Idols, Heroes and Role Models

Luke Capuano

Supporting contributor: Vince Romano

Luke Capuano’s second contribution, My Gemmas, can be located under the Our Stories > People > My Gemmas.  Or you can use the “search” bar.

The following are some of the early boyhood memories of one of our Taylor Street bred figures. Luke Capuano became a professional fighter and climaxed his career with two memorable fights with Mike Rossman, former light heavyweight champion of the world.

 A hotly disputed split decision over Luke kept alive Rossman’s hopes of regaining his light heavyweight title. Luke’s career as a professional fist fighter included an exhibition with Cassius Clay, also know as Muhammad Ali. 

I have embellished upon Luke’s input. My qualifications for doing so are as follows:  As I grew up on Taylor Street, some of my early boyhood companions included Luke’s uncle, Mike “Crazy Migee” Capuano. For the record, my childhood nickname was “Vincenzo Paso (meaning “Crazy Vincent” in Italian).”  Luke’s generation (second generation Italian-Americans) mirrored those experiences we, as first generation Italian-Americans, encountered during our boyhood days. The difference perhaps was in what each of us gleaned from those experiences. Luke attributes much of what he had become to the people who comprised his neighborhood…his world. Because of his magnificent fighting skills, Luke has etched his name in the sports chronicles for all time. His thoughts, his words and his actions, however, reveal a deeper dimension. It can be best summarized in the following quote from Isiah Thomas, “If all I’m remembered for is being a good basketball player, then I’ve done a bad job with the rest of my life.”

My mother, Josie, was an employee at Sheridan Park during the time that Luke was exploring his athletic abilities and ultimately honed his boxing skills. Later, Luke also became an employee of Sheridan Park, working alongside my mother until her retirement.

In addition to the above mentioned qualifications, I have exercised my literary license to explore, explain and embellish Luke’s story for its historic value for future readers of the Taylor Street Archives.

First installment:
My memories of growing up onTaylor Streetare absolutely fantastic!  I was blessed to grow up with the greatest bunch of athletes. More importantly, I was surrounded, during my most formative years, with the kindest and most generous men a neighborhood could have.

I was born on Halsted and DeKoven in 1953. We lived there until 1957, when we moved to 1025 South Aberdeen. (Just down the street fromSheridanParkwhere Luke is currently employed). It was on Aberdeen that I met those childhood friends whose memories I carry with me today. Most were of Italian ancestry; some were Mexican-Americans; and a few were African-Americans. At that time, most African-American families lived within a cluster of homes within our Italian community which were known locally as “the projects.”  (Formally known as the Jane Addams Public Housing Project.) From my back porch on Aberdeen and Taylor I could see their houses as well as the back porches of my neighbors who lived on Carpenter Street across the alley from me. Our neighborhood, which harboredSheridanPark, was wall-to-wall kids. It wasn’t until our pre-teens that we began extending ourselves beyond our immediate street and explored the larger community and its other inhabitants. There were a heck-of-a-lot of kids, ages 8-12, who sought each other out for the sheer joy of the camaraderie.

Growing up was just one laugh after another. The games had no color barriers. We were just kids seeking each other out for no other reason than to lose ourselves in a game of marbles, kick-the-can, tag, hide-and-seek, higher than the ground, red rover, fly and bounce, etc., etc., etc. In a neighborhood where everyone was ethnically defined, there were no biases or prejudices. The stature and respect each of us achieved in those games was earned and ethnicity was not a factor when choosing up sides. The games taught us that no group was better or worse than any other. The variety of games kept us entertained and helped to fill the long hours when there was no school. The games kept us sharp too–both physically and mentally. In addition to the games that occupied us, we all carry memories of hanging around the “big guys.”— that group of guys who were just ahead of us in age. I will write about my peers in future stories. For now I would like to tell you about the six guys, several years my senior, who I came to idolize when I was a young boy growing up on Taylor Street.

