The Basilone Connection
By Joe Nardini
Jim Basilione trudged off the field after a long day at the ball yard. His team, the Pennsylvania Players – one of the Don Mattingly World Series (DMWS) field of eight, 17-and-under teams – had just absorbed its second defeat in the six-day tournament hosted by Jack Cust Baseball Academy (JCBA) in Flemington, New Jersey. On this day, the Players lost a roller coaster, 17-10 slugfest to the team from Alburquerque, New Mexico.
Their twin losses in the double elimination tournament left the Players with no place to go but home to western PA, which they did after playing a couple of consolation games. Before leaving town, though, Coach Basilone had some unfinished business to attend to.
As fate would have it, Coach Jim, who hails from Springdale, PA, in the southwestern portion of the state, has a strong family link to nearby Raritan, NJ. Bridgewater-Raritan High School is home to John Basilone Field, where the varsity football team plays its home games. John Basilone, the much decorated World War II veteran for whom the field is named, just happens to be Coach Jim’s cousin.
Strangely enough, neither Jim nor anyone else in his family knew of the connection between them and Basilone Field or Raritan, New Jersey prior to the PA Players’ trip to the DMWS. Coach Jim learned about the connection completely by accident. During a Players’ practice for a DMWS game, Tom Gambino, JCBA Executive Director, noticed the Basilone name and inquired with Jim about any relationship that he might have to John.
Gambino, a graduate of Bridgewater High School, described John’s heroism during WWII and how the town of Raritan bestowed recognition on Jim’s cousin. The high school honored John by dedicating the high school football field in his name, and the town of Raritan conducts an annual parade in his memory.
A variety of photo albums and memorabilia capture the story of Marine Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone’s heroism during World War II’s Pacific Campaign. The Raritan Library keeps them all on display in its second floor museum room dedicated to his memory. From the multitude of photographs and newspaper articles about Sergeant John to the stirring renditions of his selfless actions on Guadalcanal and his ultimate sacrifice at Iwo Jima, one cannot avoid the inevitable, emotional reaction to the bravery of one man in uniform.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s address tells the story, succinctly and with evocative imagery:
“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action against enemy Japanese forces, above and beyond the call of duty, while serving with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines in the Lunga area, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands on 24 and 25 of October 1942. While the enemy was hammering the Marines defensive positions, Sgt. Basilone, in charge of 2 sections of heavy machine guns, fought valiantly to check the savage and determined assault. In a fierce frontal attack with the Japanese blasting his guns with grenades and mortar fire, one of Sgt. Basilone’s sections, with its “gun crews,” was put out of action, leaving only two men able to carry on. Moving an extra gun into position, he placed it in action, then, under continual fire, repaired another and personally manned it, gallantly holding his position until replacements arrived. A little later, with ammo critically low and supply lines cut off, Sgt. Basilone, at great risk to his own life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way through hostile lines with urgently needed shells for his gunners, thereby contributing in large measure to the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment. His great personal valor and courageous initiative were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”
No more knowledgeable, Basilone historian exists in Raritan, or anywhere else, for that matter, than John Pacifico. John has served as chairman of the annual parade committee since 1981, the first year that Raritan conducted the parade.
Without embellishment, John tells the Basilone story with the passion of a man who embodies the patriotic heart of America. After twenty-five years of repeating his tale, he clearly tires of hearing from people who fail to comprehend the contribution of servicemen and servicewomen around the world. On the day that I visited with him, John had already granted several interviews during a busy week of preparation for the hallmark parade’s 25th anniversary.
If you look beyond the tradition that John Pacifico has created and maintained, you may discover the two motivations that drive him the most; and, therein, lies another essential connection. In discussing the fact and folklore that underscore the annual Basilone Parade, he reveals an abiding devotion to the men and women who have always fought and died somewhere in this world for our right to live free. In this regard, he wants more than anything to “preserve the memory of what was done, then and now” by American servicemen and servicewomen.
