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Harmon Killebrew On David Letterman!?

With the appearance of Joe Mauer last week on Jimmy Fallon, I was reminded of another episode of a famous Twin who appeared on late ni...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Reno Bertoia: The Twins Original Third Baseman Passes Away

It happens so often. That person or circumstance in life that you thought you had figured out - and then, new facts are revealed that remind one once again: I'm a rube about a million things, will forget that fact, and will eventually receive the memo that puts me back on the straight and narrow.

I had gained a fairly cynical view from a book I read years ago (which I'll reference shortly) that Reno Bertoia was just some hapless character taking up space in the country of baseball.

Then, another memo was given to me yesterday from long distance friends about the man who became the Twins' original third baseman: Reno Bertoia had passed away.  He came out of Windsor, Ontario, and played the bulk of his career with the Detroit Tigers. He died of lymphoma cancer yesterday morning after a short battle with the disease, surrounded by family. He was lauded nicely by Al Kaline, his old friend, teammate, and Baseball Hall of Famer. He was 76 years old.

Reno was one of the few MLB players ever to be born in Italy. He moved to Windsor with his family when he was 22 months old. Perhaps his greatest claim to baseball fame was displacing Ted Williams at the top of the batting race until late May of the 1957 season. 

It is now a footnote in Twins history that Reno Bertoia hit the second homer ever for the club, in its Inaugural Game on April 11, 1961 (box score) in the 8th inning off Ralph Terry of the Yankees.  Bob Allison went deep an inning previous. But it was no footnote for Bertoia - his stepdaughter, Beth Daly, reveals this was his #1 choice as the favorite opener in his career.

That homer would be his one and only in a Twins career spanning 35 games (see 1961 Twins game logs), all at third, including 4 games he entered as a pinch hitter.  He was traded on June 1, 1961 with Bill Tuttle to the Kansas City Athletics for Paul Giel.

A treat: view Reno in this clip from the Mister Baseball website. Do it! You'll see him visiting in his native Italy. You may agree, he's the picture of a man brimming with humility, dignity, and an awareness of what is truly meaningful in life. This view of him is also totally contradicted by today's internet news piece of the great Hugh Hefner and the 85-year old's latest excursion into marriage (his 29th?), with a woman looking old enough to be a junior in high school.  No doubt, it is destined to be a "very special" union, as Hugh commented...

That book blurb I mentioned? Here's the excerpt I recalled from the sublime book "The Great American Baseball Card," ( link).  It is an irreverent treasure trove about 1950's and 60's baseball players and their Topps Cards. To wit:
"Quick, name a major league baseball player who was born in San Remo, Italy, lived in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and couldn't hit. That's right--Reno Bertoia.
OK. Name another one. 
The back of Reno's card is interesting. It says that his average last year was .162 and that, although he did not get to play in too many ballgames, he gained valuable information about American League hurlers that would help him in the future. I suspect that the information he gathered was that every pitcher in the American League could get him out, and that perhaps he should try another line of work."
THAT'S the version I ingested as a young man of Reno Bertoia. 

Nevertheless...his being one of the few players that have been lucky and talented enough to find their way into that line of work is remarkable enough.  This is not to take the whacking stick to the authors Boyd and Harris - they were contemporary observers of Reno's career, and it's not against the law to have an opinion. Nor do I care to pillory Hugh Hefner for that matter (very much). More clearly, a man who became a history teacher, and did it well according to all accounts, deserves to be lauded. “He was in many ways prouder of his teaching career [at Assumption school in Windsor]” added Daly. “Because he felt he impacted a lot of people’s lives.” In my mind, his aura of modesty and integrity links him to another Twin profiled at this blog, Lenny Green (see post), who also appeared in the Twins 1961 Opening Day lineup.

I will attest to that impact thing.  With my own elementary teaching career now over ten years past at this date, I still feel that it was the most significant thing I've done in my life.  And how my preoccupation with the Twins and the game of baseball is just mere filler and diversion in the cosmic scheme of things.

As Herb Carneal used to say: "And the count rides along..."

Reno Bertoia, 1961 Kodak snapshot
April 16, 2011 - from Reno's page

Mr. Bertoia was my favorite teacher and taught me History, my favorite class at Assumption. I was very saddened when I heard of his passing announced on the radio. My father and mother also knew him as my Dad attended Assumption with him. Mr. Bertoia will be remembered to me as one of the nicest Teachers that I had in my lifetime.

~ Judy Glendenning (George) Class of '78, Windsor, Ontario

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