From Bensonhurst to the Hall of Fame

Former coach and author Donald Landolphi had dinner with Roger Clemens and John Franco two weeks ago at the St. John’s University Baseball winter banquet. Sitting with two of the most venerated figures in baseball history, the Brooklyn College alum was not out of place, for he too is an icon.

A graduate in the class of ‘62, Landolphi became a member of the BC Hall of Fame in 1990 and was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association’s last month, honoring his illustrious career as a coach and overseas ambassador for the sport.

During that Jan. 5 ceremony, though, he wondered if he belonged.

“It was beyond my wildest expectations,” said Landolphi, who began his career at Brooklyn College making $325 per month coaching freshman basketball. “You look at the records of some of the greats that I went in with, guys like [ Florida State coach] Mike Martin, and I didn’t think my record stacked up.”

The 65-year-old Bensonhurst native – who proudly shouts out Avenue U and West 7th Street – has come a long way since playing stickball in the Boody and Lafayette schoolyards, but he remembers most of the names he ever knew and carries with him fond memories of “way back” – the amoebic stages of what grew into a celebrated career.

“I never played organized ball until high school,” said Landolphi, who grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, idolizing Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. “But back then, stickball was the tradition. If you didn’t get to the sewer on West 7th by 3:00, you didn’t get picked. We’d run from St. Simon & Jude [elementary school], getting undressed as we ran, just to make it in time.”

When he got to St. Michael’s Diocesan High School (now Xaverian), he became jack-of-all-infield trades, playing second, third base and shortstop. Though he doesn’t remember his numbers specifically, and statistics weren’t kept, he described himself as a good contact hitter and is certain that he batted over .300 each year. What he most likes to remember from those days however are the moments he can reminisce about and still laugh at.

“Joe [Torre] is slow and Joe knows Joe’s slow,” he said, already chuckling. “He played for St. Francis, which was one of our rivals. We’re playing on 92nd St. and Shore Rd. and he hits a shot to left-centerfield and all I’m thinking is, ‘Oh, sugar!’ There weren’t any fences so the ball rolled around in the outfield and, for anybody else, it would’ve been an inside-the-park home run. But I run out to get the relay and look back, I see he’s huffing and puffing around second. Anybody else would’ve made it around the bases two-and-a-half times, but we held him to a triple.”

Landolphi starred in high school as a 2-sport athlete and although he was only 5-foot-10, he was recruited by St. John’s to play basketball. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for him, the Red Storm had a great recruiting class in ‘58 that featured Leroy Ellis – a 6-foot-10 standout who went on to play in the NBA – and the college ran out of scholarship money.

The son of a housewife and a firefighter, Landolphi couldn’t afford to attend a bigger school and wound up at Brooklyn College, which at the time, charged just $5 per semester for tuition.

“I know people can’t believe that now,” he said. “But it used to be. It was a very different time back then, though. In the late 50s, young ladies couldn’t even come in with pants on unless it was a snow day.”

Landolphi, who’d been named captain of both his high school and college teams, said the leadership skills he developed as a youngster allowed him to make a smooth transition to his eventual profession.

“I was a tough son of a gun – still am,” he said, “but I also enjoyed working with people.”

Following his graduation (with a Bachelor’s in Science), he earned a substitute teacher’s license and taught physical education for a month at Newtown High School. He’d been promised a position there for the upcoming fall semester, he said, but on the last day of classes, the principal informed him that the Board of Education had overruled them and appointed someone else.

But as it was when the St. John’s scholarship fell through, Brooklyn College was there as a fall-back.

“It was really a lucky event,” he explained. “Dr. [Nelson] Walkee, chair of the Physical Education department then, he used to tell people in his administration course that if they know anyone who graduated the year before, he’s got jobs. I go over to see him and tell him what happened, and he asks me if I’d like to be the basketball coach.”

Landolphi coached the team briefly, until he was replaced by a more experienced coach; in retrospect, serendipitous misfortune as he was eventually asked to skipper the varsity baseball team. And he did, from 1964-1975.

