Former West Duluth standout athlete Ernie Conito diesWest Duluth was Ernie Conito’s home and where he’ll be remembered as owner of an Italian grocery, sponsor and coach of youth athletic teams, a U.S. Army veteran and a 5-foot-4 Hall of Fame dynamo in softball and bowling.
West Duluth was Ernie Conito’s home and where he’ll be remembered as owner of an Italian grocery, sponsor and coach of youth athletic teams, a U.S. Army veteran and a 5-foot-4 Hall of Fame dynamo in softball and bowling.
The 1941 Duluth Denfeld High School graduate, who grew up in the area of Irving Park and Raleigh Street, died Monday of heart failure at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center. He was 88.
“He was probably one of the better all-around athletes from West Duluth, but he was most proud of helping youngsters as a coach in (baseball) Little League and Junior League football," son Ernie Conito Jr. of Duluth said Wednesday. "He helped them any way he could and had an effect on many kids growing up in West Duluth."
Conito Sr., one of 10 children of Carl and Rose Conito, was a stellar amateur athlete, learning sports as a youngster with buddies named Boyat, Senich, Chumich and Amatuzio.
In 1985 he was inducted into the Duluth Area Bowling Association Hall of Fame in ceremonies at Skyline Lanes. He had been a member of the association since 1944 and competed in the Duluth Major League. He averaged 190, bowled five 700 series and a 299 game, and reached a 50th straight season in the league in 1994 at age 71.
Conito began league bowling at the former 20th Century Lanes in West Duluth, where he bowled in the Duluth Commercial and West Duluth Major leagues. A junior program he started at the Duluth Bowling Center in the early 1950s was incorporated into the Duluth Junior Bowling program which began a decade later.
Conito was inducted into the Minnesota Softball Hall of Fame in 1989 in ceremonies at Brooklyn Park, Minn. He was remembered as a hard-hitting, durable catcher with a strong arm who played for the Duluth Coolerators, Karsbar, Teve’s and North Pole Bar teams in a 19-year career in the 1940s and 1950s. He was on the North Pole Bar team that won the 1954 Minnesota Class AA title and batted .356 that season.
He served in the Korean War in the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry artillery and then worked as an vending machine contractor for more than 40 years. Conito and family members opened Conito’s Italian Village grocery at 301 North Central Avenue in 1982 and operated the business for 14 years (with Ernie making Italian sausage and wife, June, making spaghetti sauce). His father emigrated from Italy’s Calabria region, south of Naples.
The New York Yankees and Notre Dame Fighting Irish were particular favorites of Conito, and he got the chance of a lifetime to talk with one of his heroes, Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees, whose first wife was 1935 Denfeld graduate, and actress, Dorothy Olson.
“My dad was in a bowling tournament in Detroit and DiMaggio was in town to play the Detroit Tigers, and they met in the lobby of a hotel and talked for about for about half an hour,” said Conito Jr., 58, who played three sports at Denfeld.
More recently, when visiting daughter, Cheryl, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Conito had a chance to talk with former New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford, who has a winter home in Fort Lauderdale.
“Most everyone who knew my dad considered him the nicest guy, the friendliest guy you’d ever meet, and he really was the best father you could have,” said Conito Jr. “He was proud of being Italian and particularly proud of West Duluth.”
Conito is survived by his wife of 59 years, June, and children Cheryl, Ernie, Paul, John and Jeffrey, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A gathering of family and friends is 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, with Military Honors at noon, at Bell Brothers Funeral Home, 601 North 56th Avenue West.
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