Will the real Carmen Fanzone please stand up?

Around the horn with the ex-Cub utility player

“Cardboard Gods” author Josh Wilker humorously questioned the existence of Carmen Fanzone, suggesting on his blog that someone out there was playing a joke on us all. As “proof” he pointed to Fanzone’s Topps baseball cards and the later card of a strikingly similar-looking thick-mustachioed player wearing a Mets uniform with a “vaguely fake-sounding alias of Craig Swan.”

Eventually, Wilker made the case that the elaborate ruse had been carried out by “a comedic saboteur named Don Novello,” who was “gaining notoriety for his Saturday Night Live character Father Guido Sarducci.” Novello, Wilker wrote, “pushed his Sarducci characterization beyond the limits of fiction by getting arrested at the Vatican in 1981 for impersonating a priest.” However, as Wilker noted, “For some reason, no inquiry was made at the time of the arrest into any other possible past impersonations, and the strange case of Carmen Fanzone aka Craig Swan was never solved.”

Admittedly, there are times that I have questioned my own childhood memories. I still have those same baseball cards of which Wilker questioned their authenticity. You look at that name and that mustache, and the inclination is to think: No, it’s all fake. But then I have the baseball that is signed by several of the 1974 Cubs, and there it is, plain as day, the name: Carmen Fanzone.

By most credible accounts, Carmen Fanzone did indeed really exist, and still does.

According to Wikipedia, he was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 30, 1941, which would make him 72 years old now. Intriguingly, August 30 is also International Day of the Disappeared, which would seem to play well into the Wilker imposter theory.

The versatile and effective utility man came to the Cubs before the 1971 season, after his rookie season during which he hit .200 (3-for-15) in 10 games for the Boston Red Sox. The Cubs swapped him for veteran utility infielder, Phil Gagliano.

Fanzone, who had spent nearly seven seasons toiling in the minors, raised the hopes of all Cubs fans when he homered in his first at-bat for the team after getting the call late in the 1971 season. Unfortunately, that was one of the few highlights of his playing career. While he was strong with the glove, he was weak with the bat. During his four-year career with Chicago, he appeared in 227 games, mostly in pinch-hit duties, posting a career .224 average with 20 home runs and 94 RBI. His most productive season came with the 1972 Cubs, when he posted career-numbers in games (86), home runs (8), RBI (42) and runs (26). The team let him go after his average dipped to .190 in the 1974 season. He never returned to the majors.

His playing days, however, weren’t over just yet – at least not off the field. When his baseball career ended, Fanzone turned to his other passion: music.
If you were a Cubs fan in the early seventies, you might recall that Fanzone entertained musically as well. A trained horn player, he occasionally brought out his trumpet to perform the national anthem before Cubs games. After day games in Chicago, he frequently could be found playing gigs in the city’s nightclubs.

Leaving behind his bat and glove, Fanzone took his trumpet to Southern California, where he started a jazz music career, which included stints as trumpeter for the Baja Marimba Band. He also married jazz vocalist Sue Raney, a four-time Grammy Award nominee.

In a 2011 article in the Los Angeles Times, the baseball player-turned-jazz musician looked back at his two careers. “Possibly if I didn’t have baseball to think about half the time,” he says, “maybe I would have done more musically. But I have no regrets. Being a ballplayer, it was a great tradeoff.”

The Detroit native did have a fictional life, of sorts. The co-story editor of the television program Transformers Animated, Marty Isenberg, named a character Carmine Fanzone in tribute to his former Detroit neighbor, Carmen Fanzone. In the series, Carmine Fanzone is not a musician or baseball player – or even a priest; he’s a captain in the Detroit Police Department. Still, the real Carmen Fanzone, who doesn’t look or sound anything like the Animated one, had to sign a waiver before the character’s name could be used.

Randy Richardson is the author of CHEESELAND. An all-new edition of his Wrigleyville murder mystery, LOST IN THE IVY, was released by Eckhartz Press on Opening Day.