WNP524 - Dante Benedetti
Nicole: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of Western Neighborhoods Project. Your weekly dose of friendly neighborhood history.
And hello, Outside Landers! I'm your host, Nicole Meldahl.
Arnold: And I'm your co-host, Arnold Woods.
Nicole: With the end of another baseball season, we thought it was time to strike up another conversation about baseball on the podcast. And let's all give us a moment for that stellar pun.
Arnold: This paragraph is full of puns.
Nicole: All our podcasts are full of puns, but it's extra punny today for sure. We've hit it up five times before. Episode number 21 about the Park Bums. Number 45 about Ewing Field. 68 about the Haight Street Grounds. Number 270 about Big Rec. And finally, number 398 about Willie Mays on the West Side. This week though, we're singling out a [00:01:00] remarkable West side baseball icon.
Arnold: And that icon is longtime USF baseball manager Dante Benedetti. His story is not your typical success story. His USF teams did not enjoy huge success or win championships. There were not a lot of players that he coached that went on to the big leagues, and none of them became stars. Still, he was affectionately called Mr. Baseball by a Hall of Famer, no less. And his story will warm your heart.
Nicole: Now, we've been on a little bit of an international kick in recent months, and it wouldn't be an Arnold Woods-researched podcast if we didn't start ever so briefly in Italy. Dante's parents were born and raised in Pisa, Italy. In 1911, Dante's father, Gino, immigrated to California and went to work for a Mendocino logging company. Three years later, his wife, Amelia, joined him. Logging was hard work, and not very lucrative. Shocking. Amelia's uncle had a restaurant in San [00:02:00] Francisco, though, and was making more in a day than Gino did in a month. So that tipped the scales, and the couple moved to San Francisco.
Arnold: After they got to San Francisco, the Benedetti family lived at 27 Jasper Place, also known as Jasper Alley, which is in North Beach between Green and Union Streets. Dante was born on May 16, 1919, and was born at home with a midwife. Dante was the first of four children and he was followed by two sisters and a brother.
Nicole: Gee, I wonder why this Italian family moved to North Beach.
Arnold: Who knows?
Nicole: Who knows? So, Gino worked as a waiter, kind of scrounging and saving, and finally after many years he'd saved enough to open his own restaurant. In 1927, Gino opened the New Pisa restaurant at 1268 Grant Street at the corner of Vallejo, and about a block and a half away from where the Benedettis lived. To place this for you, it was across the street from where Café Trieste is now. And we should [00:03:00] note that this is when both the family and the restaurant first show up in city directories. There's at least one source stating that the restaurant opened in 1920 that we assume is wrong. But you never know, because we research these podcasts kind of quickly.
Arnold: So, the New Pisa restaurant was a family affair. Amelia was the cook, preparing everything from scratch every day, while Gino ran the business. Dante's sisters were the waitresses. Dante himself once noted that among his earliest memories were recollections of sleeping under the bread box at the restaurant. Dante worked in the restaurant as well, but later recalled that he was mostly eating while he was there.
Nicole: Can confirm, as someone who's worked in restaurants, that you are mostly eating while working there. So, of course, those were the days of Prohibition. Apparently, under the Prohibition laws, Italian families were allowed to buy no more than $200 worth of grapes to make wine for elderly family members. Now this is [00:04:00] what I can get behind. The realization and the acknowledgement that wine is essential to a good life over the age of 30. Anyways, Dante say, Dante would say that most Italian families would cheat and buy $2,000 worth of grapes. Close enough, right?
Arnold: Just an extra zero.
Nicole: Just an extra zero. And at New Pisa, there were four booths with curtains so customers could surreptitiously have wine with their dinner. I like this family’s style.
Arnold: And Gino taught Dante how to distill wine.
Arnold: Which they did in their home. Jasper Alley had a lot of home winemakers back then and was often called Wine Alley.
Arnold: Once while distilling at home, a young Dante inhaled too much of the distilling fumes and got drunk, which led him to getting sick. As a result, Dante mostly did not drink alcohol thereafter, except for rare shots of whiskey for what he called, quote, “medicinal [00:05:00] purposes.”
