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Friday, June 22, 2012

Recent Acquisitions: Joe DiMaggio's Shower Buddy

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 7:30 AM

Rugger Ardizoia, George Puccinelli and Ernie Orsatti  singing in their Hollywood Stars uniforms, 1939. Ardizoia and Puccinelli grew up in San Francisco. Orsatti is from Southern California, but we won't hold that against him.
  • Rugger Ardizoia, George Puccinelli and Ernie Orsatti singing in their Hollywood Stars uniforms, 1939. Ardizoia and Puccinelli grew up in San Francisco. Orsatti is from Southern California, but we won't hold that against him.
Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

Who took a shower with Joe DiMaggio?

Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle posed that very question to readers when a full-frontal photograph of DiMaggio and a mystery man went up for auction. San Franciscans were amazed to learn that it was no other than 92-year-old Mission Terrace resident Rinaldo "Rugger" Ardizoia. No one, however, was more surprised than the curator of the Museo Italo Americano in the Fort Mason Center.

"I almost fell off my chair!" declared Mary Serventi Steiner. The two share a "slew of mutual cousins in Italy." When family visited the Bay Area from the Old World, Ardizoia and Steiner found themselves at the same gatherings.

Steiner thought she had a pretty good read on Ardizoia -- until the photo surfaced. "I didn't even know he had played professional baseball."

The timing was perfect. Steiner was about six months into researching the exhibition "Italian Americans at Bat: From Sandlots to the Major Leagues," which opens today. She wasted no time paying Rugger a visit to discuss the exhibition, which ultimately took two years to curate. During their visit, Ardizoia showed her a vast collection of photographs from his short career.

Rugger Ardizoia, Dario Lodigiani and Joe DiMaggio at the Service All-Stars game against a combined Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Angels team in 1943.
  • Rugger Ardizoia, Dario Lodigiani and Joe DiMaggio at the Service All-Stars game against a combined Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Angels team in 1943.
 Born in Italy, Ardizoia came to America as a talented young man ready to play, but his career was ultimately thwarted by immigration regulations. Rugger got his start with the now defunct San Francisco Mission Reds, a minor league baseball team of which he is the only living member. Although he was drafted by the Yankees, Ardizoia was considered an "enemy alien," a "citizen of a country which is in a state of conflict with the land in which he is located." He couldn't play with the Division AAA team because he wouldn't be able to travel with them. When he was drafted in 1943, Ardizoia played with other major leaguers in the Army, putting on demonstration games in the Pacific Rim. They raised troop morale abroad, and sorely needed funds stateside.

"I find it fascinating that an enemy alien couldn't play for New Jersey, but could serve in the Army," Steiner mused.

Though short-lived, Ardizoia's career can be seen through his photographs, many offering behind-the-scenes shots of ballplayers at ease, proving to be very different than familiar stock publicity images. One series of photos from the All-Star game between two Serviceman Teams, the Hollywood Stars and the Los Angeles Angels, chronicles the 1943 charity game. The gleeful faces of Ardizoia, Dario Lodigiani, and Joe DiMaggio smile from behind a gelatin print, having just raised $25,000.

Steiner was overwhelmed by the images, and hoped a few might be available for the exhibition. Cash-strapped cultural institutions are no strangers to home visits. They keep tabs on their most affluent supporters -- and their collections -- hoping to be the lucky recipient of a donation. She tentatively broached the subject, hoping for a loan.

Yankees golfing, 1947. Phil Rizzuto (right) takes a swing as Rugger Ardizoia (left) jokingly makes the Italian "corna" gesture, believed to bring bad luck
  • Yankees golfing, 1947. Phil Rizzuto (right) takes a swing as Rugger Ardizoia (left) jokingly makes the Italian "corna" gesture, believed to bring bad luck

"Take whatever you want!" she recalls him exclaiming, donating the full series of photographs to the Museo without any stipulations. The photographs serve as an important reminder of the role Italian-Americans played in America's pastime, once dominated by those of English, Irish, and German descent, as well as the role baseball played in the assimilation of Italians into American culture.

The Museo Italo Americano is located in the Fort Mason Center, Building C. Admission is free. Visit Tuesday-Sunday, 12-4pm.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.
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Alexis Coe

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