"There was also a grenade throwing contest and the winner chucked an explosive device 281 and ½ feet, although that wasn’t a Constantino."
One Monday night a couple of months ago, my cousin Jimmy Miele gathered members of the Constantino family on a Zoom call to tell us that he was selling his house to developers, who would knock it down to build new housing units on the property.
If you’re wondering why a family Zoom had to be called to announce this and what an article like this is doing on a baseball history website, well, those are certainly fair questions.
This house and the property attached have over 100 years of history behind them and baseball plays a large role in that history.
It all started in 1904 when an apartment complex was built at 136 Heckel Street in Belleville, New Jersey. Legend has it that it was the first house on the block with running water, which supported a bakery run by a fellow named Rocco Constantine, according to the 1910 census.
Rocco was born in 1856 in Perugia, Italy and came to America in 1879, establishing the Constantino family in Newark as part of approximately four million Italian immigrants who settled in the area prior to the Great Depression. That dude was my great grandfather.
Rocco had a son named James and as far as we can tell, he was the first baseball player in our family. James learned baking skills from his dad and became known as Jimmy the Baker.
When the Constantinos moved to 136 Heckel Street sometime around 1909, that began a run of over 100 years in which the Constantino family owned the property between Heckel and Lake Streets in Belleville that will be coming to an end later this summer.
The bakery is long gone, but the main three-story apartment building is still there. It’s the house where my father, his siblings and many relatives lived. Aunt Jean, Jimmy the Baker’s youngest daughter, still lived there when she passed away in April at the age of 93.
The backyard at 136 Heckel Street used to be a chicken farm and stretched across to the next block, which is now Lake Street.
In the 1950s, the Constantino family got together to build a house at the back end of the property on 9 Lake Street. The house was going to be for James’ daughter Mildred, her husband Ralph, and their kids, Marcia and Jimmy.
What it really turned into was family headquarters for good parties, good meals, and good company.
The chicken farm was eventually paved and used as a lot for parking, gatherings, and sports. There was a basketball rim in the middle of the lot for as long as I can remember and it wasn’t just used for basketball. It was second base during Wiffle Ball games and a landmark when running routes while throwing a football around.
But, as promised earlier, there is a significant connection to baseball on this property.
Jimmy the Baker was a baseball star in the early part of the 20th century. He is my grandfather on my father’s side, and I have a framed photo of him in my office playing baseball in 1919. Something about the way he’s batting in the blurry photo reminds me of a righty Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Players from a local sandlot game in Belleville, New Jersey. James Constantino, upper left, was a standout baseball player in the early part of the 20th century.
James was born in 1897 in Newark and he served in the Army during World War I. This is when the first documented ties between the Constantinos and the sport of baseball can be traced to. In the book Our Days in France, there is a picture of the “Base Ball Team” featuring James Constantino. He is also mentioned on page 16 for his accomplishments on the field. In a narrative talking about a baseball game played on the 4th of July in 1918 in Colombes, France, James Constantino won $5 for hitting the game’s first triple and scored another $5 for turning the first double play.
There was also a grenade throwing contest and the winner chucked an explosive device 281 and ½ feet, although that wasn’t a Constantino.
James returned to Belleville from the war where he continued to play baseball. He married Gloria Bocchicchio, also of Belleville. They started a family in 1924 and had their first child, Mildred. Their second child was also a girl, Lucille, and that’s where the baseball stories continue.
From all accounts, as great a baseball player as James was, his daughter Lucille was even better. One of the kids in the neighborhood was Nicholas Cancelliere and 70 years later, I was working in the Cancelliere family metal shop in Belleville when Lucille passed away. Mr. Cancelliere told me they used to lie to Lucille about where their neighborhood football games would be played because she was too rough for the boys.
Lucille grew up on 136 Heckel Street and followed her father into the military. She became a staff sergeant in the Air Force and played on the baseball team.
In 1952, reporters showed up to Heckel Street to do a feature story on this female baseball marvel and the article provided insight into the way she played the game and the reaction of those who saw her play.
“They wanted me to wear lipstick and didn’t permit wearing slacks… They even had chaperones and bed checks. It was worse than the Army.” – Lucille Constantino, 1952.
Described as a “petite, attractive brunette when wearing feminine apparel,” her style of play was described as a smooth fielder, and a vicious slider who hits hard and runs like a doe. She played second base for the Roslyn Rockets Men’s Softball Team on Long Island because the women’s teams she played for didn’t match her competition level.
In her words, “The fellows don’t mind me. [They’re] satisfied with my ability, they think I’m good for morale. [Having me on the team] cuts down on swearing.”
If you’re putting together the timeline, you may realize Lucille’s success came right around the time of Max Carey’s All-American Girls Baseball League. Lucille was offered a contract to play in the league but declined.
“They wanted me to wear lipstick and didn’t permit wearing slacks,” said Lucille in the 1952 article. “They even had chaperones and bed checks. It was worse than the Army.”
Today’s “Women in Baseball” movement is great, but Lucille had everyone beat by more than 70 years.
Lucille once wrote a letter to the Yankees asking for a tryout and received a written response saying the Yankees do not permit women to play in their organization.
James and Gloria had twin boys in 1932, my father Rocco and Canio. The two of them were baseball nuts. In 1943, Canio contracted rheumatic fever while living on Heckel Street and spent the better part of three years hospitalized. He passed the time by making baseball scrapbooks from newspapers. He’d scour the newspapers, follow the stats closely, and cut out photos of players from newspapers to make his own All-Star teams.
Lucille Constantino (third from right) with her women's baseball team in the 1940s.
You may be cool, but you're not Lucille Constantino cool.
