An interesting group of major league players are a small contingent who were actually born in Italy. There have been seven to date, one of whom was a right handed pitcher named Rinaldo Joseph “Rugger” Ardizoia. The town of Oleggio is located in the province of Novara in the Piedmont region, tucked in the northwest corner of Italy. The current population is approximately 13,500 and like all Italian towns, Oleggio has a patron saint, actually, it has two of them – Santi Pietro e Paolo (Saints Peter and Paul). The town and its surroundings were probably a bit different on November 20, 1919, when Ardizoia came into the world.
He was three years old when he left Italy for the United States with his family and grew up in San Francisco. Rinaldo was raised by his father, his mother having died in 1925. The only language spoken in the Ardizoia household was Italian. Baseball during the 1920 and 30s in the San Francisco Bay area was a hotbed of developing young players. In 1937, Rugger began his professional baseball career. He spent twelve seasons in the minor leagues, up until 1951 and these were not without some interesting moments. In 1941, while playing for the Hollywood Stars, Ardizoia developed a friendship with a future president of the United States, then an actor Ronald Reagan.
His best minor league season was in 1946 when Rugger posted a record of 15-7 while pitching 207 innings with Oakland. His ultimate career accomplishment was during one single game in 1947, as a New York Yankee. On April 30, at Sportsman Park in St. Louis, in the seventh inning of a game against the Browns, Rugger was brought in to pitch. He threw two innings, faced ten batters and gave up four hits, one of which was a home run to Walter Judnich. He walked one and gave up two earned runs. He finished the game that the Browns won by a score of 15-5. That was the extent of Ardizoia’s big league career.
During World War II, Rugger served with the U.S. Army, stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii. Much of his military time was spent playing baseball as squads of the Army and the Navy clashed regularly. “We could count on Joe DiMaggio,” Ardizoia recalled, “and they had Phil Rizzuto. When we played, it was standing room only.”
Following his major league stint in ’47, the pitcher went back to the Pacific Coast League and the Oakland Oaks. In 1948 he played for Casey Stengel and the ball club they called the “Nine Old Men.” Among the veteran players that Casey had on his roster was several Italian Americans, all natives of the San Francisco Bay Area. Ernie Lombardi was the oldest on the team at 40. Billy Raimondi was the back-up catcher at 34 years old and had been in the PCL since 1933. There were infielders Dario Lodigiani and Lee Scarsella, at thirty-two and thirty-four years old respectively. The younger set was represented by Billy Martin, who in two years would begin his storied career as player and manager in the big leagues. Also with that ball club was the former Brooklyn Dodger Cookie Lavagetto. Casey roomed Cookie with Martin. “I knew Cookie would help him,” Casey said. Cookie’s son, Ernie Lavagetto, said that it was part of Cookie’s job to keep the brash young Martin out of trouble. Ardizoia was a member of the pitching staff. The combinations apparently worked. Oakland won its first pennant since 1927.
Rugger won 13 games in ’48, losing 11 and pitching 228 innings. In 1951, his last season of pro ball, he posted an 8-3 record with an ERA of 2.88, in 75 innings for Dallas in the Texas League. He retired after the ’51 season. Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardinzoia was the fifth of seven players to make the majors who had been born in Italy.
His native country was never far from Ardizoia’s thoughts. He traveled back to Italy five times during his lifetime, replenishing his early memories. He met his future wife while giving Italian lessons. They were married in 1950 and stayed husband and wife for 65 years. “The last ones were very happy,” Rugger said. “We did a lot of traveling since I retired in 1982.”
His last trip to Italy was in 2002. He said at the time that he planned no more visits. “I am too old…as you say, vecchio.” Rinaldo Ardinzoia died on July 19, 2015. He was 96 years old.