Nicole: Can confirm whiskey is medicine as well. But moving on. Outside of helping out at the family business, Dante spent a lot of time playing baseball and soccer with the mostly Italian neighborhood kids. Soccer was often played in the street, and baseball at a horse lot on Bay Street. The boys would time their games to occur at the lot while the horses were out making deliveries and they used dried horse manure in sacks as their bases, which I'm sure smelled great. Amongst the youngsters playing baseball there were the DiMaggio brothers, whom you might've heard of once before, perhaps on a prior podcast. And those brothers were always chosen first when picking teams, according to Dante.
Arnold: And probably like a lot of the Little Italy kids. Dante was known for getting into a scrape or two. In fact, he got expelled from Galileo and Commerce High Schools for fighting. However, he then ended up at St. Ignatius High, then on Stanyan Street, and he [00:06:00] graduated from there. He learned how to box and earned a boxing scholarship to USF. In both high school and college, he boxed, he played on the baseball team, where he was a catcher, and he played on the football team, where he was an offensive guard. Dante liked to say that boxing was his best sport, football next, and baseball last.
Nicole: Ah, the irony. After graduating college in the early 1940s, Dante, like a lot of young men at the time, entered the military, serving in both the Coast Guard and the Marines in World War II. After the war, Dante returned home to San Francisco and soon took over the New Pisa restaurant from his father, who would pass away in 1952.
Arnold: Dante also got a job back at St. Ignatius High School teaching Italian and Spanish and coaching sports. Dante would open the restaurant in the morning and then his sister would manage the place until Dante returned home, from the school, to operate it until closing. He typically carried a big wad of cash to pay the restaurant vendors with. [00:07:00] This surely was an accounting nightmare. Dante engendered much loyalty among his employees at the restaurant with some working there for decades.
Nicole: Besides the New Pisa restaurant, Dante also opened a bar called the Paper Doll Club at 524 Union Street. A quick couple of notes about this bar. In the wee hours of August 13th, 1956, the bar's manager and a bartender were carrying a large paper bag out the door just after closing when they were accosted by three thieves with guns. They asked what was in the bag and were told that it was meat scraps for a dog. One of the thieves said, “quit your kidding” and grabbed the bag, only to discover that it actually did contain meat scraps.
Arnold: So, the gunman then forced the employees back inside where they then forced Dante to open the safe.
Arnold: They grabbed about $2,500 out of the safe and hightailed it out of there. However, in acting so hastily, they missed another $3,000, which was in the safe [00:08:00] in a cigar box and about another $1,000 that Dante had in his pants pockets. Remember he always carried around a big wad of cash.
Nicole: Yeah. But did they take the meat, Arnold? Did the newspapers not record that?
Arnold: I did not find that out.
Nicole: Inquiring minds need to know about the meat. In May 1957, the state liquor director ordered the revocation of the Paper Dolls’ liquor license on the grounds of, get this, that the place was a “homosexual hangout,” and we use that in quotes. It seems a little unexpected that an old school Italian guy like Dante would own a gay bar in North Beach, but, you know, more power for him, to him, for doing so. And we're not sure how long Dante owned the Paper Doll. So, if you know that information, please email us and let us know. Cause now I'm very invested in the Paper Doll.
Arnold: Dante did not limit his coaching to St. Ignatius High. The New Pisa restaurant sponsored a number of boys baseball teams in various age groups and [00:09:00] throughout the city. Dante coached many of them. He also sponsored semi pro teams in the San Francisco Rec Department's Class AA leagues. Which he would sometimes play on as well. This is where you begin to hear stories of Dante's amazing generosity. Besides sponsoring and coaching teams, he bought equipment for the teams. If a boy's family could not afford a glove, hat, or spikes, Dante would simply buy it for them.
Nicole: Well, yeah, he always had a big wad of cash in his pants. Frank Rossi, the owner of the longtime North Beach sports bar, Gino and Carlo, stated that Dante was, and I quote, “a very generous guy, a tough guy with a soft heart.“ End quote. In fact, Dante's teams were mostly made up by what some would call troubled youth. Dante was so good with these kids that Italian mothers would often ask him to help handle their wayward children. He often worked with kids who didn't make their high school or college teams and helped them improve in order to make those teams the following year.
