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Rugger, DiMaggio and the Sandlots of San Francisco

RUGGERThe early morning clouds had given way to bright blue skies, providing a postcard day in San Francisco. It was a beautiful day for a ballgame. The date was March 12, 1999, and a baseball crowd was gathered, but there was no game that day. The occasion that drew me and the others to Washington Square Park in North Beach was the funeral of hometown hero and Yankees great Joe DiMaggio being held across the street at the historic Saints Peter and Paul Church. This was not a crowd of celebrity gawkers. This was the heart and soul of the city, native and longtime San Franciscans who were there to honor one of their own. But it was deeper than that. DiMaggio grew up on the sandlots of San Francisco, and his passing was a reminder of our youths where many a Saturday and Sunday and afternoons after school were spent on those sandlots playing this great game. Many of us followed in our fathers’ footsteps, for they played at some of the same sandlots, and then passed on the game to us. When driving through the city in recent  times, I’ve passed some of the ballfields of my youth — Big Rec, Funston, McCoppin, Margaret Hayward and Sunset — and there weren’t any games going on. This is supposed to be a great baseball town. So, where are the baseball players? Why are the diamonds empty?

These were the feelings many of us had as we watched the DiMaggio hearse arrive at the church, because he had represented the glory days of baseball in the city. We stood in respectful silence as the casket was taken inside and the doors were closed for the private service. When the doors opened about an hour later, the crowd went quiet again and stood at attention as the casket was taken back to the hearse. As the procession of cars began to pull away for the cemetery, we all spontaneously erupted in applause. It was DiMaggio’s final standing ovation.

On Friday (August 7), I returned to Saints Peter and Paul to say farewell to another Yankee and another pride of the San Francisco sandlots. Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia was the oldest living Yankee until his recent death at the age of 95. I felt a personal connection with Rugger though I never met him. He was two years behind my father at Commerce High School in San Francisco, and I’m told he looked up to him because my Dad was an all-city pitcher. When my Dad graduated, Rugger took over, threw a couple of no-hitters, and everyone including pro scouts started looking up at him. He joined the local Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League, then moved to the Hollywood Stars, and in 1941 became part of the New York Yankees minor league system. He got his big league call-up in 1947, and on April 30, played in his one and only major league game, allowing two runs in two innings during a mop-up appearance in a blowout loss to the St. Louis Browns. Overall, Rugger won 123 games in 12 minor league seasons, and is still regarded today as one of the legends of the San Francisco sandlots.

A remembrance card distributed at the funeral contained quotes about Rugger instead of a traditional prayer, including one from Babe Ruth. Three days before his one-game debut, Rugger was in the dugout on April 27 on Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium. It remains one of baseball’s most powerful moments, as a dying Ruth, his voice ravaged by throat cancer, gives his farewell speech. As Ruth got off the bench to slowly make his way up the dugout steps, Rugger jumped up and supported him so he could get up to the field. Said Ruth: “Jeez, thanks a lot, kid.”

Rugger’s buddies have seconded that since his passing, showing their thanks for his friendship over the years and their final tribute to him at the church continues to move me. Marino Pieretti was another hotshot North Beach baseball star. He grew up in the area and pitched in the majors from 1945 through 1950. When he was stricken with cancer in 1977, his friends — many of them former Bay Area ballplayers — formed “The Friends of Marino Pieretti” to lift his spirits, and the group held regular meetings with Pieretti until his death in 1981. But the group continued as a way to honor him, and members were presented with green athletic jackets. They were all there on Friday, and as Rugger’s urn was carried from the church by his grandson, the green-jacketed members lined both sides of the aisle as a final tribute to their pal.

I attended a reception afterward at the appropriately named Connecticut Yankee, a bar-restaurant filled with baseball memorabilia. The men in the green jackets were there, and they recalled stories of Rugger, DiMaggio and the sandlots of San Francisco.

I soaked it all up, said my goodbyes to them, and walked out into a sun-drenched San Francisco afternoon. It was a beautiful day for a ballgame.


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