November 20, 1919: Rugger Ardizoia
St. Louis was a long way from Oleggio, Italy where Rinaldo "Rugger" Ardizoia was born, but more than 27 years into his life, that was the distance his journey had taken him. When Ardizoia was just two years old, he and his mother sailed across the Atlantic on the S.S. Colombo. On December 6, 1921, they arrived in the United States, where they would stay for good. They still had quite the journey ahead of them, having to get from New York to Port Costa, California, where Carlo, the boy's father had been for the past 13 months.
Unfortunately, within two months of his sixth birthday and after having moved to San Francisco, Rinaldo lost his mother to double pneumonia. It was around this time Rinaldo remembers acquiring his nickname. Neighborhood kids would chase him around and as a six-year-old, much smaller and younger than the children chasing him, he developed a reputation as a rugged little boy. When dodging neighborhood kids and playing rugby with a group of peers, he simply became known as "Rugger".
Football was Rugger's first sport, but he also excelled at third base on the baseball field. He waited until his junior year in high school to start pitching. It was something he picked up right away. Ardizoia spun two no hitters in high school, one of which was thrown when the other pitcher didn't yield a base hit either. Eventually, with each team still hitless, the game had to be called as it had ran too long.
Rugger's pitching exploits were enough to earn him a scholarship offer to Stanford, but he turned the Cardinal down. He had already signed a professional contract with the Mission Reds, the Pacific Coast League team covering San Francisco's Mission District. It seemed in those days, San Francisco had a way of sending talented Italian-Americans to the Pacific Coast League.
At $150 a month, Ardizoia was suddenly making more than his father was at his warehouse job where he made $25 per week. When that realization kicked in, his dad stepped away from his job and Rugger supported the man who had been supporting him in his run up to adulthood. The young Italian ballplayer also bought himself a house, which he would own for more than 65 years.
Playing in the same league as Ted Williams and in was Teddy Ballgame's San Diego Padres that Ardizoia made his professional debut against. He did not disappoint, tossing five innings of one-hit ball. It was a short 1937 campaign for Ardizoia and his next year saw him pitching for the Bellingham Chinooks of the Western International League.
He signed with the Hollywood Stars back in the Pacific Coast League in 1939 and following a season that saw him go 14-9 with a 3.98 ERA, many were convinced he was the top pitching prospect in the PCL. Clearly, the New York Yankees thought that as they traded pitchers Hiram Bithorn and Ivy Andrews for him. Still having not cracked the big leagues, Ardizoia served in the Air Force from May 1943 until November 1945.
As a tow target operator, he would fly in a plane towing a targeting range cable. One night, the plane he was supposed to be on crashed. Ardizoia had a ballgame to play that night and thus, had not been on the plane. The sport had saved him from certain death.
After an excellent 1946 season back in the Pacific Coast League with the Oakland Oaks, it was back to Spring Training with the Yankees for Ardizoia. He made the Yankees' roster in 1947 along with Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto. It wasn't until the final day of the season's opening month that he got his chance. On April 30, in front of 4,000 fans at St. Louis' Sportsman's Park, he was handed the ball in the seventh inning of what was at that point a 13-4 St. Louis Browns blowout.
Rugger gave up two runs in two mop-up innings of work, including one on a solo home run from Walt Judnich. Amazingly, Judnich had been a teammate of Ardizoia on the Air Force baseball team in Iwo Jima. Ardizoia, who looked up to Judnich as one of his boyhood idols, claims he more or less grooved a fastball to Judnich since his team was already behind by so much anyway. That was the last time he would take the mound in a Yankee uniform.
He was sold back to Hollywood in 1948 and his time in the major leagues was up. Though the Yankees had won the World Series in 1947, Ardizoia was never awarded a World Series ring nor a World Series winning share.
By the offseason after 1950, a bone chip in his elbow forced Ardizoia to retire. He didn't mind as he also wanted to spend more time with his kids. After a career in professional baseball with a 29-month span spent serving his country in the middle, Rugger was walking away. Having reached the big leagues, he became one of just seven Italian-native born MLB players ever. In 2009, after the Bronx Bombers won the Fall Classic, they sent Ardizoia a medallion commemorating the franchise's 27th World Series title.
After almost having his life cut tragically short while in the Air Force, Rugger lived to be 95 years old and before his death in 2015, he was the oldest living Yankee.
This story was made possible thanks to the research and reporting of Bill Nowlin as the Society for American Baseball Research. To read about Ardizoia in even more detail, check out Nowlin's biographical write up on SABR's website.