to his home life.
“My father never talked a great deal about (his career),” Lazzeri said. “He played it, and I guess he was all right, because he’s in the Hall of Fame.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @StoneLarry