Nicholas Acocella, writer, baseball historian, and legendary New Jersey political pundit, died on June 20 at his home in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was 77. The cause of death was cancer.
He is survived by his devoted wife of 29 years, Laura (Eliasoph) Acocella; his adored children, Bart Acocella (Maura Dougherty) of Washington, DC and Francesca Rebecca Acocella, Esq.; grandchildren Caroline and James Acocella; a niece, Thea Cimmino (Dean Butler); a nephew, Anthony Cimmino; dozens of beloved cousins; and legions of friends and admirers. He was pre-deceased by his parents, Bartholomew and Christine (D’Orsi) Acocella, and a sister, Marie Elaina Cimmino.
He was born February 7, 1943 in Jersey City and raised in West New York, New Jersey. He attended St. Peter’s Prep and received a bachelor’s degree from LaSalle University in Philadelphia, spending his junior year studying abroad in Vienna, a formative experience where he forged some of his most lasting friendships.
He retained the working-class values of his upbringing, at the same time that he was exceedingly well-educated, earning a master’s degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley – where he met his first wife, Joan (Ross) Acocella, and where he was “the only student in the English department who owned shoes.” He went on to further post-graduate work at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the University of Delaware and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
After spending one year as a high school teacher in Bergen County, he enjoyed an eclectic, unconventional career at the nexus of politics, sports and journalism. For a decade, he was the Director of Operations for News Election Service – “the only real job I ever had,” he called it – a consortium established by the national networks and wire services to tabulate election returns.
He spent most of the 1970s as a freelance writer, while dabbling in Hudson County politics, and he would eventually author or co-author several books, most of them on baseball, with his collaborator and friend, Donald Dewey. In 2000, he won a Sports Emmy for his work as a producer on ESPN’s SportsCentury series. He was also the political correspondent for Attenzione!, a magazine devoted to Italian-American life and culture.
For the last 23 years, he was the editor, publisher and sole proprietor of Politifax New Jersey, a subscriber-only newsletter about state politics and a venture that cemented his status as a beloved and irreverent insider. He was a regular on Reporters Roundtable with Michael Aron. And in 2015, he launched Pasta & Politics with Nick Acocella, a public television talk show where he interviewed New Jersey political figures as they prepared a meal of the guest’s choosing.
His passions were too numerous to enumerate in full, but among them: his Italian-American heritage, the New York Yankees, military history and Frank Sinatra. His heroes included Mel Brooks and Roger Angell, neither of whom he could have imagined would outlive him. A light- hitting second baseman, he played softball in Central Park every spring and summer Sunday morning into his 50s. He was a proud booster of all things New Jersey – including mandatory full-service gas stations – and a debunker of all state stereotypes.
He loved to eat and cook, relishing in particular the Italian tradition of a seven-course, all-fish meal on Christmas Eve. A day without pasta, he was known to say, is a day wasted. He spent considerable time in the late 1980s on an extended search for the best fried calamari in northern New Jersey. He was un-ironically retro – with no real use for popular music recorded after Rubber Soul. Invited once to a party at Studio 54, he quipped that he was pretty sure he was their only patron ever to be wearing wingtips.
He was unfailingly affable and extroverted, but also private and dignified. He was a maverick and iconoclast, deeply skeptical of technological progress. Although Politifax would, notwithstanding its name, quickly become an electronic newsletter, it never had a website or a social media presence. He defiantly refused to own or carry a cell phone.