From World War II to present day Iraq, John Pacifico wants us all to know about the sacrifices, the pain and fear, and the remarkable accomplishments of brave Americans fighting in foreign lands. And, surely enough, the organizations that continue in their wake all appear for the parade every year. An event that “started out with one high school band and some Veterans organizations (has grown) into an annual parade with 23 marching bands and over 150 groups.”
A Marine Corps band always leads the parade; and, the annual festivities in 2006 proved different from the previous two dozen in one very special way. With the pride borne of battle scars, service ribbons, and medals of honor remembered, John Pacifico beamed in saying that none other than the elite Marine Corps Band from Quantico, Virginia would lead the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Parade this year.
Leave it to the greatest game on earth, though, to fuel John Pacifico’s other preoccupation. After telling about the historic parade and the bountiful tradition surrounding it, I asked him to talk about is own baseball connection. Typically, as anyone who has played the game will do when asked to reflect on past achievements on the diamond, John’s face lit up with savored recollections.
What some might view as uncharacteristic zeal, John spoke of his background as an infielder for the Raritan Clippers “back in the 40s.” He played shortstop and third base for that team in 1949 when it competed in the Tri-County League. In 1952 he competed on the 7th Army, European Command, champion softball team. He also admits to being “a New York Yankees’ fan since 1936.”
His favorite baseball story involves the weekend trip that he, his cousins, and their wives took to Cooperstown, New York when Joe DiMaggio received his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
As John tells the tale, it was a Saturday evening when he and his cousins ventured into the Oswego Hotel, only to meet several members of the Gas House Cardinals. The famous ball players who gave them autographs included Frankie Fritsch, Cal Hubbard, Buzzy Bavasi, Dazzy Vance, Jumpin’ Joe Dugan, and Bill Terry, “the last National Leaguer to hit .400.” The annual Hall of Fame All-Star Game would take place the following day on Doubleday Field – John does not recall the exact dates. “You can look it up,” he advised.
Oh, and by the way, Bill Terry hit .401 for the New York Giants, the last National League ball player to do so, in 1930. You can look it up.
What happened next, though, John could describe only as “a baseball fan’s dream.” If meeting all those Gas House Cardinals completely by chance proved memorable, then meeting Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio themselves could only classify as improbable. Yet meet them John and his cousins did.
It was not long before “a sea plane landed right there on Oswego Lake, and off stepped Ted Williams, Joe D., and Dan Topping (then owner of the New York Yankees),” says John. “We couldn’t believe our eyes!”
More than the Hall of Game played that year between the Boston Red Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers, in which “Ted Williams hit a home run,” John Pacifico will remember talking with Joe DiMaggio “in the courtyard of the Hall of Fame” and living a dream come true. “We were all winners that trip,” concluded John.
An uplifting event such as the annual Basilone Parade also leaves everyone feeling like a winner, and so it was for Coach Jim Basilone.
Despite a winless record in the DMWS, Jim Basilone emerged from his New Jersey experience a winner. Besides seeing the various tributes to his famous cousin, he saw the satisfaction in his father’s eyes as he delved through the memorabilia at the Raritan Library and reveled in the military pomp and ceremony of the parade.
Jim had hoped to make the trip east with both his Dad and his older brother; however, a business commitment prevented his brother from accompanying them. Still, it was “worth the time and the expense,” just to see his Dad’s pride and interest in all the events celebrating cousin John’s valor in combat. He plans to make the trip again in 2007 and hopes to return then with his brother.
Until then, Jim Basilone will have many memories to cherish from his visit to New Jersey. Beginning with his team’s entry into the first ever Don Mattingly World Series and ending with a triumphant celebration of his cousin’s honored place in American military history, his connection is now made, and New Jersey baseball is certainly better for it.
New Jersey Baseball Magazine looks forward to Jim’s return in 2007. We wish nothing but the best for him, his family, and his ball players during the off-season. When it comes to the connections that he and they all made during a few memorable weeks here in the Garden State, there is, of course, no off-season.