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'Scooter' Rizzuto passes at 89

Hall of Famer was Yankees All-Star shortstop, broadcaster
08/14/2007 11:27 AM ET
By Jack O'Connell / MLB.com

Rizzuto is in the Hall Of Fame. (AP)
Phil "Scooter" Rizzuto, who overcame his diminutive size to become a key contributor to numerous New York Yankees championships and followed his playing career with a lengthy and entertaining stint in the team's broadcast booth, died Tuesday. He was 89.

Rizzuto's playing and broadcasting careers were in contrast with each other. As a player, Rizzuto had the reputation for being an alert, heads-up competitor with keen baseball instincts that eventually earned him a place in the Hall of Fame. Behind the microphone, he was at times oblivious to the events on the field, nevertheless his lack of polish as an announcer was ignored by generations of Yankees fans who accepted his eccentricities the way family members do an amusing relative.

In many ways, the Yankees were Rizzuto's family. Excepting a three-year stretch in the United States Navy (1943-45) during World War II, Rizzuto was the Yankees' regular shortstop from 1941 into the 1956 season, when he retired under somewhat disagreeable circumstances. The next year, he began a broadcasting career that would run 40 seasons through 1996, the first year of the Yankees' most recent stretch of success under manager Joe Torre.

In retirement, Rizzuto frequently returned to Yankee Stadium to throw out ceremonial first pitches on special occasions. After Derek Jeter's famous shuttle toss home in the 2001 American League Championship Series, Rizzuto mimicked the play in tribute to the current Yankees shortstop rather than throwing from the mound, to the delight of the Stadium crowd.

Rizzuto was part of the Yankees' dynastic years of the 1940s and '50s that included a record five straight World Series championships from 1949 through 1953. It was during that period that Rizzuto was an American League Most Valuable Player, in 1950, a year after he finished second in the voting to Ted Williams. In his 13 seasons with the Yankees, Rizzuto played in nine World Series and was on the winning side seven times. He was a rookie on the Yankees' 1941 championship team that beat the Brooklyn Dodgers for the first of five times in the Series before losing to their Flatbush rivals in 1955, Rizzuto's last postseason appearance.

Among the highest compliments paid Rizzuto came from Williams, who frequently said the Boston Red Sox might have been in all those World Series had Rizzuto been on their side. As a member of the Hall's Veterans Committee, Williams lobbied hard for Rizzuto's enshrinement in Cooperstown, N.Y., which became reality in 1994. Rizzuto had been the oldest living Hall of Famer. That distinction now belongs to former American League president Lee MacPhail, with former second baseman Bobby Doerr the oldest living Hall of Fame player.

Friends said that Rizzuto felt a personal wound 10 years earlier when his Dodgers counterpart, Pee Wee Reese, who was also a good friend, was elected by the Veterans Committee to the Hall, believing that they should have gone in together. Rizzuto simply refused to talk about the Hall after than until the day of his induction, when no one could shut him up — thankfully. Rizzuto's speech was a delightful ramble without a shred of pretense, filled with recollections of his well-known superstitions and phobias, all the while fanning the air with his hands to shoo away annoying flies.

Yankees fans over the years learned about Rizzuto's love of golf and Italian food, especially pastry, and his fear of snakes, rodents, insects and lightning. He also hated traffic and bolted to the press elevator as if running out a base hit to get to the parking lot for a hasty exit out of the Stadium lot and over the George Washington Bridge to his longtime home in Hillsdale, N.J.

Rizzuto broke away from his play-by-play or analysis to wish happy birthday to fans and friends, many of whom ran restaurants and bakeries and often sent him treats, notably boxes of canolis which he shared with writers and others in the press box. If he missed a play, he'd write in his scorecard "WW," for "wasn't watching." He spoke fondly of his devoted wife, Cora, perhaps the only person he never described as a "huckleberry."

Both as a player and broadcaster, Rizzuto seldom referred to teammates or colleagues by their first name, with the exceptions of Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. For them, Rizzuto used no last name. He once opened a Yankees telecast by announcing himself as Bill White, Rizzuto's partner at the time. White, who later was the president of the National League, said, "That was the only time in 18 years I heard him mention my first name."

Rizzuto received the nickname "Scooter" while in the minor leagues, from fellow infielder Billy Hitchcock, who later managed in the Majors. Hitchcock took note of Rizzuto's short legs and said, "You ain't runnin', you're scootin.'"

Another nickname Rizzuto had in the politically incorrect past was "Little Dago," a derogatory term for men of Italian descent, but in a way it, too, was a compliment, since it was a play on "Big Dago," which was what many opponents called Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio.

One of the more poignant stories about how much of a loner DiMaggio was came from Rizzuto. On the day Joe D.'s 56-game hitting streak ended in 1941, Rizzuto offered to take DiMaggio out because he knew his teammate was upset. DiMaggio asked Rizzuto to loan him $20 and then went into the night alone.

Being little was something Rizzuto could not deny. Even in an era when many players were not six feet tall, Rizzuto was spare of build at 5-foot-6 and less than 160 pounds. He was athletic, however, and carved out a career as one of baseball's best defensive shortstops and base runners and mastered the lost art of bunting. The five-time All-Star's .273 career batting average was well-earned. Fiero Francis Rizzuto was born Sept. 25, 1916 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a streetcar conductor. His birth year had been listed as 1917, but Rizzuto told New York Daily News baseball columnist Bill Madden that he had lied about his age after some players told him it would add a year to his career. Scooter played both baseball and football at Richmond Hill High School in Queens and had dreams of playing baseball for a living, which was nearly shattered when he failed to impress the Dodgers, his favorite team, in a 1937 tryout.