Arnold: [00:10:00] Oftentimes, Dante would employ those players at New Pisa or just give them money as, quote, “loans,” with no expectation of ever being paid back. He would promise to get some of them athletic scholarships, for players who could not afford college, but would simply, instead, just pay their tuition. All the money he poured into various baseball teams drove his mother crazy, not because he was spending money, but because he was doing so on an American sport, instead of an Italian sport like soccer.
Nicole: Or football, like they call it in Italy. Ooh, I've been trying really hard not to do an Italian accent during this podcast, because it's not appropriate, but sometimes it might slip through. And there are hand gestures on this end to coincide with that. Chronicle columnist Monique Benoit, in her column which was called Monique's Daily Male, male as in M-A-L-E, not as in letters, M-A-I-L, profiled Dante. She said, “he is so interested in those kids, I wouldn't be surprised if he wouldn't [00:11:00] rather neglect his business than baseball practice. He is an affectionate man who, if he has troubles, finds it easier to forget them by helping others.” End quote.
Arnold: Dante saw baseball as a metaphor for life. He stated, quote, “when that ball starts to roll, you have to anticipate, execute, and if you don't execute well, then you'd better start practicing, because if you don't, you won't enjoy the game. It's the same in business. When you open up in the morning, it's like that ball starts to roll, and you've got to anticipate what you're going to do, then you've got to execute it. If you can't anticipate and execute, you won't be open long.” End quote.
Nicole: When in college, Dante was walking on Montgomery Street when he saw what he described as a chubby girl on the street. Oh boy. He approached her and said, “hey, what's doing Chubs?” This is a tough paragraph for me. The woman ignored him, but Dante kept trying to talk to her, usually calling her Chubs, [00:12:00] because he didn't know her name, just where she worked at a sewing machine shop. Finally, after several months, she said, “who in the hell told you my name?” Apparently, her nickname was actually Chubs, a happy coincidence for Dante, and a very unhappy paragraph for me to read as a woman running a nonprofit.
Arnold: The woman was from a Russian family and was actually named Florence. After the ice was finally broken, they began dating. Dante's family was against the relationship as they wanted him to marry a nice Italian girl. And, in fact, they arranged a potential wife with an Italian family down in Watsonville. After meeting this girl, though, Dante wasn't having it.
Nicole: After returning from Watsonville, Dante called up Florence and asked her to meet him in Carson City, Nevada. There, they got married in 1939 when Dante was 20 years old. However, Dante hid the marriage from his mother for the next six years, part of which, as [00:13:00] we said, he was away at war. When he finally told his mother that he was married, she refused to talk to him for seven years. Meanwhile, like other family members, Florence went to work at the New Pisa as a hostess.
Arnold: We do not, repeat, do not recommend Dante's way of courtship.
Arnold: But it led to a long, happy marriage.
Arnold: Dante and Florence had two daughters. Dante, of course, wanted a son. No doubt because he wanted to be able to coach his own son, but said that his daughters were wonderful. His daughter Claudia became a teacher. In August 1967, the Chronicle's Question Man asked a number of women why they weren't married yet. Claudia responded to that poll, saying that the right fellow hadn't come along yet, maybe because she had high ideals, explaining, quote, “that's because my father is Dante Benedetti. I'm accustomed to respecting and looking up to my father. When I find someone that I can respect and look up to, I'll get married.” End quote.
Nicole: Oh [00:14:00] boy, I'm glad I'm a woman of marrying age in 2023, let me tell you that. Anyways, besides his family, the restaurant and baseball, Dante joined the Olympic Club and took up golf. At some point, it's unclear exactly when, Dante began coaching baseball at USF, likely as an assistant in the beginning. Early on, he would take breaks from his USF gig and the restaurant and go to Italy to run baseball clinics. In about 1964, USF was planning to drop baseball from its athletic department, but Dante would not hear of it. He called up the athletic director and asked why baseball was being dropped. He was told that the school couldn't afford a head coach. So, Dante said he would coach the team, and the school didn't have to pay him. The school was required by law to pay a coach, so Dante signed a contract to coach the team for one dollar a year.
