Upstate N.Y. Sports Lore: Vitti goes from Glovers Park to Hollywood
How do you connect bandleader Tommy Dorsey, Elvis Presley, Paul Newman, Star Trek, Bonanza, Days of our Lives, Jimmie Foxx and Franco Harris to Gloversville Baseball? It is done through a former Gloversville Glover baseball player named Ralph Vitti.
In 1949, 17-year-old Ralph Vitti from Stamford High School in Connecticut was signed by the Boston Braves for $6,000 as a bonus baby.
This was the maximum signing bonus at the time that a Major League team could pay a player without having to put them on their roster for two years.
With today’s much different signing rules, such a signing would equate into a first-round draft pick and a million-dollar signing bonus.
With that bonus, he used $2,500 to purchase his family a brand new four-door Buick with whitewall tires, radio and heater (a big deal for the Vitti Family at that time). He told his parents that he wanted to reserve the remaining money to go to college to study drama in case he got injured playing baseball.
In March of 1950, Vitti arrived to Boston’s spring training site in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina set to compete for a spot in the Braves organization with the hopes of one day playing in the Major Leagues. When the season started, he was assigned to their PONY League affiliate in Olean. At the time the Olean Club had a working relationship with the Braves. After just 13 games with the Olean Club, their relationship with the Braves became strained and they released all four players the Braves had sent them. Vitti was transferred to the Owensboro team in the KITY League, where he finished out the 1950 season. By the end of that season he developed pain in his throwing arm, which would turn out to be a rotator cuff injury.
He began the 1951 season with the Alexander City Club in the GAAL League, but struggled because his sore shoulder was causing him problems throwing. On June 7, he was transferred to Gloversville to play for the Gloversville Glovers club in the Canadian-American League. On that team he joined future Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Famers Loren Stewart, John Coakley and Robert Sise.
As a shortstop, Vitti flashed some impressive leather in the field as he batted .215, with 14 hits in 65 plate appearances for the Glovers. During that time, he also had one double, one triple, stole two bases and was hit by a pitch twice. After 20 games in about as many days (June 8th to June 28th), the Glovers released Vitti in order to bring in two new players.
As he left Glovers Park for the final time, Vitti recalls that he cleaned out his locker and placed five bats in the trunk of his father’s vehicle as he departed.
At the time of his departure, the Glovers had not yet paid him for his services as their shortstop, but he expected that they would be sending him his payment in the mail. When no check had arrived a few weeks later, Vitti called back to Gloversville to inquire as to when he should expect to see his payment ($250 as per his contract). Manager Al Barillari informed him that he had watched him load bats into his trunk when he departed, and that the value of the bats he took were more than the balance that the team owed him. According to Vitti, “three of the bats were mine (I brought with me to Gloversville), and the other two were ‘broken’ and I planned to give them to my nephews.”
To this day, the Glovers have still not paid him for his services. He then signed with the Fayetteville A’s in the Carolina League where he finished out the remaining 23 games of the 1951 season, and then returned home to Connecticut to nurse his sore throwing arm.
With the exception of a successful stint for Hermosillo in the Mexican Coast Winter League between the 1951 and 1952 seasons, the shoulder troubles would cause him to miss the next three regular seasons and eventually have surgery to repair his shoulder in 1954.
The surgery was done by Dr. George E. Bennett, who was the cutting-edge sports doctor who had put pins in Ted Williams’ shoulder when it separated earlier that year. Dr. Bennett’s post-surgery instructions were for him to go to warm climate to allow the shoulder to properly heal, and to start throwing lightly in two months. While the shoulder was healing, Vitti enacted his “back-up plan for the remainder of his 1949 signing bonus” by enrolling at the University of Miami to study Drama. Vitti arrived in Miami for the fall 1954 semester with his sights set on working towards becoming an actor, in the event that his arm did not respond to the operation.
The university had a well-groomed ballpark and Vitti stopped there to introduce himself to the baseball teams head coach to get permission to use the field to work out to strengthen his arm and getting into playing shape.
The head coach of the baseball team was former Green Bay Packer quarterback Perry Moss.
Moss was also the head coach for the football team.