"I just got out of high school, and Casey Stengel was managing the Dodgers," Rizzuto recalled in 2000 for the Hall of Fame's Legend Series. "He took one look at me, and I will never forget this — I would never let him forget this, either — he said, 'Listen, kid, you better go and get yourself a shoeshine box. That is the only way you'll make a living.' I was going out to Ebbets Field to try to impress someone. I was crushed. And then the Yankees called me. They had a one-week tryout camp. It was a little bit of what they could see, what you could do. And you could play a game every day. It was a good thing I knew how to bunt and steal, although I did hit one in the seats. I hit a home run down the left field line, it hit the foul pole, and so the Yankees signed me to a contract."

Rizzuto would be reunited with Stengel when Casey became the Yankees' manager in 1949, by which time Scooter had established himself as one of the AL's most reliable players. Joe McCarthy was the manager when Rizzuto joined the team in 1941 and hit .307 in 133 games. The only other time Scooter batted over .300 was in his MVP season of 1950, when he hit .324 with 200 hits and 125 runs.

Stengel moved Rizzuto from the bottom of the lineup to the top, where he usually batted second and occasionally led off. Rizzuto's bunting ability helped him lead the AL in sacrifices for four consecutive seasons, He was among the top five basestealers seven times. Gold Gloves for fielding were not given out until 1957, ther year after Rizzuto retired as a player, but he likely would have won several. He led the AL in double plays and chances three times each, in fielding percentage and putout twice apiece and in assists once.

"My best pitch is anything the batter grounds, lines or pops in the direction of Rizzuto," teammate Vic Raschi once said.

Rizzuto lost his hold on the position in 1954 when he hit only .195 with 15 RBI in 307 at-bats, and Stengel used Willie Miranda and Jerry Coleman often at shortstop. Billy Hunter actually played more games at shortstop than Rizzuto in 1955, but Scooter started all seven games of that World Series, although he was removed for a pinch-hitter in three games.

The end of the line for Rizzuto as a player came on Old-Timers Day at the Stadium Aug. 25, 1956, the same day the Yankees claimed outfielder Enos Slaughter off waivers from the Kansas City Athletics. Rizzuto met with club officials, who were discussing ways to get Slaughter on the 25-man roster that had to be cemented within the week for his eligibility for a possible World Series.

Rizzuto realized that he was the player the Yankees intended to release, which they did. He maintained that Stengel and general manager George Weiss reneged on a promise that if the Yankees made the Series, Rizzuto would be put on the roster as the backup for Gil McDougald, the regular shortstop, but Hunter was kept instead.

Little did Rizzuto realize at the time that his years with the Yankees were not over. Rizzuto toyed with the idea of joining the Giants' broadcast team but decided against it when he heard the club intended to move from New York to San Francisco after the 1957 season. Instead, at the urging of the Ballantine Brewing Company, which sponsored the Yankees' games on radio and TV, Rizzuto was added to the booth with legendary announcers Mel Allen and Red Barber.

Although Rizzuto occasionally came into the booth when he was out of the lineup due to injury, he was not welcomed warmly as a colleague by the two veteran broadcasters — even Allen, who had witnessed nearly every game of Scooter's career. Rizzuto believed Allen and Barber resented him because of his inexperience. Former players such as Harry Heilman and Dizzy Dean found success in the broadcast booth, but Rizzuto was a first in the media capital of New York.

Yet it was precisely his unsophisticated manner and nasally Brooklyn accent endeared him to Yankees fans over the years. He refused to give up his "Holy Cow!" call that had been used first by another broadcasting legend, Harry Caray, because it was a phrase Rizzuto had used since childhood to avoid swearing. Anthing that was part of Phil Rizzuto was part of his broadcast.

Rizzuto's first media appearance occurred on Feb. 2, 1950, when he was the initial mystery guest on "What's My Line?" Rizzuto appeared several more times as a panelist on the popular game show that ran on CBS every Sunday night for 17 years. He did commercials for various products, and for a number of years was spokesman for a loan company known as The Money Store.

Among Rizzuto's most famous calls were Roger Maris' 61st home run in 1961 and Chris Chambliss' pennant-clinching homer in the 1976 AL Championship Series. Scooter became so identified with the Yankees that the singer Meat Loaf used with permission his play-by-play of a game as background in the 1977 song, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."

His uniform No. 10 was retired by the Yankees Aug. 4, 1985 on Phil Rizzuto Day, but he ended up being upstaged by Tom Seaver, who pitched his 300th career victory that afternoon for the Chicago White Sox. Rizzuto never failed to bring that up to Seaver during their eight years as partners on Yankees telecasts from 1989 to 1996.

In 1993, a book edited by Tom Peyer and Hart Seely, "Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto," featured portions of Scooter's stream of conscience broadcasts in the form of poetry.

Rizzuto once said on the air upon learning of the death of Pope Paul VI, "Well, that kind of puts a damper on even a Yankee win."

So does the passing of Phil Rizzuto.

Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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