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The Oldest Yankee


Ardizoia, at left, with George Puccinelli and Ernie Orsatti of the Hollywood Stars in 1939.

Virgil Trucks died on Saturday at 95, relinquishing his crowns as both the oldest living former Tiger and the oldest living former Yankee (he finished his career in the Bronx in 1958). So who has filled his shoes? Well, it seems the new oldest Yankee is a guy by the picturesque name of Rugger Ardizoia. I had never heard of him, so I looked him up.

Turns out Ardizoia is one of only seven native-born Italians to have played in the bigs. He was born Rinaldo Ardizzoia in 1919, in the little Piedmontese town of Oleggio, and came over at the age of two to California, where his dad had gotten a job in a brickyard. As a kid in San Francisco, the older boys would chase him and he’d dive into the thistles at the edge of their neighborhood playground, where no one else would follow him. “You’re a rugged little bugger,” they’d say. And so he got his name.

Rugger signed with the Mission Reds of the PCL straight out of high school. In his first game, at the age of 17, he threw five innings of one-hit ball against a San Diego lineup anchored by Ted Williams. Later that season he threw an eighteen-inning complete game. Ardizoia later said, “I had a fastball. I had an overhand curve, a three-quarter curve, and a sidearmed curve…and some little sinker ball…Then later on…I picked up a slider.” His career was interrupted for a couple of years when he was drafted into the Army Air Force, serving as a tow-target operator in Hawaii. He was also, as he remembers it, the ace of the 7th Air Force baseball team. One day when he was excused from flying because of a game, the plane crashed. Baseball saved his life.

Ardizoia had a career year in 1946, going 15-7 with a 2.83 ERA for an Oakland Oaks club managed by Casey Stengel. The following spring he trained with the Yankees, and at the end of April finally got into a big-league game. Coming in in the seventh with the Yanks down 13-4, he gave up two runs on four hits in two innings of work, although he writes off one of those runs: “The guy who hit the home run off me was one of my boyhood idols, Walter Judnich. I more or less slid it in for him because we were so far behind anyway.” That would be his only appearance in the majors. He wound up selling linens for about thirty years in the Bay Area; to this day, as far as I know, he lives in the same Mission Terrace house he’s called home for 65 years. And that is Rugger Ardizoia.

(Main source: Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees, Lyle Spatz, ed.)