WWII veteran shares his experience, wisdom after trying out for Cubs days before drafted

Posted at 6:17 PM, Nov 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-10 18:17:55-05

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- Tony Gianunzio is a beloved retired teacher, author, and semi-pro pitcher who was drafted to serve in World War II just days after returning home to Iron Mountain. He had just finished a promising tryout pitching with the Chicago Cubs.

Now Gianunzio, 94, is working on his latest writing, after publishing "The Last Romantic War" in 2013, a memoire of his nearly four years of U.S. Coast Guard service during WWII. Gianunzio lives near Kalamazoo with his wife, Caroline.

“See, I’ve never known that I’ve been old, ever," he said. "What for?”

For Gianunzio, his time at sea and port opened his eyes to the world, traveling to countries like Bora Bora, taking solace in his few moments of freedom walking into the horizon there.

“I did see a lot," said Gianunzio. "We were something like 55,000 miles at sea. That’s a long way, you know more than twice around the world doing convoys, submarine patrols.”

Sharing his life's work as a retired advanced placement literature and composition high school teacher and semi-pro pitcher, Gianunzio recalled what it felt like to take the mound.

“Throw it crossfire just like a fastball, there was so much spin on it that it would start at the knees and break off to the other side," he said. "Nobody ever hit me, I never lost a game.”

Gianunzio was only days from making it to the professionals, after pitching at promising tryouts for the Cubs when he was 19.

“I got a letter from the Cubs that very week saying due to the lowering of the draft age take care of yourself, see us after the war," he said. "It was as simple as that.”

Pitching, however, is a skill he has held onto.

“I would throw the sinker ball over like this, just flat like this," he said, showing FOX 17 his grip on the baseball. "I’d get these four threads coming this way.”

Now his story is featured in a film alongside two veterans from Grand Rapids: Virgil Westdale and Ralph Hauensten.  The men are featured in the West Michigan documentary filmmaker Daniel Deal's film, "A Salute to Honor." The film has been featured in at least eight film festivals at this point, and will be shown during a free showing Sunday, Nov. 13 at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans at 1 p.m.

See the Facebook page for "A Salute to Honor" here. Also see its IMDB page here.

And during the filming of "A Salute to Honor," Gianunzio received a surprise of a lifetime. The filmmaker reached out to the Cubs then told him on camera, "They are offering you a chance to throw a out a pitch in Wrigley Field." You can only imagine Gianunzio's response: “Actually?! Oh my God, yes I would. You see the tears in my eyes? Ha! Oh God.”

May 31, 2016 was a pitch decades in the making. The Cubs played last year's World Series' champs, the Kansas City Royals.

“It was like going to some other world and saying we know you didn’t get a chance, we’re going to give you a chance up here, okay?" said Gianunzio. "That was the world.”

And though he laughs now saying that pitch doesn't live up to his standards, he cherishes it.

“Gosh, I didn’t want this to hurry, I wanted to feel every step, and I felt - it seemed to me - every soft blade of grass," said Gianunzio. "That infield was beautiful. I would have never have made an error on it! It was so nice and comfortable to me.”

As he continues to write and move onto his next adventure, Gianunzio shares this:

“Keep your emotional health," said Gianunzio. "Don’t be flirting with anger, or jealousy, envy, fear; that’s what wrecks you. Realize you’re not king of the universe and you better create your identity.”

Watch FOX 17 Saturday, Nov. 12 at 6 p.m. for an hour-long special honoring veterans and sharing their stories.