We look to baseball for stories. Stories of heroism, of adventure, of resilience in the face of adversity. It’s why the game resonates with us -- after all, without those tales, the game is just that, a game.
Few may embody that more than Lou Gehrig, the Yankees legend, who played the game with grace and courage until he retired due to the effects of ALS in 1939. His story doesn't just resonate here in America, but all around the world -- even today.
For years, Italy's national baseball team has continued to honor Gehrig, promote the game, and work to find a cure for the deadly disease every time they take the field. The Italian Baseball and Softball Federation (FIBS) are partners with AISLA (Associazione Italiana Sclerosi Laterale Amiotrofica), a scientific research and charitable organization that provides protection, support and healthcare for people who suffer from ALS. Since 2016, their logo has appeared on every Italian national team uniform to help promote the cause and raise money to further their work.
Marco Landi, the head of communications for FIBS, was originally introduced to the game through Gehrig's story.
"I jumped into baseball when I was 6 watching the 'Pride of the Yankees' on TV," Landi said in a recent Zoom interview. "So I think the baseball and softball community in Italy is pretty aware of what Lou Gehrig meant at the time. Not just for being the Iron Horse of the Yankees, but also his speech and his story as a human being."
New fans are still made every year through Gehrig's story in Italy, and that's thanks to the production of "L’Ultima Partita," or "The Last Game." It’s a one man show from Italian ballplayer and actor, Mario Mascitelli.
"The Last Game was born from a desire to combine my passion for baseball and my work as an actor," Mascitelli, the artistic director at the Teatro del Cerchio and a coach for the U15 Italian National Team, said. He spent hours doing painstaking research, combing through books and documents, before feeling ready to share the tale.
"In the end, it's a show that I think represents the great person, Lou Gehrig."
The show, which is often performed in schools, will be put on stage three more times this year, first on June 21 for World ALS Day in Cervignano in the province of Udine, on July 6 following the European Championships in Villa Manin, and finally on Sept. 15 in Settimo Torinese. It's both a powerful story about Gehrig's life, but also a wonderful introduction to the sport of baseball.
"During the show, I explain the rules of baseball in simple moments," Mascitelli said. "Every show starts from the perspective of Lou Gehrig as a boy and I tried to tell it like he's the magician for the sport. It’s a simple game, it starts from home plate. You [battle] for first base, second base, third base and come back to home plate. It’s simple."
"They were not only great baseball players, but great men," Alessandro Fabbri, AISLA's legal advisor and a huge baseball fan himself, said of the game's heroes. "They sacrificed every day, they showed what is right, what is wrong. Get up, don’t get down, never quit. It’s a great lesson on the field and off."
Baseball is not new in Italy. The country has played for European championships since 1948 (they've won the second-most medals to the Netherlands), and more than 20,000 players are in leagues throughout the country. There are an additional 700-plus youth teams, too. It means that people know baseball, and more importantly, can learn so much from the players and their stories.
"We all need legends," Landi said. "Not only [is Mike Piazza], the current manager of the senior national team, a legend and Hall of Famer himself, we also run a program for school that is called Project 42. It is based on Jackie Robinson's life and personality. Eight years ago, we started showing the movie at schools to introduce baseball together with the concept of inclusion."
"Baseball was the melting pot," Fabbri added. "I saw that with the Little League final we hosted in Novara. We created a melting pot of boys coming from Africa, Kuwait; from Georgia and Lithuania. How is it possible? It’s possible. This is baseball. We create a community and this is the greatness of this game."
That leads to the next step in the partnership between the Italian baseball federation and AISLA. Though it has yet to be officially announced, any child who cannot afford to play and has a family member with ALS will have their costs covered by FIBS and AISLA.
"I know many Italians living abroad will see this conversation and they can be proud that in Italy there is an association in AISLA that takes care of their parents far away from where they’re living now," Fabbri said. "I’m proud to have the opportunity to share this -- that someone in their original home [country] is taking care of people in such difficult circumstances."
As for the show itself, Mascitelli would love to bring it to New York, to share the story with Yankees fans and the city's large Italian population.
"I am so little," Mascitelli said, gesturing with his hands to shrink himself down. "And Gehrig is so big."