Michael Placco has been to every one of the annual Macomb Nights at Jimmy John’s Field, during which the college’s president throws the first pitch and staff, students and alumni sit together to cheer on their favorite team. For the Macomb history professor, however, baseball is more than a sport, it’s a connection to what used to be.
“I love the music of the sport, this American pastime, everything about it,” says Placco. “Baseball is a haunted game with all these great American stories about its players. Even (President) Lincoln allegedly played baseball! It’s always been there for us.”
In Placco’s office at Center Campus, replicas of two old-time wooden baseball bats rest against his desk. Lining the walls are framed images of historic figures, including a reproduction of the only know photograph of Andrew Jackson, the country’s president 1829 to 1837. Interspersed are pictures of baseball players with handlebar moustaches in vintage uniforms, mementos from Placco’s days as a student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a circa 1848 drawing of New York City, where he grew up in the borough of Queens.
“I was born, I think, with a predilection for history,” offers Placco, who joined Macomb’s faculty in 2000. “My parents took me to Connecticut and Massachusetts to visit all the historical sites when I was a child. Later, I realized how many times you think about what used to be. That’s something that we think about every day.”
Placco’s own family history is rich in cultural milestones. His great grandparents emigrated from Sicily, entering America through Ellis Island, the gateway for nearly 12 million immigrants from 1892 to 1954. His great uncle, a WWII vet, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, which he visited over Memorial Day weekend while in Washington, D.C. to witness the (possibly last) Rolling Thunder motorcycle tribute to veterans. His father served in the Vietnam War and his mother was in the audience when Jimi Hendrix performed the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. And, then, there is his distant aunt by marriage, Viola Liuzzo.
Liuzzo was a Detroit mother of five, Wayne State University student and a civil rights activist. She drove to Selma, Alabama, in March 1965 to participate in a voting rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Five days after arriving, she was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members while driving other activists to the airport. Liuzzo is the only known white woman to have died during the Civil Rights Movement, and Dr. King was among the mourners at her funeral in Detroit. Several books, documentaries and movies have chronicled her life, and tributes to her bravery can be found in Detroit and Selma.
“She believed it was everyone’s fight,” says Placco, who has given talks about his relative, as well as other historical topics, in several community lecture series, including Macomb’s SOAR program. “She was ahead of her time.”
Placco and his parents moved from New York to Michigan while he was in high school and while other seniors were talking about going away to Central or Eastern, Placco looked farther afield. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Bowling Green, before a full-time teaching position brought him back to Michigan.
“This is my home now, and I’m happy to be here with such decent, generous people,” says Placco. “I love going to baseball games, and I love being in N Building on Center Campus where I am able to share my passion for what used to be with my students.”