Every Saturday and Sunday this group of six (3 on a team) played out a  seven game World Series on the black top of Holy Family School, on Roosevelt and May streets. The Mango brothers, Anthony and Mike, evenly matched in athletic ability, were part of this group that simulated the World Series every spare moment they had. Although brothers, they never wanted to be on the same team. They would play on opposite teams. The competition pitted Anthony “Leebro” Milano and Bobby “the Bear” Pezzuto (along with one of the Mango brothers) against Michael “Joey” Esposito, Pete “the bear” Molaro and the remaining Mango brother.

The six competitors (3 on each team) would chip in and buy a dozen rubber balls (2 inches in diameter). They would pace off 20 yards (the equivalent distance of a pitchers mound) from a brick wall with a 2 ½ X 2 ½ foot strike zone drawn on it. The reward for winning the World Series each day was, besides “bragging rights,” a hot dog and a KO drink (chocolate pop) to wash down the hot dog. The treat, bought at Nate’s at a cost of 37 cents, was paid for by the losing team.

I soon learned, as I watched my idols play, that they had their idols, as well. During the hotly contested simulated World Series games, Anthony Mango became Joe DiMaggio…Espo would become Rocky Colavito…Libro was Rocky Marciano (Leeb was Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, regardless of what sport he was playing)…Pete would be Mickey Mantle…Mike Mango would always be himself (I suspect he had enough confidence in his own ability not to want to take on the persona of someone else)…and Bobby Bear would become Willie Mays. It was not uncommon, growing up in Taylor Street’s Little Italy that our sports heroes were mostly of Italian ancestry. It was an ethnic neighborhood and we grew up during ethnic times. You had to be really special to become one of our sports idols if you were not of Italian heritage—Visa Vis Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

The games were always close. Name calling was positively allowed. When a batter got beaned by the pitcher, the din of the laughter dulled the impact of the choice words being hurled back at the pitcher. Competitive, entertaining and memorable were my friends —my role models — my idols. Later, as my idols moved on in response to higher and more mature life challenges to be faced, my age group filled the void they left. I was no longer a spectator…I was a player. We entered that stage of our lives with the same gusto and extracted the same joys as my idols had earlier…as their idols had done even earlier. The only difference, perhaps, was that the Mickey Mantles and the Rocky Marcianos were replaced with the likes of Ron Santo and Muhammad Ali.

Organized baseball, soccer, day camps, sports camps, etc. have replaced those glory days when our minds and our bodies were free to test the frontiers of what and who we valued. Yes, for a while back there we had a chance to find and ultimately become ourselves. Today, there are no batter’s boxes to be found on the walls of our buildings. Pity!

This neighborhood, the legendary Taylor Street, Chicago’s Little Italy, and its people are the village that shaped and forged who and what we eventually became. Luke’s second contribution to the Archives, My Gemmas, which we encouraged him to write, reinforces the theme of the Taylor Street Archives. Being Taylor Street bred impacted heavily on how he responded to the later challenges he faced. For Luke, those challenges included becoming a professional boxer, husband, father and respected community member.

The Taylor Street Archives, is dedicated to the memory of all of those Taylor Street mothers who nurtured their Taylor Street children through a time and place unmatched by any other. The Profiles of those strong willed mothers who nurtured us through the great depression (and other, not so visible obstacles of similar magnitude) will be found in these archives … Vince Romano 

  • John Francis |

    Hey Dickie its me John we lived on May st. we where neighbors and hung out almost every day you called me Johnny Apples spent allot of time hanging in Sheridan park Taylor and Halsted was the best time of my LIfe great Memories

  • It was a glorious time, wasn’t it.!? A time, a place and a people that were and will never be again.

  • Richard " Dickie " Pope |

    Lukie, I like what I read. Keep going, someone has to tell the real story. When I die and if God lets me go up there. It better be Taylor St. 1960, or I’m leaving.
    Dickie Pope.

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