Arnold: And he stayed on that contract of one dollar a year throughout his managing career at USF. [00:15:00]
Arnold: As with his youth teams, Dante ended up buying a lot of equipment for the team when USF's bare bones budget fell short. In 1969, friends threw a testimonial dinner to honor Dante. The event raised over $500, which was given to the USF baseball program. For a number of years thereafter, Dante sponsored testimonial dinners, honoring other San Francisco baseball notables, with the money raised each year going back to USF baseball.
Nicole: On November 10th, 1972, Dante was inducted into USF’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Over his 16 years as manager. Dante's USF teams won 373 games. Now, if you do the math, which we're great at, that works out to an average of a little over 23 wins per season. Which doesn't sound too bad until you realize that they were playing anywhere from 40 to nearly 70 games in a season. In fact, because of their extremely bare bones budget, USF was never able to attract [00:16:00] top quality baseball talent. Team never finished higher than second place in the West Coast Athletic Conference and Dante actually lost more games than he won in his USF career. So, just because you're not a winner doesn't mean you're not a Hall of Famer, right Arnold?
Arnold: That's right. And nevertheless, Dante's players revered him and all he did for them. Former player Don Russo once said that Dante, quote, “not only taught how to play baseball, but also how to become men.” End quote. Dante had in fact thrown Russo off the USF team several times, but Russo kept coming back, a quality that Dante admired as it showed that the player had, quote, “something inside.” End quote.
Nicole: Throughout his head coaching tenure at USF, Dante continued to run the New Pisa restaurant. In 1966, he got celebrated artist Wolo, one time caricaturist for the Chronicle, to paint a large mural at the restaurant. Wolo did not receive conventional payment for his work, though. Instead [00:17:00] of money, Dante gave him free meals for life. No idea how often Wolo dined at the, at New Pisa, though, but I do think that's a great deal for everybody.
Arnold: Probably. Besides his generosity with young baseball players, Dante was also known to pour more drink for the money than most others when he tended bar at the New Pisa. When he was asked why he did so, he replied, quote, “30 years ago, my old man told me to put out a good drink, so I do it.” End quote.
Nicole: Amen! In 1976, the owners of the North Beach restaurant, Lorenzo Patrone and Bruno Orsi, bought the building where New Pisa was located and more or less forced Dante to sell them the restaurant. They then renamed the place, Basta Pasta. The original New Pisa officially closed on April 3rd, 1977.
Arnold: That is not the end of the story, though.
Nicole: Basta Pasta? That's the worst restaurant name I've ever heard. Besides maybe Soup Plantation. That's really [00:18:00] bad.
Arnold: So, Dante's retirement from the restaurant business did not last long. Soon after the official closing of the original New Pisa, he and a partner, Bruno Ghezza, bought the Montclair Restaurant on Green Street, which he promptly renamed the New Pisa.
Arnold: In preparation for opening, he had Wolo paint him a new mural at the new restaurant. Because of a roof collapse and business name litigation, there were delays in the opening of the, what was now being called Basta Pasta by its new owners. And, as such, Dante's new New Pisa opened well before Basta Pasta did.
Nicole: Take that Basta Pasta!
Arnold: The new New Pisa restaurant continued to sponsor many youth baseball teams and softball teams as well.
Nicole: In June 1980, Dante retired as head coach of the USF baseball team, though he continued to coach the junior varsity team for a few many years thereafter. The retirement came about because his sister passed away, and his wife was [00:19:00] ill, so he felt obligated to work full time at New Pisa, where they both had been helping him run the restaurant. Dante had won more games than any other Dons manager in its history. Because apparently he just stuck around long. But a record that stood until recently broken by Anthony “Nino” Giarratano. Yeah, yeah.
Arnold: There you go.
Arnold: Dante also established the Dante Benedetti Scholarship Fund that provided scholarships for baseball players at USF. Besides monies he helped raise, you would occasionally see obituaries in the papers asking that donations be made to the Dante Benedetti Scholarship Fund.
