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Curveball: How I Discovered True Fulfillment After Chasing Fortune and Fame

Curveball: How I Discovered True Fulfillment After Chasing Fortune and Fame

by Barry Zito

Learn More | Meet Barry Zito

Half-Italian, All-American

“If you really want to be great, you have to work for it. It was a matter of pursuing excellence, whatever the situation.”
—Joe Zito, New York Times1

So, Barry’s half-Italian?” the sports reporter asked.

“Yes, and he loves that,” my mom answered. “All my kids love the whole idea of being Italian.”

Even as a small child, ever since I first heard the stories from my dad about my family heritage, I have always taken great pride in being Italian. But being raised from the age of six totally immersed in “America’s national pastime,” I’ve also taken great honor in being all-American.

The Old Country to the New Land

My grandfather, Giuseppe Zito, was born in the late 1800s and raised in Calabria, Italy. He moved up through the ranks in the Italian armed forces and eventually became a four-star general in Benito Mussolini’s army. Giuseppe had business experience and Benito a background in journalism, so the two also became partners and started a newspaper. As my father said when he told me the story, “All this happened before Mussolini went insane.”

We have several family photos from that era, one with my grandfather and other generals standing with Mussolini and another of my aunt Rose as a toddler up on her godfather Benito’s shoulders. Giuseppe’s medals from the Italian army now hang in a frame in my sister’s home in Los Angeles.

During a losing battle in the First World War while fighting for Italy, my grandfather was severely wounded and presumed dead. They dragged his body into a lineup of fallen men. As was often done in war to be certain there were no survivors, soldiers of the opposing army systematically walked down the line and bayoneted the dead in the midsection. No need to waste precious bullets just for ensuring their demise.

Miraculously, my grandfather was able to disguise the fact that he was still breathing while being stabbed. After the soldiers left, he crawled away and eventually found help. That event proved my grandfather Giuseppe was indeed a survivor. A character trait I later came to see as hereditary in the Zito family.

The era around both world wars led many Italians to leave their home country because of rampant unemployment and difficult living conditions. Giuseppe and his wife, Katerina (or the American spelling of Katherine), eventually immigrated their family to New York in the mid-1920s. Due to his prewar business experience, Giuseppe was appointed to a high position with the Bank of Italy, which we know today as Bank of America.

The Family Secret

Katherine had children from a previous marriage, so between her own and those she and Giuseppe had, there were a total of seventeen kids. But the seventeenth child, born in 1928, was the couple’s last, and arrived in a way no one expected. That year, my grandfather, having an obvious evil streak, raped his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter, Frances. The deed was discovered when she became pregnant. In fear of Giuseppe’s shameful act being found out, the family sent Frances away to live with relatives and have the baby.

In September of 1928 immediately following the birth, Frances gave the child up to an orphanage and returned home to live with her mother and stepfather. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her to return to such a precarious living situation.

When the rape of Frances was brought to light, my grandparents remained together, but Katherine insisted they stay in separate rooms and the marriage was understandably never the same. Six months after Frances came back home, Katherine couldn’t bear the fact that her first grandchild was living in an orphanage, destined to grow up without blood-related family. She knew in her heart what had happened was no fault of Frances’s or the innocent newborn, so she decided to go to the orphanage and bring the baby back home. Katherine raised the child as if it were her own, referring to Frances as the older sister from that point on.

That baby boy was my father, Joseph Zito.

Since everyone in the Bronx community knew that Katherine had not been pregnant, the family hid him from the neighborhood. When anyone came to the house, they placed him in a dresser drawer, and as he got bigger, in a closet in the back room. Dad shared that he had vivid memories that never left him of being hidden away when company was over.

To this day, it is still difficult to imagine what that must have felt like for him.

My father’s life was covered in a shroud of shame from day one. Through my own journey of maturity and growth over the years, I came to understand how the spiritual and emotional ties from his life to mine were very real in the need to constantly prove value and self-worth to the outside world.

When Dad was around the age of sixteen, Katherine told him the truth: she was actually his grandmother, and his sister Frances was in fact his mother, just fifteen years older than her son. One of the hardest things for him to understand was that those he believed to be his big sisters and brothers were actually his aunts and uncles. He never suspected anything, so the shock was incredible. As a teenager, my dad had to totally reframe his understanding of family.

I remember when Dad sat me down as a teenager and told me how he came into the world. “Barry, I was born out of wedlock. Although my father had been a war hero, he committed a terrible act with his stepdaughter. Being so young, my mom knew nothing about taking care of a baby, so I was raised by her mother, who was actually my grandmother, and called her Mom the rest of my life.” I recall being surprised at how matter-of-fact Dad made the story sound, as if he was talking about another person’s life. I imagine he must have had to disconnect from the emotions as a way to move forward past the turbulent environment in which he grew up.

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