Obituary: Vito Valentinetti (1928-2021)

RIP to Vito Valentinetti, who pitched for five different major-league teams in the 1950s. He died in his home on August 5, with his wife, Mary Ann, and several of his children with him. He was 92 years old. Valentinetti played for the Chicago White Sox (1954), Chicago Cubs (1956-57), Cleveland Indians (1957), Detroit Tigers (1958) and Washington Senators (1958-59).

Vito John Valentinetti was born on September 16, 1928, in West New York, N.J. He was the sixth of seventh children to Giuseppe and Antoinette Valentinetti. His father was a barber and also was a tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. He grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx and went to Aviation High School in Queens. One of Valentinetti’s classmates and baseball teammates at the school was future Hall of Famer Whitey Ford. In 1947, Valentinetti graduated to Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and he immediately joined the starting rotation of the baseball team. He would eventually be inducted into the school’s Arrigoni Hall of Fame for his heroics.

“As a hard-throwing pitcher Vito Valentinetti set the standard for all future baseball players at Iona,” the school wrote about him. “The Mount Vernon resident led the Gaels to winning seasons in every one of his varsity years.”

Source: Fort Worth Star Telegram, March 31, 1958.

Valentinetti threw the first no-hitter in Iona’s history, shutting down Adelphi 6-1 on April 22, 1949. He had a perfect game until three errors in the seventh inning led to an unearned run. Throughout his college pitching career, he only lost 3 games.

The Chicago White Sox signed Valentinetti on June 6, 1950, and assigned him to Waterloo of the Three-I League. He gave up a couple of long balls in his first appearances, but he settled down over the course of the summer and won 12 games. The following year, he moved up to the Class-B Colorado Springs Sky Sox and threw a 1-hitter against Lincoln, 10-1. A seventh-inning triple was the only hit he allowed. He brought a 3-2 record and 3.24 ERA into August when he was called into the Army.

Valentinetti was out of organized baseball until 1954. He still played ball with the Fort Jackson Golden Arrows and averaged about a strikeout an inning. He also threw a 6-0 perfect game against the Camp LeJeune Marines in 1952. He returned to New York City in late 1953 and joined the White Sox in their spring training camp in Tampa. Manager Paul Richards was looking for some of the team’s young pitchers to step up for 1954. Valentinetti didn’t get the chance to go north with the team and headed to the Memphis Chickasaws instead. But he did get brought to the majors to make his major-league debut against the New York Yankees on June 20.

The Sox were already losing 10-6 when Valentinetti was brought into the game in the ninth inning. He got the first batter, Johnny Sain, to hit a pop fly to second base. Then the floodgates opened. Phil Rizzuto walked. Irv Noren doubled. Mickey Mantle walked. Yogi Berra hit a bases-clearing triple. Gene Woodling hit an RBI single. Joe Collins belted a 2-run homer. Finally, Bobby Brown struck out and Jerry Coleman popped to the catcher. But 6 runs came home, leaving Valentinetti with a 54.00 ERA. He was sent back to Memphis a couple of weeks later for what would be his only stint with the White Sox.

“I had spent 40 straight days throwing batting practice,” Valentinetti later said of his disastrous debut. “One day in Chicago it seems [manager Paul] Richards ran out of pitchers. We were losing by [four] runs so he put me in for the final inning… The next day I was back in Memphis.” He joked that at least he ended up leading the American League… for the highest ERA.

Valentinetti spent all of 1955 with the Charleston Senators of the American Association. He struggled to a 9-15 record there with a 4.46 ERA. After the season, he was purchased from the Senators by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who lost him about a month later to the Chicago Cubs in the annual minor-league draft — an early version of today’s Rule V Draft.

The Cubs kept Valentinetti on the roster for the entire 1956 season and even gave him his first big-league start on July 5. He only lasted 4-2/3 innings, through no fault of his own. He had shut out the Braves to that point on three hits when he uncorked a wild pitch with Wes Covington on third base. Valentinetti raced home to make the play at the plate and was steamrolled by Covington, who was safe. Valentinetti injured a ligament in his knee and had to miss almost three weeks. Outside of that painful encounter, he had a pretty successful season, appearing in 42 games, with 6 wins against 4 losses. Between June 8 and June 24, he appeared in 5 games and came away with 4 wins. He worked a total of 16-1/3 innings in that stretch and allowed just 1 earned run on 8 hits. He finished the year with a 3.78 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 95-1/3 innings. It would be the last year of his career that he would spend on one team. from 1957 until the end of his career in 1960, Valentinetti would pick up some frequent flyer miles.

Source: The Huntsville Times, March 25, 1959.

