(CHICAGO – June 9th, 2014) Down on Taylor Street in the heart of Little Italy in Chicago, lies a special home for Italian American athletes. What initially started as a notion to pay homage to the great Italian American boxers of the 1970s, the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame (NIASHF) grew into an establishment that honors all types of athletes and contributors in every different sport, while staying true to its Italian roots. The hall has seen sports legends such as Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Gino Marchetti, Tony Esposito, Rocky Marciano, the great “Yankee Clipper” Joe DiMaggio and many more pass through as inductees.
For 36 years, the National Italian Sports Hall of Fame has made it a mission to illustrate its elected athletes with honor and esteem, with respect for the traditions and heritage that made the athletes into the legends that they have become. However, the original idea by Director and Founder George Randazzo was for the Hall of Fame to honor Italian American boxers only. The first event celebrating these boxers was held on September 16th, 1977. It brought 23 world champion boxers to the Holiday Inn at O’Hare Kennedy in Chicago, and had nearly 2,000 attendees.
Because the first gala honoring the Italian American boxers was so popular and successful, Randazzo and the community decided to open up the Hall of Fame to the entire world of sports. The first class of Italian American athletes elected into the NIASHF came in 1978, which consisted of Vince Lombardi, Gino Marchetti, Eddie Arcaro, Lou Ambers, Dom DiMaggio, Charlie Trippi, Joey Giardello, and Joe DiMaggio. Since then, the hall has inducted over 230 sports figures, which include the best Italian American athletes, contributors, broadcasters, and writers. And as the Hall of Fame grows, the list of inductees will grow along with it.
While the Hall of Fame itself was established in 1977, the idea for the hall started years before when Randazzo was only a child. “I’ve been collecting (boxing memorabilia) for years since I was a kid,” Randazzo said. “This gentleman asked me if I could help him raise some money for a school. So I started selling advertisements after work, and on each ad page, there would be an Italian American fighter. I met a man named Don Ponte, and he said ‘you know how to get a hold of all these fighters, why don’t you have a big dinner?’” After Mr. Ponte’s suggestion, Randazzo quit his job, sold his company stock, and started the Italian American Boxing Hall of Fame. “For the next six months I organized a way of reaching all the fighters, the 23 champions,” Randazzo said. “From there it just snowballed, and right after that dinner, everyone knew we could continue this with just boxers, but we could also bring in all sports.” But in order to make the change to induct all sports figures into the Italian American Hall of Fame, there was one man Randazzo absolutely needed to get. The” Yankee Clipper” himself. “If you’re going to change the name from Italian American Boxing Hall of Fame to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, the first person you would have to honor would be Joe DiMaggio,” explained Randazzo. “Once he accepted, then all the others would follow suit! In 1977 and 1978, Joe DiMaggio accepted and we changed the name”
Changing the Hall of Fame from boxing to all sports was simple – it brought the bigger picture. “We were limited with the amount of people we were eventually going to honor,” said Randazzo. “Not everyone’s a boxing fan, but everybody would be a fan of baseball, football, golf, hockey, basketball. If we expanded it to all sports, its more appealing and there’s more people we can get behind it.” Along with changing the name of the hall, came the NIASHF’s first piece of memorabilia. “The first piece I collected was Rocky Marciano’s championship belt. That would probably be my most favorite piece because it was the first piece that I ever got.” Randazzo needed a place to keep his memorabilia, as he didn’t have a way to display it to the public. “When Marian Marciano (Rocky Marciano’s wife) said that she was going to give it to us, I immediately took it the next morning and put it in the National Republic Bank,” he said. “Then as different pieces of memorabilia came in each week as I contacted people, I would put them into this bank until we found a facility.” The donations of other memorabilia include items such as Alan Ameche’s Heisman Trophy, The Arizona Diamondbacks 2001 World Series Trophy and numerous other jerseys and apparel worn by inducted members.
However, changing the focus from just boxing to all sports brought another implication for Randazzo and the Hall of Fame – the need for a location. “We went from operating out of Elmwood Park, we bought and sold land in Bloomingdale, and then we bought a building in Arlington Heights, where all the memorabilia was moved to,” he said. “Then the City of Chicago offered us land on Taylor Street, but the rest was up to us to raise the money to build our current building.” The move to Taylor Street was key in making the Hall of Fame into an epicenter for Italian American sports, which was Randazzo’s dream he so adored.
But, keeping the hall alive proved to be a much tougher task than getting it started. Randazzo sought out Jerry Colangelo, who was the current Owner of the Phoenix Suns in 1994. “I asked him if he would lead us, together with a group, to help branch the money,” said Randazzo. “He accepted, and for ten years we kept the building and the Hall of Fame going until the recession came in 2006.” The recession depleted the money that was there from investors and donations, which left the hall with little money to operate. However, Randazzo acknowledges the future and the hope that it can bring. “I’d love to see the Hall of Fame stay in our facility, and make that facility more marketable, entertaining and educational,” he said. “It has the potential to do all those things. It’s almost like a diamond in the rough.”
In 36 years, George Randazzo has seen his small vision of honoring boxing greats become an international establishment. From building the Hall of Fame from the ground up, Randazzo takes pride in the undertaking he endured to christen the Hall of Fame into what it is today. “There’s a lot of great memories of events in the building. We’ve had Michael Jordan in our building, along with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. We’ve had Joe Paterno.”
A significant way Randazzo continues to contribute to the community that he helped build is through two programs the NIASHF provides: A Level Playing Field, and Second Wind. These programs were established to honor the athletes and sport greats so that we can better the community through sports. A Level Playing Field was developed in 2007 to embrace the diversity within sports while educating students of the rich cultural history behind legendary athletes. Second Wind was created to help disabled athletes achieve their dream of participating in the Paralympics. For his work with both programs, the NIASHF, and also within the Italian American community, Randazzo has been awarded the National Italian American Foundation Leadership Award, and the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations Ellis Island Medal of Honor, amongst many other honors. Although many legends and accolades have come with the hall, Joe DiMaggio will always have the glory of sanctifying the NIASHF into what it is today. “When DiMaggio was there and put the first shovel in the ground, I don’t think you could’ve got much better than that.”
– Chris Kwiecinski, Intern – NIASHF
– Brandt Bernat, Freelance Contributor & Consultant, NIASHF
The National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization dedicated to preserving honorable values through sport. Founded in 1977 by George Randazzo, the Hall of Fame has 238 inductees. The organization was founded on the values of Family, Friends, Faith, and Community and has been committed to providing support to students and youth of all backgrounds through its charitable programs, Second Wind and A Level Playing Field. The National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame is located in Chicago’s famed Little Italy neighborhood, at 1431 W. Taylor Street, Chicago, IL 60607. For more information on the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, please visit www.niashf.org.
Chris Kwiecinski – email@example.com, (312) 226-5566