Nicole: Among Dante's many baseball friends was Marino Pieretti, who spent six years in the big leagues and then later coached one of Dante's semi pro teams. When Marino was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the late 1970s, Dante organized a group called the Friends of Marino Pieretti to raise monies for him and to have them meet each month, [00:20:00] giving Pieretti something to look forward to. Before Pieretti died on January 30th, 1981, he asked that the group continue after his death, and Dante naturally agreed. The group continued to meet for at least 30 years thereafter, with monies raised going to the scholarship fund.
Arnold: Not long after Marino's death, Dante was hit hard again. On May 17th, 1981, his beloved wife Florence died after a lengthy illness. Dante was never one to let life get him down and continued to run the New Pisa and sponsor and coach a variety of baseball teams. On June 13th, 1982, the San Francisco Giants honored Dante on their annual Italian-American Day at the ballpark. When told of this honor, Dante said, quote, “I never expected it, nor do I need it. But I'll be honest, I like it.” End quote.
Nicole: Dante received another honor when on March 2nd, 1985, USF officially renamed its baseball field Dante Benedetti [00:21:00] Diamond. Upon being told of this honor, Dante stated, and I quote, “I never gave a second thought to salary. This is more reward than I could ask.” End quote. Joe DiMaggio came to the ceremony renaming the field and proclaimed, I quote, “when I refer to Dante Benedetti, I refer to him as Mr. Baseball.” End quote. USF also named their most inspirational baseball player award after Dante.
Arnold: In 1992, at the age of 73, Dante sold the New Pisa restaurant to Tom and Maureen Ginella. As part of the deal, Dante secured the right to hang out at New Pisa whenever he wanted. And he frequently served as a greeter at the restaurant thereafter. He continued to do so until suffering a stroke. The new owners ran the New Pisa for 11 years, but were forced to close it in 2003 because of declining business.
Nicole: In October 2000, Dante served as the Grand Marshal of the Columbus Day Parade. The Chronicle declared that [00:22:00] everybody wanted to be the mayor of North Beach, but Dante is the one who deserved the title.
Arnold: Then on November 16, 2005, after years of failing health, Dante passed away. A big memorial mass was held for him at St. Ignatius Church next to the USF campus. The following year, USF created the Dante Benedetti Classic, which featured a high school baseball game followed by a college game between USF and a rival, and that got played at the Giants ballpark.
Arnold: The Classic became an annual event thereafter.
Nicole: So that's the story of Dante Benedetti. Maybe not great as a coach when it came to wins, but definitely great as both a coach and a person when it came to spirit and generosity. And we would imagine that there may be a few of you in the Outside Lands community who played on one of Dante's teams in your youth, or maybe knew him, or all kinds of things. So, if you did, let us know. But now, we have to...
Arnold: Say What Now? So, [00:23:00] as a side note, there was another unrelated Dante Benedetti from Petaluma.
Arnold: Who, get this, boxed and played football at USF. And, if you can believe it, at the same time as San Francisco Dante. So, in fact, both played guard on the Dons football squad. Petaluma Dante, like San Francisco Dante, joined the military in World War II, where he served as a Marine pilot. Unfortunately, he was reported missing in 1942, and then declared dead in 1943. It made for some strange research when you find stories of Dante being killed in the war, and then a few months later seeing other references to Dante in the paper.
Nicole: History's a wild ride, a wild ride friends. Well, now, do we have Listener Mail!
Arnold: So, before we get into [00:24:00] whether or not we do, here's how you do. And that's to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find our social media posts about the podcast on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, when they get posted there. And you can just simply post a comment there.
Arnold: In the last couple of weeks, there's been no emails or comments on those posts. So, get busy listeners and, and start sending us some comments, either, you know, on social media or send us an email, so that we can refer back to what you think about the podcast.
Nicole: To be fair, we're getting email about the podcast, but that email specifically says don't read this on the podcast. So.
Arnold: That was the most recent one, yeah.
Nicole: Yeah. So, you know, it's not like people aren't listening and writing in. It's just that it's not for public digestion. Anyways, perhaps now Arnold is the time to tell our members about the benefits of membership and donating. [00:25:00] And please know at our recent event at Stoke Fest, someone came up, a podcast listener, hi, Carla, I see you, I hear you, and literally repeated this verbatim to me.
Arnold: She, so she knew all about the benefits of membership and donating.
