Dante Benedetti looks at photos of Joe DiMaggio with Babe Ruth on the wall of his restaurant New Pisa in the North Beach section of San Francisco on March 8, 1998, the day DiMaggio died. Benedetti, who played baseball with DiMaggio as a child, recalled DiMaggio was "always picked first for teams," and that he was "the best baseball player that ever lived." (Ben Margo/AP)

Dante Benedetti honored at Italian Athletic Club

Dante Benedetti was a man of his word. He was known for his integrity and ability to motivate young athletes in San Francisco. Over the years, Benedetti mentored hundreds of young men — many of whom he took off the streets and under his wing at his family’s North Beach restaurant, the New Pisa.

On Oct. 30, about 200 people honored Dante Benedetti, who died 10 years ago, during a special dinner at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club. The event was hosted by University of Texas Head Baseball Coach Augie Garrido and Serra High School Head Baseball Coach Craig Gianinno.

“Dante was a source of love, compassion, understanding and inspiration,” said longtime friend Augie Garrido, the winningest coach in baseball history, who has led his teams to five national championships. “He openly shared those qualities with everyone he met. Dante generously sponsored countless numbers of youth and adult league baseball teams in San Francisco. He inspired hundreds of young men — one of whom was me.”

Garrido grew up in Vallejo, in an area he described as “a tough shipyard town.” He dreamed of escaping the only world he knew. A chance meeting happened when Benedetti spotted 16-year-old Garrido playing baseball in Benicia. Benedetti asked the young man if he would be interested in playing for his San Francisco team. Garrido jumped at the opportunity and took the Greyhound bus to North Beach on Friday nights — a journey that took four-and-a-half hours each way.

“It took me a long time because of all the stops,” Garrido recounted. “When I got there, they fed me at the restaurant. I bussed tables for them and slept in a corner booth. On Saturdays, I played in two games and another one on Sundays. Then I would take the bus back to Vallejo. I usually got home about 9:30 p.m.

“Dante saw something in me and he introduced me to a world outside the world I knew,” he added. “He was a kind and gentle coach. In those days, most coaches were very critical and hard on their players. Dante gave me a different perspective. I saw that there was a world outside Vallejo. My story probably represents hundreds of voices who never got to tell Dante how much he affected their lives. In fact, he discovered the DiMaggio brothers. It was he who took the fishing poles out of their hands and encouraged them to try baseball. Joe DiMaggio used to call Dante ‘Mr. Baseball.’”

USF baseball legacy
Young Dante Benedetti attended the University of San Francisco on a boxing scholarship, where he was a three-sport letterman in football, boxing and baseball. After college, Benedetti served in the U.S. Marines and U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. When he returned home after serving his country, he joined his family at the restaurant and began his life’s passion of coaching and sponsoring Bay Area baseball teams.

Benedetti returned to his alma mater in 1962 as the coach of USF’s varsity baseball team. He completely revamped the college’s baseball program while accepting a mere $1 salary a year for 16 years. The team went on to achieve the best WCAC record in 34 years. During his tenure as head coach, he accumulated 273 career wins. In 1972, Benedetti was inducted into the USF Hall of Fame. Eight years later, the school’s baseball diamond was named in his honor.

“At USF, Dante demonstrated his knowledge, leadership, generosity, kindness, passion and the love that he gave unconditionally to his players and people who knew him,” Garrido said.

A brand new bronze plaque from the October event will soon have a new home on the USF campus.

“Dante has been a wonderful role model for me and for so many others,” said USF Head Baseball Coach Nino Giarratano. “He inspired so many lives to do the same here in San Francisco. He was a special coach and a special person. The greatest gift I got from Dante was seeing the character he built in his former players. Dante means the world to USF. He’s synonymous with baseball and with the mission of the university.”

Spirit of generosity
Benedetti’s spirit of generosity lives on.

According to his daughter, Sandy Luna, “My dad believed that being on a team was a metaphor for life. His players learned the responsibility of working together for the greater good. They learned how to accept their mistakes and move forward with self-discipline. My father passed away in 2005. In 2006, the San Francisco Giants honored him at AT&T Park. He influenced so many lives.”

Luna remembers growing up in the 1960s during a time when the music scene exploded and creativity flourished in San Francisco. North Beach was a bustling artists’ haven. Restaurants hosted eclectic groups of guests who enjoyed hearty menus and elegant surroundings.

“My sister, Claudia, and I were incredibly lucky to grow up when we did,” Luna said. “We were surrounded in the restaurant by poets, opera singers, artists and musicians. My mom [Florence] and dad gave us an extraordinary childhood. Those were the days when businessmen took three-hour lunches in North Beach. Our restaurant was filled with those businessmen, artists and Italians from the neighborhood.”
Benedetti pulled himself up by his bootstraps to provide a good life for his family. When he was a teenager, he was expelled from two public schools for fighting. His pivotal moment occurred when a mentor at the Boys’ Club, George O’Malley, asked the Jesuits at Saint Ignatius High School to take a chance on the young man. Not only did Benedetti finish high school, he was the first person in his family to graduate from college.

“Because of that, my dad always gave people second chances,” Luna explained. “He never turned anyone away. If people came into the restaurant with no money, my dad fed them. I grew up watching him pull out a roll of cash and peel off a $20 bill for someone in need. He knew what could happen when a person sees that someone believes in him.”

Gianinno said that Benedetti’s legacy inspires him to be a better teacher, coach, and most important, a better person.
“The event was a perfect testament to my father’s generous spirit,” Luna said. “Craig and Augie couldn’t have honored him in a better way.”

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