In 1958, Valentinetti started the season with the Cubs and had a 2.25 ERA in 12 innings over 9 games. Then he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers in late May with Jackie Collum for reliever Don Elston. The Dodgers sent him to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, and he was put into the starting rotation. In a relatively short time, he became the team’s winningest pitchers with 9 victories. The Cleveland Indians purchased his contract at the end of August, and he got into 11 games with them. A couple of them were starts; he was knocked out of the first start in the second inning, but the second one was a 2-1 complete game win over the Kansas City A’s and starter Ralph Terry. He finished the season with a 2-2 record and 4.04 over 20 games for the two teams.

Cleveland traded Valentinetti and infielder Milt Bolling to Detroit on March 30, 1958, for pitcher Pete Wojey and $20,000. He was a pretty effective reliever for Detroit, picking up a win against the White Sox on April 21 with a scoreless inning. He also saved two games, but the Tigers didn’t seem to have much use for him in spite of his success. He was sent down to the minors when the team had to cut its roster size to 25 players, much to his surprise — he’d allowed just 3 earned runs in 12 innings of work to that point. He was later brought back to the majors, but the Tigers then sold his contract to the Washington Senators for $20,000 on June 23. The Senators were a dead-last team, and with a distinct lack of starting pitching talent, manager Cookie Lavagetto moved his new pitcher into the starting rotation. Valentinetti struggled in the role, picking up a couple of wins early but losing 4 of his 5 starts in September, with a 5.67 ERA. Valentinetti threw a career-high 114-1/3 innings in 1958, with a 5-6 record in 38 games, including 10 starts. His 4.80 ERA was largely due to his tough final month of the season.

Of course, the Senators being the Senators, even when Valentinetti had a great performance, he still lost. Like his complete game loss against Boston on September 20. “I had a no-hitter for seven innings but lost 2-0 when Jackie Jenson singled through short with the bases loaded,” he recalled. “I gave only two hits [he actually gave up three]. We made three [actually four] and I had two of them.” That last statement was true enough — he was a .321 hitter in 1958.

The Senators also messed with Valentinetti’s pitching mechanics — he started throwing with an overhead motion for the first time in his career. His former three-quarters motion was converted to a more conventional delivery, courtesy of Lavagetto and pitching coach Walter “Boom-Boom” Beck. That helped account for his rough September. “It was like going all through spring training again when Cookie changed me,” Valentinetti said. “My shoulder muscles, the ones I hadn’t been using, tightened up near the end.”

Valentinetti as a batting practice pitcher for the New York Mets. Source: New York Daily News, June 20, 1976.

The decision possibly cost Valentinetti a chance to pitch in his hometown. “I can’t understand what you did to that Vito,” Yankees manager Casey Stengel said to Lavagetto after Valentinetti picked up a win over the Yankees. The pitcher lived about a half-mile from Yankee Stadium, and he would have been a perfect fit there. But that deal never happened, probably because Stengel didn’t approve of the “new” Valentinetti.

Going into 1969, Lavagetto emphasized that he had four starting pitchers — Bill Fischer, Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos and Valentinetti. “He has more syllables than we have starters,” the manager joked. Calvin Griffith, Senators president, also swore that the well-traveled pitcher would not be traded. None of those statements proved to be true. Valentinetti was traded to Baltimore for pitcher Billy Loes on April 1 — about two weeks after Griffith’s promise to keep him. The trade was voided a few days later when medical reports showed that Loes had significant shoulder problems. Valentinetti returned to the Senators, got into 7 games (only one of which was a start) and allowed 12 runs in 10-2/3 innings. Baltimore ended up acquiring Valentinetti anyway; instead of trading for him, the team just bought his contract from Washington. He never returned to the major leagues, but instead spent the rest of 1959 and all of 1960 playing in the minor leagues of the Orioles organization. His last season was in 1960, when the 31-year-old pitched for Portland of the PCL and Miami of the International League. He was traded to Buffalo in the spring of 1961, but he opted to retire at that point.

Over parts of 5 seasons, Valentinetti appeared in 108 games, including 15 starts. He had a 13-14 record, 3 saves and 3 complete games, with a 4.73 ERA. He struck out 94 batters and walked 122, for a WHIP of 1.510. He also won 45 games over 8 seasons in the minor leagues.

According to Valentinetti’s obituary, he pursued more stable jobs to support his family, sometimes working two or three jobs when needed. He and his late wife, Ann, had a total of 10 children. His primary profession was as a purchasing agent for the New York State Supreme Court system, where he worked for more than 30 years before retiring in 1995. He also served as a batting practice pitcher for the New York Mets and, later, the New York Yankees, from the early 1960s into the 1980s. He is survived by his second wife, Mary Ann, and nine of his children.

For more information: Yannantuono Burr Davis Sharpe Funeral Home

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