Nicole: She sure did. I don't think she was a member, but she knew all about it.
Arnold: Well, maybe Carla will become a member because that gets you our quarterly membership magazine, gets you discounts on events and some other perks every now and again.
Arnold: It also supports all the good work we do and make available for free, which includes the OpenSFHistory picture trove. Includes the Cliff House collection, its care and exhibition, some of which you can see on our walls here. And it, of course, includes this podcast, which we make available for free on all kinds of outlets. So become a member. You clickety, clickety, clack the big orange button on the top of any website page. Or, in the [00:26:00] alternative, if the membership price is a little too pricey for you, just donate. Any amount helps. One dollar. Five dollars. Ten dollars. It doesn't matter. There's a big donate button at the top of every page too, so just click that one instead and make a nice little donation and help us keep sharing and preserving West side San Francisco history.
Nicole: Yes, please. And now we have a few announcements that sort of keep you in the know here at Western Neighborhoods Project. So, the big announcement is November is all about the Alexandria Theatre here at Western Neighborhoods Project. Of course, if you've been listening, you already know that Alexandria turns 100 years old on November 26th. And we've been working with dear friends at San Francisco Heritage, San Francisco Neon, the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, and a theater historian named Gary Parks, to remember this crown jewel of the Richmond District that has seen better days. And we're doing this [00:27:00] with a landing page on our website, alexandria@100. It's the first page of Outsidelands.org. We have a commemorative pin designed by Randall at SF Neon and Gary Parks and, and fabricated by PSA Press. That's going to be a great gift for the holidays, and you can only get that immediately by showing up at the Balboa Theater on November 26th to support this commemorative. You can find more details online, but it's, it's a, it's a beautiful way to jumpstart the holiday season by remembering the glorious past of one of my favorite landmarks on the West side. So again, we're winding down our public programs for the year. Thank God, Chelsea and Arnold and I are exhausted. But you can find details for our upcoming events at Outsidelands.org/events. Or you can sign up for our monthly newsletter on our website, [00:28:00] which means you know all about upcoming events and whatever the heck else we're doing. Or join over 400 followers on our Eventbrite page, so you can immediately get notified when we drop that next event. And keep an eye out for our winter appeal that we're hoping to finish the year out strong with because, like Arnold said earlier, we need your donations to survive to our 25th year, which is coming up in 2024.
Arnold: On one other note, our store is back up and running on the OutsideLands.org website. So, if you're looking for that history Christmas present this year, take a look. There's plenty there that you can find that will make some history fan happy.
Nicole: Yeah, you can also give a membership as a gift, just putting that out there, and then they get history all year long. But good idea, Arnold. Thanks for plugging that with the holiday gift giving season upon us again.
Arnold: Well, you know, I've almost kind of forgotten how we do this together, [00:29:00] because it's been so long since we actually did a podcast together.
Nicole: It is.
Arnold: But we're getting back into the rhythm of it.
Nicole: Yeah. We're actually in the same room, which doesn't always happen listeners. I don't know if you can tell. Okay, Arnold. What is our preview for next week?
Arnold: So, next week, of course, is Thanksgiving week, so we'll see if we get our schedules aligned to actually record a podcast. But we're looking at maybe explaining a remarkable public-private partnership in the Presidio. Maybe next week, maybe the week after, we'll see.
Nicole: You know, somebody here is real hit or miss on her schedule. So.
Arnold: Well, it's been both of our schedules for the last month, six weeks. We just, they have not aligned.
Nicole: That's true. If you don't know listeners, Arnold does this in addition to his real job. So, kudos to everyone, all of our volunteers, but especially numero uno volunteer.
Arnold: Well, Nicole does this in addition to her real job, which is running this organization, which takes a lot of work.
Nicole: All right. Well, until next time, [00:30:00] I'm Nicole Meldahl.
Arnold: And I'm Arnold Woods.
Nicole: This has been another episode of Outside Lands San Francisco. Thank you for being with us, history friends.
Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.
Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to Outsidelands.org. You can also find us on social media at Facebook, which is outsidelands with an S, at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a Z, and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a Z. And check out our historic San Francisco images website at OpenSFHistory.org.