Since Moss was busy that fall coaching the football team, he asked Vitti if he could help him by getting the baseball team ready with some fall workouts. In exchange, Vitti was given full access to the baseball facilities, and a letter of recommendation that encouraged his professors to help him carve out a schedule that would have his courses finished by 1pm so he could work out with the team each afternoon.
That fall, he met major league catcher Mickey Grasso (New York Giants, Washington Senators and Cleveland Indians) who was working at the betting window at the Hollywood Race Track during the off season. Vitti invited Grasso to stop by to help him work out with his catchers and get a head start on his own training for the 1955 season. Grasso took him up on the offer and also brought along big league pitcher Mickey McDermott (Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators, New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals) who was also living in the area during the off season.
Vitti worked with the infielders, Grasso worked with the catchers and McDermott worked out with the Pitchers.
As word got out that all this star power was working out at the local college facility, large crowds started showing up to watch the team’s daily workouts. These workouts also caught the attention of Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, who lived in the area and was a good friend of McDermotts. Foxx stopped by on two occasions to help work with the team’s hitters. The sessions proved to be so successful, that three of the team’s players were offered professional contracts and left the University team to play professionally (before the regular college season started).
During these workouts, Vitti realized that his arm was coming along, but not as strong as he had expected.
While his arm was not ready for the professional level yet, his hitting and fielding skills impressed both Grasso and McDermott, and they called Washington Senators General Manager Calvin Griffith and convinced the organization to give Vitti a spring training invite to try out for the Senators 1955 team.
During this era, Tommy Dorsey was the most well-known bandleader in America and when he played in towns that had professional baseball clubs, he liked to suit up and join in the action for a workout (much like country singer Garth Brooks did several years ago with the San Diego Padres, NY Mets & Kansas City Royals). Through these workouts in Boston, McDermott and Dorsey had become close friends. When Dorsey and his band came through Miami that winter, he and McDermott got together for dinner each night he was not performing. One night McDermott invited Vitti along, and he also developed a friendship with Dorsey. When Dorsey learned of Vitti’s aspirations to become an actor, he offered to use some of his connections at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) in Hollywood to get him a screen test. According to Vitti, Dorsey told him that he felt he had all the attributes that it would take to be successful in Hollywood (tall, handsome, athletic and talented) and that all he needed was experience. He also told him that he had only believed this strongly in one other person that he had helped several years prior, and that person was Frank Sinatra. Dorsey promised Vitti that if his arm did not cooperate at Spring Training and he decided that baseball was over for him, that he would get him a screen test with MGM Studios in April when his band was scheduled to perform in Hollywood at the Pan Pacific Auditorium during the “Home Show.”
On March 1, 1955, he reported to the Senators Spring Training Camp in Orlando along with McDermott, all the returning Senators veterans and a rookie (and future hall of famer) named Harmon Killebrew. It was at this moment that he felt he had finally reached his life-long dream of making it to the big leagues. After watching him for the entire spring training, the Senators liked what they saw in Vitti’s batting, fielding and good hands. When the season started on April 1, they sent him to their AA Club in Chattanooga of the Southern Association to give his arm more time to come around. It was at this same time that Tommy Dorsey was on his way to California and convinced Vitti to leave the team for a few weeks to go join him in Hollywood for the screen test he had arranged with a contact at MGM. Vitti did so well at the screen test that he was immediately put under a seven-year contract with MGM Studios.
His acting career quickly took off and he spent several years under contract with three major studios; MGM, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox. By this time, he decided not to return to baseball and continued to focus solely on acting. The first film that he would appear in would be “Somebody Up There Likes Me” in 1956 with Paul Newman while with MGM. In 1959, while working on his first co-starring role in “Westbound”, he was encouraged by Jack Warner (head of Warner Brothers Studios) to change his name to something with visual marquee value. Warner had suggested a first name of “Michael”, and Vitti chose the last name of “Dante” to keep with his Italian heritage. Hence, “Michael Dante” was born.
