By Doug Halberstadt
Located in the heart of Little Italy in downtown Chicago is the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. Its address is 1431 W. Taylor St. It’s only about an hour-and-a-half drive from almost anywhere in the Rockford area (depending on traffic and construction). It’s the best and closest sports hall of fame to our vicinity.
While visiting there, you’ll find a shrine to some of the greatest athletes in United States history. The 27-year-old museum proudly boasts a collection of sports memorabilia and artifacts that is second to none. The priceless artifacts include Mario Andretti’s Indy 500 race car, Rocky Marciano’s first heavyweight championship belt, Vince Lombardi’s last coat worn as coach of the Green Bay Packers, and swimmer Matt Biondi’s Olympic gold medals.
The hall has more than 200 inductees, including Rockford native Ben Abruzzo. He was born June 9, 1930, in Rockford, and gained fame as the first man to pilot a balloon across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In 1978, Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman set a duration record of 137 hours, 5 minutes and 30 seconds in Double Eagle II — the first balloon to cross the Atlantic.
Four years later, Abruzzo piloted Double Eagle V across the Pacific from Nagashimi, Japan, to Mendocino National Forest in California. It was the first balloon to cross the Pacific, and set a distance record of 5,768 miles. That same year, President Ronald Reagan awarded a special gold medal to Abruzzo — along with Anderson and Newman — for their accomplishments.
Abruzzo was killed in a plane crash in 1985. He was elected to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 1988.
So, whether you’re interested in baseball, hockey, football, boxing, motor sports or even hot air ballooning, the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame has something for everyone.
For information about hours of operation and ticket prices, contact their office at (312) 226-5566.
Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the June 26-July 2, 2013, issue