Notes from the 19th annual Pacific Coast League reunion

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Rugger Ardizoia didn’t know he was the oldest living New York Yankee until a few days ago. It’s probably fitting.

Though the 93-year-old San Francisco resident still keeps his team identification card in his wallet, he┬ácomes across soft-spoken and reserved, not one to boast about his past or demand attention for it. It’s probably appropriate he not brag too much of his time with the Yankees. Rugger pitched all of two innings in the majors, his sole appearance coming April 30, 1947 when he scattered four hits and two runs.┬áBut sit and talk a little while with Rugger– who became the oldest Yankee following the death of Virgil Trucks in March– and the surreal stories I love as a baseball historian start coming out.

They’re stories of making road trips with Joe DiMaggio; of playing for Casey Stengel in the Pacific Coast League; of being on a USO team during World War II with DiMaggio, Red Ruffing and a slew of other major leaguers. I’ve interviewed Rugger four or five times in the past decade, and I imagine there are still a wealth of good stories I haven’t heard. It’s one thing that keeps me coming back– that, and he’s a kind, charming man. The widower told the crowd at the 19th annual Pacific Coast League reunion that he still considers himself married to a wife of 71 years.

As a historian and a journalist, part of my calling is to capture stories. I enjoy preserving and sharing them, and I feel both a sense of duty and urgency. With players like Rugger and nine other former players who attended the reunion, held Saturday near Oakland, California, time is running out to record the stories. Most veterans of the old PCL, who played in it before the Giants and Dodgers came west in 1958, are in their mid-70s or older. The ever-present possibility lurks of great stories dying with these men. Maybe it’s not more than a collection of untold quirky anecdotes, but I like to think the world’s a little better with them accessible.

I didn’t get a ton of stories Saturday, but here are a few anecdotes from Rugger:

  • Stengel, who managed Rugger on the Oakland Oaks in 1946, would buy two cases of beer for the clubhouse after every win. (As noted in Jane Leavy’s biography on Mickey Mantle, Stengel’s the same manager whose advice on temperance for players was to not drink in the hotel bar “because that’s where I do my drinking.”)
  • Rugger noted he had 117 complete games in professional baseball and wondered how many pitches he threw. He said Stengel was never one to pull pitchers.
  • Rugger spoke of going to an event with DiMaggio’s first wife, Dorothy Arnold and seeing her bedecked in jewelry. Upon closer inspection, he learned it was all fake costume jewelry. Arnold explained that as the wife of DiMaggio, she had a certain appearance to keep up.

It remains to be seen how many more reunions can be held. A fellow member in my chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research estimated that 100-110 men who played in the PCL prior to 1958 are still living. I’m reminded of the final reunion of Pearl Harbor veterans, held just a few years ago.

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