Dante School Yard
By Vince Romano
Collaborator: Johnnie Parise
The historic significance of the Dante School yard dates back to the turn of the century and then some. It shares center stage with the Jane Addams Hull House (circa 1889), Halsted Street, Greek Town, Maxwell Street (Jew Town), and Cinder Stadium. While one could make a sociological, philosophical or political connection that extends as far back as Dante Alighieri’s literary works, we will confine our story to the Italian American experience of growing up in the legendary Chicago’s Taylor Street neighborhood.
Dante School was located on Forquer Street (later to become known as Arlington Street). It stood between Halsted Street on the west and Desplaines Street on the east. The Jane Addams Hull House was just down the street. Across the street from Dante School was the Holy Guardian Angel Church, one ofChicago’s first Italian American Churches. A fence on the west end of the playground separated Dante’s school yard from the Holy Guardian Angel School.
On a summer day in 1924, Wallace K. Kirkland Sr., Hull House Director who later became a top photographer with Life magazine, took a picture which he titled, “The Hull House Kids.” The backdrop for the picture was the fence that separated Dante school yard from the Holy Guardian Angel School. That picture, along with an article titled, “Meet the Hull House Kids, appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on Sunday, April 5, 1987. The article lists the names of each of the young boys and refutes an earlier attempt to label them as being of Irish ethnicity. As it turned out, all twenty boys were first generation Italian Americans…all with vowels at the ends of their names. The Sun-Times article goes on to say, “They grew up to be lawyers and mechanics, sewer workers and dump truck drivers, a candy shop owner, a boxer and a mob boss.”
Before its demise, along with other institutions, to make way for the expressways and the University of Illinois, Dante School yard was renowned as the athletic field for the Tay-Halls. These were the guys who hung around Taylor and Halsted streets. Besides the “pool room” to which they graduated when they outgrew Hull House, they had their other hangouts. Notable among them were the Broadway Restaurant and Harry’s Tavern. Broadway’s, like all Greek owned restaurants, was noted for its rice pudding. Harry’s tavern was owned by Harry Garippo and maintained the original name on its windows; i.e., Scooge’s Tavern. Harry’s reputation as an athlete, pool player, saloon keeper, and handicapper ranks him among the memorable figures of the neighborhood. Al’s pizzeria, sharing the same Taylor-Halsted corner as Broadway’s and Harry’s, came about as a result of a split in the partnership of Scooge’s tavern. All three establishments attracted customers from the far reaches ofTaylor Street’s little Italy. Their destruction, along with other Halsted Street businesses, altered forever the character of the Hull House neighborhood’s Little Italy.
The dimensions of Dante School Yard’s softball field were similar to those of Goodrich School’s Cinder Stadium. (Cinder Stadium is another of the stories in theseTaylor Street Archives.) Both were one dimensional, straight center field ball parks with a multitude of complex rules. Hit the ball over the fence that borders the left hand side of the Dante School play ground and you were out. The school building that bordered the right hand side of the playing field, extending half way down toward the center field wall, was in play. There was a concrete walk down the middle of the field. It ran across center field, from the school building on the right to the fence running along the left side of the playing field.
Sunday was the big game day. Depending upon how many neighborhood guys showed up, they normally had seven guys on a team. They normally got in 4 to 6 games. Because the same two teams typically played against each other all day, their games, in contrast to Cinder Stadium’s 5 inning games, were seven innings long. But, like the rest of Little Italy, they always played for money. The difficult part was collecting to buy a new ball.
An example of the positions will give you an idea of the complexities of the field. Besides the traditional positions, the short stop was also the third baseman. The second baseman was called the wall man. This was the most important defensive position as he had to play the line drives that came off of the school building. The sidewalk man had the unique responsibility of playing the ball off of the school wall and/or directing the second baseman (the wall man) on how to play the ball, depending upon whether or not he thought the ball would hit the wall.
Johnny Parise’s “Dream Team” consisted of: Cappy (Mike Capuano)–outfield; J.R. (Pasquale Valicento)–the sidewalk man; Nick Parise—shortstop and their best defensive player, Sambo (Sammie Parise), was the wall man (2nd base); Carmie Sisto—first base; Slick (Louis DeRosa)–catcher; and Johnny Boy (Johnnie Parise) was the pitcher. The other team usually consisted of Guy Sisto, Phil Corso, Sam Cosentino, Flicker (Mike Gresich), Nick Caruso, Vince Cione, and others who, if not picked, became spectators. Harpo (Anthony Siciliano) inherited the role of the all-time umpire.
There were some Sundays when guys from other parts of Little Italy were picked to play on one of the two teams. They likely became involved because they were visiting their girl friends that lived on Arlington Street. Among them were yours truly, Vince Romano, who was dating Tomasine Garippo and Dante “Bunny” DeMenna who was dating Marie Orseno.
Their best available players made up the team that played against outsiders. Memorable games played against outsiders included the home and home series against their arch rivals, the Kool Vents from the Sheridan Park portion of Taylor Street’s Little Italy.
