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June 1, 2000
Santarpio's Pizza & Bar
Porter & Chelsea Streets
“Whatever became a Guy Vitale?” Around Boston, when the old-timers and their better halves get together for an evening, it’s not long before his name comes up and someone asks that question.
After a hearty dinner of a huge antipasto followed by lasagna with thick layers of Mozzarella cheese and ground beef and black bread, and after they’ve had a drink or two and mellowed out — age having taken its toll, none of them are heavy drinkers any more — they dredge up stories about the past, the people, the events, and pretty soon his name is on someone’s lips.
It’s the same in the bars around East Boston, from Piers Park and Harborside Drive to Suffolk Downs, from Logan International to Chelsea. As it gets on toward closing time and the late-stayers in the watering holes over in Orient Heights and in the saloons along Bennington, Boardman, Porter, Chelsea and Saratoga Streets have had their fill, the stories begin to flow, replacing the booze.
Santarpio’s, a popular gathering spot for locals, is no exception. On this warm early June evening, the upstairs pizza place is dark, its patrons having long-since departed, but the regulars in the dimly-lit basement bar remain, reminiscing. Amid thick cigarette smoke, the clicking of glasses and bottles, good-natured insults and creative profanity, stories of local former sports greats bubble to the surface. Guy’s name is one of the first to be spoken.
“Were you at the Eastie-Brighton game that day in ‘35? Vitale was a senior then. That was the best kickin’ I ever seen at a high school football game.”
“Hell, I was there an’ that was the best kickin’ I ever saw, period. High school, college, or pro. “
“The first kick he made, Eastie had the ball right after the game started. They couldn’t move it and had ta punt. Guy took the snap on his thirty-yard line and kicked it into Brighton’s end zone. I seen it with my own eyes!”
“He was a good baseball player, too. His senior year at East Boston High, didn’t he hit .621 for the season?”
“Yeah.” The man whipped out a pen, pulled a paper napkin toward him and began scribbling furiously. “Thirty-six hits in fifty-eight trips ta the plate,” he said. “That’s 0.6206896. Nobody ever done that before. Or after, either.”
And so it goes. All around Boston, at christenings, wedding receptions, funerals, and wherever the older people gather. After they’ve worked up a sweat dancing with their wives to very loud but only so-so music and their feet begin to swell and start to hurt in shoes that are now too tight, the men pull their chairs up, and over beer and chips, or maybe a little of the hard stuff, everybody has a story to tell about Guy Vitale’s exploits.
“In ’36, he played a few weeks for Saint Lazarus afta Eastie’s season finished and before he went down the Cape that first time. Hit .444.”
“Best natural hitter I ever saw. Musta had great eyesight.”
“He once told me he never went ta the movies. Wanted ta protect his vision.”
“First year he played down the Cape, he came close ta winnin’ the battin’ championship.”
“Vitale made All-Scholastic in football and baseball two years in a row. How many athletes from around here ever done that? Now you tell me.”
“The Herald-Traveler named him Athlete of the Year for baseball in ‘36. So how come he never made it to the big leagues?”
“I dunno. He tore up the Cape Cod League the three summers he played ball down there. And that was a damn good league back then. Let me tell ya somethin’. Vitale could a made it.”
“It’s still a good league. Thurman Munson was battin‘ champion in ‘67. Terry Steinbach won the title in ‘82, Chuck Knoblauch did it in ‘88, and Jason Veritek won it in ’93.
That’s the way it is. The kid was a good football player and a great baseball player. He even ran track one or two years. Broke a couple of records, too.
From humble beginnings, Guy was the son of hard-working immigrant parents, Nicola Vitale and Rosaria Moscaritolo, both immigrants from Italy. At first, his family was so poor he had to quit high school for two weeks during his freshman year to help out at the grocery store his mother ran from the apartment building over on Breed Street. That was in January ‘33. It’s right there in his Transcript.
The youngest of a bunch of kids, he matured fast, as the youngest often does in a large family. That the great athletic ability was there should not have surprised anyone who knew the Vitale clan. His older brother, Frank, broke ground and smoothed the way a few years before.
As an athlete, especially a baseball player, Guy was the ‘can’t miss’ kid. But he did. Miss, I mean. Although he did sign a professional contract and played a year of professional ball on Maryland’s Easter Shore in 1941, he never made it to the Big Leagues like everyone thought he would, even though several major league clubs were interested in him. Why not? People still wonder.
Well, with help from some old timers who knew Guy personally — especially Joe Rocciolo — some who didn’t know Guy but heard or read about his exploits, his widow — my Aunt Margaret Spencer Vitale — a bit of family lore here and there, newspaper accounts, and much that I pieced together myself, I think the mystery, a family mystery of sorts, has been unraveled, and I’m going to tell you what happened to him.