A wake is planned Thursday for George Randazzo, founder of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.
Mr. Randazzo, 77, who lived in Bloomingdale, died Sunday, according to the organization.
“He built a national museum headquartered in Chicago, which was a source of great pride to the Italian-American community,” said Robert V. Allegrini, founder of Golden Wings Communications.
“I would consider him a leader in the Italian American community some 40-plus years,” said Louis H. Rago, president of the Italian American Human Relations Foundation of Chicago. His institution “gave our youth something to look up to and be proud of.”
The hall of fame told stories of the Italian-American experience, according to Dominic Candeloro, historian and curator at Casa Italia in Stone Park. “Sports has been a way of Italian Americans ‘Americanizing’ and gaining acceptance and fitting in,” Candeloro said.
Mr. Randazzo, who was a buyer for Motorola before opening the hall of fame, used to marvel at its modest beginnings. “This started with a scrapbook of Italian American boxers 10 years ago,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1987.
It was first located in Elmwood Park. President Jimmy Carter spoke at its 1980 induction ceremony.
In 1988, the organization moved to Arlington Heights. In addition to heavyweight boxer Rocky Marciano’s championship belt, its memorabilia grew to include Olympian Matt Biondi’s swimming medals and a coat worn by Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
“They had Mario Andretti’s [race] car displayed vertically against a wall,” Candeloro said.
After an ambitious 2000 move to a new facility in the Italian American Taylor Street neighborhood, the hall of fame faced financial troubles. It closed in December. Its website says it will reopen later this year in Rosemont.
The board of directors is planning to meet next week to discuss its future, according to Enrico Mirabelli, the hall’s general counsel, and board chairman Tony Ferraro. Its memorabilia is in storage pending the planned move to Rosemont, Ferraro said.
“Without George, it leaves a large hole in the organization, as you would expect when a founder dies,” said Mirabelli, who said the board is in “very serious discussions” with Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens about a new home. “We’ve lost our founder, but the mission and what we stand for is still alive and well.”
Mr. Randazzo was passionate and persuasive, Allegrini said, pointing to his wooing of a U.S. Olympic figure-skating gold medalist. “He enticed Brian Boitano to give [his] medals” to the museum, Allegrini said.
He said New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio made one of his final public appearances at a Chicago banquet for the hall of fame.
“He was very close to DiMaggio, and he was close to Muhammad Ali,” Allegrini said of Mr. Randazzo.
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda “would come out all the time,’’ Candeloro said.
In an interview in 2006, Mr. Randazzo recalled working to get Lasorda a late-night pizza delivery — a request from nightclub impresario Nick Caruso.
“Around 9:30 on a Sunday night, I get a call from Nick,” he said. “He asked me to pick up 10 large pizzas and get them to O’Hare. He said, ‘You gotta do this, or Tommy is going to be mad at me.’ I had no idea where to get 10 pizzas.”
Mr. Randazzo got the pizzas and raced to the airport.
“I’m met by a security guard, and I’m almost pulling out on the runway when the Dodgers plane comes in,” he said. “They land, and, when the door opens, Nick is the first guy I see. Then, who steps by Nick but [Dodgers star] Steve Garvey. He sees me with all the pizzas on the hood of my car and throws his hands up in disgust.”
Mr. Randazzo’s delivery service had cost the Dodgers great. Caruso and Lasorda bet Garvey that pizzas would be waiting on the runway when the Dodgers landed.
More than 270 people have been inducted into the hall of fame, which recently announced that mixed martial artist Gina Carano — a star of the 2016 movie “Deadpool” — and her father Glenn, a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, would be the first father-daughter members. She was inducted last year. Her father is to be in November, Ferraro said.
Mr. Randazzo grew up near Humboldt Park. His parents, Vincent and Marie Tuccarello Randazzo, were from Sciacca, Sicily. His father worked for Victor Manufacturing & Gasket Co., according to his friend Gary Hall. Young George attended Marshall High School on the West Side and Wright Junior College. He served in combat in Vietnam.
He is survived by his wife Linda, sons Anthony, a Major League Baseball umpire, and Marc, a boxer and chef-owner of Randazzo’s restaurant in Key Biscayne, Florida, sister Rosemary Favia and nine grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Salerno’s Rosedale Chapels in Roselle. A funeral mass is planned for 10:45 a.m. Friday at St. Isidore Church in Bloomingdale.