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Sunday, November 24, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Al Ruffo Was Present 50 Years Ago At 49Ers' Birth

San Jose Mercury-News

SAN JOSE, Calif. - The San Francisco 49ers are celebrating their 50th birthday this year, a proud achievement for any team.

Al Ruffo is celebrating his 88th birthday this year, with a list of achievements that includes not only the existence of the 49ers - he drew up the legal papers creating the team and helped coach it for the first two years - but also successful work as mayor of San Jose, university engineering and mathematics professor, state university trustee, prominent lawyer and father of five.

Quite a major record for a man who "only wanted to stay in a little town and practice my law." But then again, Ruffo seemed destined for big things right from the start.

"My poor mother," he sighs. "I weighed 14 pounds when I was born." That was in Tacoma, Wash., where his Italian immigrant father worked as a day laborer and his mother took care of the five children.

"Everybody thought I was going to be a giant," Ruffo said. Nature had other plans. "As I grew up, I was very active, but very small. When I started high school, I was only 4-foot-11 and weighed 95 pounds."

Not that he was short on determination. Ruffo did well in school, despite speaking no English when he entered kindergarten (Italian was the language of his home and neighborhood). And despite his short stature, his after-school job - hauling bread boxes for eight hours a night, six nights a week - made him strong. By the time he was a senior, he weighed only 135 pounds, but had an 18-inch neck.

Ruffo was a feared wrestler in his gym classes. And although his after-school work made it difficult to participate on school teams, he organized a team of his own - prophetically, a football team.

"Since I didn't go to work until 4 p.m. on Sundays, I got the Russians, the Germans and the Italians from our neighborhood together to play other towns' teams on Sunday mornings. We'd meet at a barbershop and dress. I got discarded pants, jerseys, headgear and so forth from our school, and I'd repair them, sew them up.

"The K Street Wildcats. I was the quarterback, the coach and the manager. It was a lot of fun. After games, we'd come back to the barbershop, change out of our uniforms and into our clothes. Showers were something we never worried about. You didn't have to - when it rained, you were soaked."

Leaving Tacoma

Although neither of his parents had attended school, let alone college, Ruffo was determined to continue his education after he graduated from high school. He worked in Tacoma and attended the College of Puget Sound for a year and, when a cousin told him of Santa Clara University, he got a handyman's job at Holy Family Church in San Jose that gave him room, board and entree to SCU.

"When I started getting three meals a day, I picked up a little weight," he said. "At the end of my first year at Santa Clara, I weighed about 160 pounds."

Since the church job was only for a year, Ruffo used his new bulk to apply for a football scholarship that would keep him at SCU, and he starred as a guard for the next three years while he studied engineering. Ineligible to play as a senior because of his year at Puget Sound, he got a job coaching the university's freshman team, and held onto that position even after graduating in 1931 with a degree in electrical engineering.

"It was the Depression," he explains, and any and all jobs were welcome.

Ruffo continued to coach, and also taught classes in SCU's college of engineering. In 1933, he enrolled in the university's law school - yes, still coaching - and got his law degree in 1936. A year later, he married Marianne Gagliardi, his Tacoma childhood sweetheart, and made a major career decision.

"A friend, Jim Bacigalupi of the Bank of America, told me, `If you want to make a lot of money, go to San Francisco. But if you're interested in raising a family, stay in San Jose, a small town, and you'll have time for them.' So," Ruffo said, "that's what I selected."

San Jose was indeed small then - "only 39,000 population when I first came here" - but the work Ruffo got into was big. He had his law practice. He became interested in local politics. He continued to coach at SCU, assisting Lawrence "Buck" Shaw. He got into a lumber business in San Francisco with former SCU classmate Tony Morabito. And in 1942, all that work began to coalesce.

Santa Clara dropped football, as did other Bay Area colleges, because of World War II. "Tony (Morabito) was a football nut," Ruffo said, "so in 1943, he said, `Al, what do you think of a pro team in San Francisco?' " They hashed out the details, and in 1944 applied to the National Football League for a franchise, meeting with its leaders in Chicago.

"They asked us about the West as though they were complete strangers to it," Ruffo recalled, "as though we were out in the wilds. Elmer Layden (the NFL commissioner) told Tony, `Sonny, why don't you get a football first?' The minute he said that, I knew Tony would hit the ceiling."

Right. Morabito stalked out, walked with Ruffo across the street and into the office of Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, who was trying to launch a competing pro football league. By 1946, the All America Conference was a reality, with Morabito's San Francisco team as one of its cornerstones.

Although not one of the original investors, Ruffo did the team's legal work, drawing up its original papers and contracts. He also assisted Shaw on its first coaching staff. He was there when the team's name was chosen - 49ers, suggested by partner Al Sorrell - and its colors - "gold, of course, for the gold rush, and red, because Tony and I went to Santa Clara." Although he left coaching in 1947 to devote more time to law and politics (he'd been elected mayor of San Jose the year before on a reform ticket), Ruffo eventually did invest in the team and held an interest in it for 24 years, through the All America Conference's merger with the NFL. And when the Morabito family sold the 49ers to Edward DeBartolo Sr., it was Ruffo who represented them in the negotiations.

Having been with the team from the start and probably witnessing more of its games than any other 49er faithful, Ruffo can share a wealth of trivia. He recalls, for instance, that although the team's colors are red and gold, players wore red and silver for the first season and a half because Shaw's wife convinced Morabito that those colors were better suited to her husband's nickname, "The Silver Fox." And Ruffo said it was Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders who suggested DeBartolo as a buyer when the Morabito family wanted to sell. Ruffo recalls that Davis said "he wanted the best for pro football."

Ruffo also loves to share tales of his five now-grown children, of the growth and history of his chosen city, of his teaching and coaching experiences, of his 10 years as a trustee of the California State Colleges and Universities (now California State University), of his volunteer efforts on presidents' councils at Santa Clara, San Jose State, St. Mary's College and Dominican College - all the joys of his life.

"I enjoyed serving (on the city council for eight years), but I love teaching," he said with feeling. "Working with young kids, seeing them advance, was always so satisfying."

Still very much involved in his law practice - he goes to his downtown office daily - and in the life of the city, Ruffo is not shy about speaking up where he thinks things go wrong: the decision to elect council members by district, for example. "I want to see San Jose as one city - the city - and council members should have their interest in the city as a whole." Or the current push to bring City Hall back downtown. "Civic Center could have been better designed, but it makes sense to keep City Hall there with all the other city and county governmental services."

Overall, though, Ruffo is happy with his "small town" choice and lifestyle. He gets up each morning for a 5 a.m. walk around the Rose Garden - a 3-mile jaunt he usually completes in an hour, walking briskly, arms pumping - and has done so for the past 15 years. "I like to sweat," he explains.

"It's so important to stay active. And to stay active mentally. I love a challenge. Give me a project, draw me a picture of it - the more complicated the better."

Al Ruffo weighs in these days at under 190 pounds, less than he weighed when he graduated from Santa Clara. He still looks ready to wrestle or to tutor a football lineman. The 49ers might want to keep him in mind for the next 50 years.

And if not, he could always start his own team in his neighborhood. The Hedding Street Wildcats. Has kind of a ring to it.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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