His listening to Dorsey to take the “leave of absence from baseball” turned out to be a great move, as he went on to appear in nearly 30 films and more than 150 television shows. According to Dante, less than 1 percent of all actors get the opportunity in their careers to play a title role. He got his when he was cast as Indian Chief Winterhawk in the western film “Winterhawk” in 1975. He also appeared opposite to Elvis Presley in the boxing movie called “Kid Galahad” in 1962. No stuntmen were used and Dante and Elvis did their own fight scenes. In one scene, Elvis actually hit Dante by mistake and bloodied his mouth for real. Other movies he starred in include; Arizona Raiders, Apache Rifles, Westbound, Seven Thieves, and The Naked Kiss. Some of the 150 television shows he appeared in include; Desilu Playhouse, Star Trek (Friday’s Child Episode), Bonanza, Six Million Dollar Man, General Hospital (12 episodes), Days of our Lives (12 episodes), The Fall Guy (2 episodes), Knot’s Landing, My Three Sons, Rin Tin Tin, Perry Mason (2 episodes), Get Smart, Cagney and Lacey, and the Custer Series as Crazy Horse.
In 1976, he competed on an episode of ABC’s “The Superstars” that featured athletes from different sports competing in several sports & skills competitions. That spring, they held a competition consisting of Hollywood actor’s. Dante finished in third place behind Robert Duvall and Kent McCord and took home $6,500. While he had only hit one home run in his entire professional baseball career, he hit 19 in the competition to break football hall of famer Franco Harris’s previous record of 18 set in 1975. The record still stands today. In addition to a successful acting career, Michael always stayed active jogging, and playing softball, golf & tennis. He competed in & hosted many celebrity sports contests in the Hollywood area and across the country to raise funds for various charitable organizations. He also hosted his own radio show in Palm Springs, Calif., called “The Michael Dante Classic Celebrity Talk Show” and the “Michael Dante On Deck with the Legends of Entertainment & Sports.”
Over 300 episodes of both shows aired between 1995 and 2007 and each featured an interview with a movie industry or sports industry celebrity. Some of his guests included; Ed Asner, Christopher Adkins, Pat Boone, Tom Bosley, Ernest Borgnine, Lloyd Bridges, Glen Campbell, Tony Curtis, Phyllis Diller, Bryant Gumbel, Charlton Heston, Martin Kove, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Alan Thicke, Dick Van Patten, Jonathon Winters, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, George Blanda, Dick Butkus, Bert Campaneris, Al Campanis, Bob Feller, Rollie Fingers, Steve Garvey, John Havilcek, Ferguson Jenkins, Harmon Killebrew, Ralph Kiner, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Tommy Lasorda, Gene Mauch, Don Meredith, Don Newcombe, Brooks Robinson, Andy Robustelli, Al Rosen, Enos Slaughter and Jerry West,
Dante recalls that while his dream as a young boy was to be a Major League baseball player, “the good Lord was always guiding me. And what at times seemed like bad breaks, was actually divine intervention leading me to where I needed to be. Life has been very good to me, and it has been a great ride. I owe it all to baseball.” In addition to the nearly 30 movies and more than 150 television shows to his credit, he also was the recipient of the “Golden Boot Award” (the ‘Oscar’ of westerns) in 2003, the “Silver Spur Award” (career achievement in the Western Film Industry) in 2006, and also has a “Sidewalk Star” for lifetime achievement in Film, TV and Radio on the Palm Springs, Calif., Walk of Stars that was dedicated in 1994. In 2011, his hometown of Stamford, Conn., also honored him when they named a street “Michael Dante Way.”
Today, at the age of 85, Michael resides in Rancho Mirage, Calif., with his wife Mary Jane. He makes autograph appearances and does book signings for his book titled “From Hollywood to Michael Dante Way” that was published by BearManor Media in 2013. He owns the sequel rights to the movie “Winterhawk,” and recently wrote both a screenplay and a novella to the film called “Winterhawk’s Land.”
The novella is expected to be published in early 2017, in hopes that it catches the attention of a producer who will use it to create a sequel to the first film using the screenplay or novella he has written. Vitti/Dante is scheduled to be inducted into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports HOF in Aug. 2017 at Parkhurst Field in Gloversville. The induction will take place between innings of a Vintage Baseball Game to be played between the Whately Pioneers of Western Massachusetts and the A., J. & G’s of Fulton County. Vitti/Dante will manage the A., J. & G’s team during the game.
Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organizations website at www.fchof.com or at 725-5565.