Listening to a baseball game on radio on a Sunday afternoon gets me thinking fondly of bygone Utica summers.

These days I reminisce listening to games of the Washington Nationals, currently atop the Eastern Division of the National League. But back in Utica in the 1950s, just as going to Mass on Sunday morning was unquestionably required, so too was tuning in New York Yankees games on WRUN at 2 p.m.

In those days, the Yankees dominated baseball, and large numbers of Uticans were big fans, just as they are now. But in East Utica, being a Yankees fan had special intensity and passion because it was the team that boasted great Italian American stars.

Starting with Tony “Poosh ‘Em Up” Lazzeri in the 1920s, and extending through the ‘30s, 40s, and ‘50s with the great Joe DiMaggio, Frank Crosetti, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Billy Martin and Vic Raschi, the Yankees were as big on Bleecker Street as they were in the Bronx.

In those days, of course, DiMaggio was a god. He was the first Italian American cultural hero (Frank Sinatra came later). Seeing an Italian American so celebrated as DiMaggio brought great pride to humble immigrants from faraway places such as Calabria, Apuglia, Abruzzo, Basilacata and Sicily. They knew little about baseball and its intricate rules. But they sure knew who DiMaggio was.

He was so revered in East Utica that it was not unusual to see a picture of Joe D. hanging on a wall of an East Utica grocery store, barber shop or saloon, sometimes in more-prominent places than portraits of the Virgin Mary and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ventura’s Restaurant, on Lansing and Kossuth, remains to this day a virtual shrine to DiMaggio, the Yankees and their Italian American heritage.

Listening to Yankee games on radio on Sunday afternoon in the ‘50s was so common that in those days before Walkmans, ear buds and Bluetooth, you could walk down any street in East Utica without technology and hear the voice of Mel Allen calling the play by play and never miss a pitch. Nearly every house had a radio either on the porch or inside, and the game sounds filled the air and followed as you walked.

“How about that!” Allen would exclaim after a timely bunt by Rizzuto, a crucial strikeout by Raschi or a tag at the plate by Berra. When any Yankee hit a home run - a “Ballantine Blast” in Allen parlance, he would shout, “It’s going……going…….gone!” Cheers would erupt from the porches and open windows where many families were listening as they ate their Sunday dinners.

If you happened to be picnicking in Proctor Park, Summit Park, Power Dam or Verona Beach, portable radios with chunky batteries that often went dead at the most crucial time of the game sat on picnic tables as the men played cards and the women chatted. And on the beaches, teenage girls tried their best with varying degrees of success to pry the boys on nearby blankets away from listening to the game and into the water.

Now, some six decades later, I still ritually listen to baseball games on Sunday afternoon. I walk to the nearby pool, earphones in ears and listen to the Nationals game. Sadly, I seem to be the only one listening, even though there are many men around, some wearing Nats caps. But as I listen, I sometimes close my eyes and pretend I am home in East Utica and Mel Allen is saying, “Here comes DiMaggio strolling to the plate.” What could be better than that?

Richard Benedetto is a native Utican and former O-D reporter and columnist. He is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist, and covered Presidents Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University. Write him at benedett@|american.edu