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Saturday May 7, 2011

A major-league hit in the classroom

After an astonishing rise to the Detroit Tigers, his real career was in education

It is the spring of 1957. I Love Lucy is in first place in the TV ratings, Dwight Eisenhower is in the White House, and the baseball world is in shock. The top hitter in the game so far this season isn't Ted Williams or Willie Mays or Stan Musial. No, the player whose batting average is flirting with the mythical .400 mark is a 22-year-old from Windsor named Reno Bertoia, the third baseman for the Detroit Tigers.

"I don't think I'm doing anything different from last year," a happy, bewildered Bertoia told The Globe in May, 1957. "Jack [Tighe, the Tigers' manager] gave me a chance to play, a few hits dropped in, then a couple of lucky ones, and I suddenly had confidence. I guess that's about the only difference. I have confidence."

He also has a second calling, one which no newspaper articles of the time mention: Even as he's dominating major-league pitching, Bertoia is spending his off-field hours pursuing a BA at Assumption University in Windsor, with an eye at one day becoming a teacher.

"He knew he wouldn't be playing baseball forever," remembers one of his daughters, Ruth Bertoia. "You're going to prepare before, so you don't have that moment where you think, 'What am I going to do next?' He always knew what he was going to do next."

While it might seem unusual for a 22-year-old sports star to be spending his spare time at the library, instead of the bar, Bertoia's passion for education burned brightly throughout his life. It was why he studied the game relentlessly, it was why he prepared early for the next stage of his life. Most of all, it is why generations of Windsor students today remember him fondly standing at the front of a classroom, not in the middle of a baseball diamond.

Reno Peter Bertoia was born on Jan. 8, 1935, in St. Vito Udine, Italy. When he was 22 months old, his parents, Libero and Rina, moved to Windsor, at the time perhaps the only city in Canada where baseball challenged hockey for sporting supremacy. The local kids all adored the Detroit Tigers, whose games were just a short bus ride across the river, and Bertoia shared that devotion. Against improbable odds, his next-door neighbour happened to be Hank Biasatti, another Italian-born Canadian who played in the major leagues. Biasatti, who gave the younger Bertoia his old baseball gloves, also gave him a living, breathing idol: Proof that a dream of playing professional baseball could come true.

Even though he didn't play organized ball until he was 13, Bertoia's skill and diligence were apparent to everyone, and soon he was scooping up offers from teams throughout Windsor and Detroit like he scooped up groundballs. What impressed them were not only his natural-born skills, but his desire to continually improve them, to educate himself on the field.

"He was very disciplined," Ruth says. "He had high expectations all around. He knew his game, he knew all the strategies, he would always try to teach the strategies. He'd always say skills were important. He would often try to give me a lesson, these are the strategies and tools you need in baseball, and they'd actually transfer into real life."

Even at a remove of 60 years, his rise to the majors is astonishing. In August, 1953, he was named the top teenage player in the Detroit area, and travelled to New York to play in an all-star game featuring the best young players on the continent. Only a month after that, and only five years after playing his first organized game, Bertoia made his major-league debut.

It was on Sept. 22, 1953, that 18-year-old Reno Bertoia stepped into a major-league batters box for the first time. The baseball gods must have been in a mischievous mood that day, for Bertoia was not making his debut against just any pitcher, but against one of the all-time greats, the unstoppable train that was Satchel Paige, at 47 the oldest player in the majors. There was no more dramatic way to show Bertoia he wasn't playing against teenagers any longer. The fact he quickly struck out must have reassured him of the wisdom of an uncommon clause in his contract.

Whereas most deals involved nothing but cash, Bertoia got the Tigers to agree they would pay for his postsecondary education. He worked the other end of the dream, too: He got dispensation from the university to do exams and other work at times allowed by his major-league schedule. (And, like all good Italian boys, he thought of his mother: Another clause in his contract had the Tigers pay for a trip back to Italy so she could visit her family.)

For the next few years, Bertoia played for the Tigers while also working towards his BA, which he got in 1958. Although he still had several years of major-league ball ahead of him, he was now ready for his second career of teaching. In fact, during the off-season, he started serving as a substitute teacher. After playing his final game in 1962, he slid easily into what would become a three-decade career in the Windsor Catholic school system. It was here, his family feels, where he made his biggest impact.

"His legacy was teaching," Ruth says. "He only played baseball for 10 years; he was a teacher for 30. He always said baseball was just a small part of who he was."

His passion for education proved to be contagious. Ruth has been touched by the number of his former students, many of them strangers to her, who have told her recently how having her father as a teacher inspired them to become teachers themselves. It affected his home life, too: All three of his children went into teaching.

Yet he never completely left baseball behind. He continued to follow the Tigers, and was honoured with induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988. In 2007, he was invited on a trip to Italy as a guest of honour for an Italian pro-league game, throwing out the first pitch.

One of the inevitable factors of high-profile athletic success is that it tends to overshadow other aspects of a person's life. The headlines of all Bertoia's obituaries say "former Tiger," but Ruth dismisses the suggestion that this must be frustrating.

"He would just say, baseball opened a lot of doors. It gave him a lot of opportunity," she says. "So that's a blessing, it's not a frustration. But it doesn't define who he is. 'Reno Bertoia the baseball player' doesn't define him well. If you said he was a well-rounded athlete, a humble man, a passionate teacher, I would say all of those would be more defining of him."

Bertoia died of lymphoma on April 15.

He leaves his wife, Joan, children Carl, Gina and Ruth and stepchildren Beth, Jennifer and Christopher.

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