How do you keep a 95-year-old organization up to date?
This is the question that the members of the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club (SFIAC) are bent on answering.
To that very purpose they’ve done much in the last five years to expand the rules on membership and upgrade the physical premises on 1630 Stockton Street in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.
Though membership is reserved for males only, the next couple of years may see the enlarging and modernizing of the locker and exercise rooms to accommodate women; and a whole new slate of Italian language lessons and teachers will appear this autumn.
The club’s origins date back to 1918 and 1926 when three San Francisco-based Italian sport organizations merged. A stroll through the halls of the club reveal photograph on photograph and trophy upon trophy dating back 90 years and more. Many photographs, yellowing in their frames, depict team members lined up in their uniforms, on their fields and with their sporting equipment.
But it’s a yellowing in which the members take pride. Members are proud that they have come through so many decades of challenges, one so dire in fact that the club even have to change its name.
During World War II, Italians nationals living in the United States and Italian Americans, if not interned, were subject to great restraints on their activities. It was during that sad time when families were suppressing the Italian language in their homes, that the club dropped the word “Italian” from its name.
Gianrico Claudio Pierucci wrote in his history , The Heart of North Beach:
“Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on December 11. The FBI used Title 50 of the US Code to quickly inter Japanese and German aliens residing in the United States. Shortly afterwards the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club took the word “Italian” out of its name and renamed itself the separate San Francisco Athletic Club.
“…in 1978 a group of enthusiastic members decided to insert the word ‘Italian,’ and on January 1, 1979 the club officially became the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club again.
Thankfully those days are long past.
Sport is still the anima e cuore of the club where soccer, softball and basketball reign. The club’s soccer team regularly pits itself against those from other countries. In June, Ireland and Croatia were competitors.
The SFIAC is one of the oldest and a charter member of the San Francisco Soccer Football League, www.sfsfi.com, which itself is the oldest league in the country, established in 1902.
The yearly foot race, the Statuto, is eagerly followed. Even the Italian Consul General, Fabrizio Marcelli took part in the event this year. Billed as America’s fourth oldest footrace, the Club presents this two-mile walk on the first Sunday in June, to commemorate the Statuto Albertino of 1848 – Italy’s first constitution as a cohesive nation.
But the heyday of the club’s athletic fame seems to be waning. And while softball and basketball are still offered within the headquarters, club president Al Cipollina remarks on the expense of supporting athletic teams. However, not everybody is athletic and the club caters to them, too. The monthly Stag Dinner, the Friday poker night, the bocce picnic, general meetings, dinner dances and mid-month mixers, draw people of all interests.
Certainly the changes in time and culture have affected club membership. “Back in the 60s, everyone in North Beach spoke Italian,” reminisces Cipollina. “You walk into a store, and they spoke Italian.”
In fact the club’s meetings used to be held both in Italian and in English. Today, only English.
As membership dropped off over the years—for many reasons—the SFIAC struggled to attract younger people. It’s a balancing act—especially noticeable with musical entertainment—how to satisfy the older members who cannot relate to louder, younger music while still amusing younger members for whom Italian traditional songs and melodies might be a yawn.
Time was when the men’s club accepted as new members only those with Italian surnames. That’s recently changed to include any man with one Italian parent or grandparent of Italian descent.
Cipollina cannot be enticed to say that the women’s auxiliary, Le Donne d’Italia, is a step toward opening membership to women. Guys have to have a place among themselves to swig one back and play pool and poker after all.
Cipollina has been president for two years and seems eager to take advantage of a recent rule change, which will allow him the chance to officiate as president for an extra two years.
Now retired, the president still consults on construction projects. He is currently assisting a relative relocate the beloved Vittoria Pastry which has been forced to vacate its longtime premises on Stockton and Vallejo Streets and move to a not so faraway location on Filbert Street.
A native of Sicily, Cipollina arrived in San Francisco in 1960. He worked in the construction trade for decades, and he co-owned the US Restaurant with his wife and her parents for many years.
He offers an interesting bit of trivia. “Most people think the “US” in the restaurant’s name means the United States. But no. It means the Union Sportiva Italiana and it served the Italian athletic club, which was across the street at the time,” he said.
This of course was many decades ago, right in line with the club’s history.