Years later, he would own Kenny’s Corner in the Silver Lake section of Belleville, and we’d stop there for baseball cards and stickers on our way to hang out on Lake Street. Canio, known to most as The Duke, was as big a baseball fan as you could find. He saw everyone from DiMaggio to Jeter and was present for both David Wells’ and David Cone’s perfect games! Canio is my godfather. When it came time for my Catholic confirmation, all of my friends got a traditional gold chain with a crucifix. The Duke got me a chain with a gold Mets logo instead.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Back to the feature article from 1952 about Lucille. In the article, her style of play was compared to that of Phil Rizzuto. And wouldn’t you know it, the Hall of Fame Yankee legend has a very important connection to the Constantino Compound in Belleville as well.
Jimmy the Baker’s sister Josephine also lived there. Josephine Constantino married Charles Cozzarella, who was a Navy Seabee in World War II. He served with Rizzuto in the Navy during the war and the two became Navy buddies. Soon, the group of four friends included Charles, Phil, Josephine, and a woman named Cora Esselborn. If you know anything about Phil Rizzuto, you know how that story between Phil and Cora ended up.
Rizzuto and Esselborn dated and ultimately wanted to marry, and Cora wanted to convert to Catholicism before the wedding. It was Josephine who served as Cora’s sponsor for conversion so that Phil and Cora Rizzuto could have a Catholic wedding.
In November of 1942, Phil and Charles had their first leave from the Navy and as part of it, Phil and Cora visited Heckel Street in Belleville to catch up. As luck would have it, our family was always big with photography, so a camera was present and we still have those original photos from that day, over 80 years later.
The next generation of Constantinos was my generation, and we continued our love of baseball and kept the connections to baseball on Heckel Street and Lake Street alive.
Photos of Charles and Josephine (Constantino) Cozzarella with Phil and Cora Rizzuto. Phil and Charles served in the Navy together during Wolrd War II and these photos come from a visit they had on leave in November of 1942.
Jim Miele takes a swing for the Belleville High School baseball team.
In the 1980s, Constantino cousins Jimmy Miele, Patrick Barbone, Ken Constantino, and Toby Tobin were the “core four” of a stellar championship softball team that would draw our entire family out to root them on. Afterwards, we’d return to the same yard where Phil Rizzuto had once stood to have coffee, Italian desserts, and Lucky Strikes. Patrick’s sister Gloria was a fantastic softball player as well, and another athlete who was ahead of her time.
For me, I was just starting my baseball career at the time and developing a love of the sport. Although I spent the first few years of my life living on Heckel Street, we eventually moved across town. We would still be in the Heckel Street yard on most summer nights though, especially after softball games. My brothers Dan and James and I would bring our gloves, ready to play catch or throw a tennis ball off the garage wall to practice grounders.
My sister Gloria participated to a lesser extent, but grabbed an iconic place in Constantino home video lore when my dad captured her on film whacking my brother Dan with a bat because he wouldn’t let her take a turn at the plate. My other sister Jen was too young to play with us then, but went on to a solid career on the Belleville High School championship softball team.
Personally, the most vivid baseball memory of my childhood at the Constantino Compound came on August 18, 1983. I was nine years old and my father had taken me to Yankee Stadium a few weeks earlier, on July 24. That game turned out to be the Pine Tar Game and although there are many who claim to have been there, I can say with absolute certainty that I was there – sitting in the front row of the upper deck on the first base side with my dad and our neighbors, watching the craziness.
The continuation of the game happened on August 18, and I woke up that summer day expecting to go to the make-up game. With the game scheduled to start at 6:00 PM, I spent the whole day begging and crying to go to Yankee Stadium. My father wasn’t about to drive to The Bronx for an inning of baseball, so like most any other summer night, we spent that evening on Lake Street listening on the radio as I sat there fuming mad that we weren’t at Yankee Stadium in person.
I still say I was right to want to go.
Canio ``The Duke`` Constantino, at David Wells' perfect game in 1998.
When the Constantinos gather for one last celebration this June, it will be the end of an era. Most around the neighborhood will notice the changing landscape when the house on 9 Lake Street is razed and new houses are built for new families to make memories there. Not many will recognize the baseball history that has happened on that land, though.
It started when Rocco and Carmela Constantine moved from Newark to Belleville and continued on with their son, Jimmy the Baker, a World War I veteran who could really play ball. It was carried on through the accomplishments of Lucille and the unconditional love of baseball of my father Rocco and his twin brother Canio.
The next generation continued its success. Canio’s son Kenneth was the starting shortstop on Belleville High School’s only county championship team in 1981 and Jimmy Miele played baseball and football at Upsala College. My own baseball mountaintop came in 1986 as the ace pitcher on the Farm League Champion Indians—with BallNine’s EIC Chris Vitali calling the shots behind the plate.
The fourth generation is still making their mark, and are baseball fans too. Kenneth is just as proud of his daughter Krystyna’s one year as a catcher in youth softball as he is of his county championship.
When I think about it, a photo of Krystyna and son Nickolas fully decked out in Yankee apparel at Fenway Park as youngsters might be what he is most proud of.
Among the youngest Constantinos are Daniel and Julianna, who are six and four, respectively, and just starting their tee ball careers. Rocco Lopez, the fourth person to carry on that family name, is two and is already chucking the ball around the house.
At BallNine we always say baseball is a sport that links generations. Sometime in the early 20th century, Jimmy the Baker put on a uniform and grabbed his glove for the first time in the lot between 136 Heckel Street and 9 Lake Street in Belleville, NJ. For over a century, the love of baseball has stuck with our family and even if our time on Heckel and Lake Streets is coming to an end, the love of baseball will likely continue with us for another 100 years.
Julianna Lopez during her first tee ball season in Nutley, NJ this spring. She's part of the fourth generation of Constantino baseball players.