Windy City softball was prevalent in our neighborhood. It was the equivalent of professional softball. One Sunday, Angelo Ciccio, player (pitcher) of Windy City fame, challenged the Tay-Hals to a game. His team was loaded with high profile Windy City players such as, Charlie Merges and the Butato brothers (Joe (Papsi) and Billy). All had reputations of knocking the ball out of ball parks such as, Mcgill Stadium, Thillens Stadium, Clarendon Beach, etc. By the end of the day, however, Dante School Yard was littered with their broken bats—broken as a result of their frustration of trying to get a hit. Maybe it was the mystique of Dante School Yard that frustrated and beat them. There are some who say that it was mostly Johnny Boys pitching that did them in. Or maybe our neighborhood was loaded with so much talent that on any given Sunday a neighborhood team could defeat any professional windy city team.
There were two guys worthy of a special mention here. Nick Parise and Mike “Crazy Migee” Capuano. Each, in their own fashion, was a nonconformist. They may have been the first Hippies to have evolved on this planet. Nick Parise, the short stop, apparently inherited more than just the athletic skills that made him an outstanding ball player. His skills were such that they did carry him to the Baltimore Orioles’ AAA tryout camp. However, when other interests beckoned, he took off well before the end of the camp. Known as the vagabond, Nicky had a propensity to take off for other parts of the hemisphere when the spirit moved him. He was the first guy I ever knew who wore an earring.
Crazy Migee, in an important money game, dropped an easy fly ball and allowed the wining run to score. He hopped the fence, jumped into his car, raced down Arlington and up a mound of dirt that construction workers had piled up on DesPlaines Street. The angle was so steep that his car was stuck at the top of the 25 foot mound. Elsewhere in these Archives Migee’s antics are memorialized–some of which uncover his nonconformist nature. Nicky Parise and Migee were Hippies long before the word “Hippie” was ever coined by later generations.
One more item worth mentioning: The original spelling of Parise was Parisi…with an i (not an e) at the end of the name. In Italian, the letter i is pronounced like an e. Apparently, somewhere along the way,Ellis Island or somewhere, someone changed the original spelling of Parisi to the mocked up phonetic spelling of Parise…ala Vito Andolini becoming Vito Correleone.
The legend of Dante School Yard cannot end without including the memorable football game that took place just prior to the demise of the school. To fill in the uninitiated, Holy Guardian Angel Church and the HGA school were also being torn down to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway. A fund raising football game was organized to help with the expense of building a new church and a new school. The football game raised $500 which was a lot of money for the 1950s.
The football field ran north and south. The east sideline was the concrete walk along the school building. The iron fence served as the west sideline. No replay cameras were needed to confirm whether or not you were out of bounds. The sound was proof enough. Typical for a neighborhood game, equipment was sparse. Not many guys were wearing helmets or pads other than Slick (Louis DeRosa). He was the only guy who came out fully decked with a spiffy uniform, pads and all. For the record, Slick was Zanzo’s idol…a story that will likely be recounted in another of the Archives anecdotes.
While most of the players were the Dante School Yard regulars, I, yours truly, once again was one of the rare outsiders who played in that game. As one might have predicted, there were numerous arguments. The opening kick-off produced the first heated argument that lasted several minutes when the ball was recovered by the kicking team. The ball had traveled ten yards but no one on the receiving team had touched it. Neither side was able to convince the other as to what the proper ruling should be. Hence, the compromised decision was to kick off again. Chickie Fazio, one of the top high school sprinters in his day, received the ensuing kick off. He broke free down the west sideline (the iron fence). Unfortunately for Chickie, he wasn’t fast enough that day. He was stopped by a crunching solo tackle. Chickie suffered a broken knee. No, the game didn’t stop. As soon as he was taken off the field, we resumed the onslaught against each other.
The following may give the reader some additional insight as to the intensity of the game. Chickie Fazio’s broken knee put his law career on hold. Claw, a nickname received because of a malformed left arm, broke his good right arm during that game. Allen Bettina (Farmer’s younger brother) had to report for induction into the army the following day. When he showed up at the induction center, he was so bruised and battered that he was given a temporary deferment to give his injuries a chance to heal. The demand for mercurochrome and bandages ran heavy that day.
Despite the intensity of the game, Slick’s uniform never got dirty. During the final seconds of the game, both teams turned on him as a matter of principle. The 60 minutes of recluse he had enjoyed was paid back in a brief 60 second flurry.
There must be a hundred of stories like this up and down Taylor Street–from DesPlaines on out to Western Avenue. The names and the stories should all be documented for posterity. Indeed, it was a glorious time.
One final note for the sociological and urban historians:–the fund raiser was for naught. Apparently the trusted community leaders successfully bargained for their spoils and the neighborhood was surrendered to the power structure when the decision was made as to where the University of Illinois at Chicago was to be built. The new Guardian Angel Church, along with most of the neighborhood homes, were relinquished to the conquerors via the rule of law; i.e., eminent domain. Less than two years later, the Italian American community, after losing their original church and school on Arlington Street lost their newly built church and school, virtually financed, in its entirety, by the community. Their donations had gone for naught as there was no restitution for the contributions that were made by the residents. Many in the community lost their homes as well. Most received only a bare fraction of what it would cost to replace their homes in another neighborhood. It was rumored that the successful bargainers either retained their property or received the giant’s share of the stipend allotted for the homes on each block.