During what became a period of proteanism, he taught sports finance and marketing, served as a financial aid advisor and assistant athletic director, while earning a Master’s in Science and a Professional Degree in Administration and Supervision.

Landolphi, who got married in the summer of ‘63 and had his first of three sons, Daniel, two years later, said that in addition to those responsibilities, he worked “a lot of odd jobs” to supplement his income.

The burden of his schedule didn’t at all squelch his fervor, though. Of his coaching and teaching styles, he described himself as a “hard-ass,” which he said led to many of his pupils finding him abrasive.

At http://www.ratemyprofessor.com, one former student wrote: “…very old school style and very rude and will yell at [you] like a parent.” Like a demanding sensei, he mandated that everything be done properly because “practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice does.”

“I was a disciplinarian, certainly,” he said. “In the class or on the field, I wanted the kids to understand that everything I’m telling you is to help you, so do it.”

In addition to the tongue-lashings, his martinet style brought positive results. As a teacher, he was twice presented an “Outstanding Teacher” award, which was voted on by the students. As a coach, he led the baseball team to seven winning seasons, including back-to-back Middle Eastern Catholic College Association Fall Tournament championships in ‘70 and ‘71.

“They’d only invited us because they needed an eighth team, but we shocked ‘em,” said Landolphi, seemingly as giddy about it as he was 35 years ago. “We beat Sienna, Iona , Manhattan College, St. Francis College and Scranton. It was such an upset that Manhattan said we were recruiting illegally, which was sour grapes. They didn’t invite us back the third year [because] we weren’t a religious school.”

Before becoming a full-time professor, he co-authored two books – Championship Baseball: Technique, Fundamentals & Skills and Fundamentals of Coaching and Playing Baseball – with his friends Joe Russo and Howie Gershberg, a former Dodger and BC alum who died in 2003.

In the fall of ‘73, however, his focus broadened after meeting with Italian officials and accepting an offer to become one of 10 American coaches selected to teach baseball abroad. While he continued to lead the Bridges, he saw the expansion of “America ’s game” as his greater calling.

Landolphi, who takes immense pride in his Italian heritage, said that he had to learn the language on-the-fly when he was deployed to small villages in northern Italy .

“My first time there I was in Lomdardia, where nobody spoke English,” he said. “My parents spoke it, but as a kid, you’d have gotten made fun of for speaking a different language. So I had to learn everything using a little translation book.”

Now able to carry on full conversations in Italian, he works with MLB International, making frequent trips to Europe to hold instructional clinics. He coached in Sweden last year and will be headed to Florence at the end of March.

His labor of love, he said, yielded one of his proudest moments last year when he received a phone call from Italian pitching sensation Alessandro Maestri following the World Baseball Classic. The right-hander, who was signed by the Chicago Cubs, called to express his gratitude to Landolphi, who has coached him since he was an 8-year-old.

Although his scholastic coaching career ended after ‘79 – when he led Merchant Marine Academy to its first winning season in 20 years – he continued to teach sports business at BC until a year ago when it became “time to cut the umbilical cord.”

Retirement – if it can be considered that – hasn’t brought on a sedentary lifestyle, though. He still conducts baseball clinics in Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island, and works as a college basketball referee in addition to his European expeditions.

“I’m fortunate to be in good health, and a hell of a lot better shape than some of these young fellows,” he said with a laugh. “In the next five years, I plan to still be active, doing anything that catches my interest.”

In his rare moments of leisure, though, he enjoys relaxing with his wife Rosemarie at their home in Hudson , reading books (just finished The Kite Runner) and playing with his grandsons – his three sons have six sons.

And he’s content with what he has accomplished in his career.

“Now…I think I belong,” he said, since having a month to reflect on his Hall of Fame induction, an event attended by several of his former players. “It’s still hard to believe, but I’m starting to.”

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2 comments so far

  1. […] were joined by Hall of Fame Baseball Coach Don Landolphi, who discovered this form of adaptive baseball while coaching in Florence, Italy in 2007. “To me […]

  2. […] questo video clip, Alessandro Maestri si allena in mezzo alla settimana con la supervisione del coach che gli insegna i trucchi e gli spiega come lanciare nel […]


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