14 August 2007

“Scooter” Retrospective: Phil Rizzuto Dies at 89

Phil Rizzuto, erstwhile New York Yankees shortstop and 40-year Yankees radio and TV broadcast announcer, died last night at age 89.

To quote the Scooter, "Well, that kind of puts the damper on even a Yankee win."

Obviously, a lot more people mourned the passing of Pope Paul VI in 1978 (about whom Rizutto uttered that line) than will cry for the Scooter, and rightly so, but in his own niche, he was just as beloved.

Phil Rizzuto, courtesy of National Italian American FoundationPhil Rizzuto's major league playing career started when he was 23 years old. A Brooklyn native, and only 5'6" tall, when he was called up from the minors in 1941, he supposedly had a hard time convincing the guard at Yankee Stadium that he was on the team and should be let inside. When he went to try out for his hometown team in 1937, he was told by then-Dodgers manager Casey Stengel to go and shine shoes for a living, but later became one of Stengel's favorite players when Casey helmed the Yankees in 1949. One story Rizzuto related about Stengel dealt with a death threat he had received in the mail before a series against the Red Sox in September of 1950, the year he won the MVP. The letter supposedly said that he, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra and Johnny Mize would be shot if they showed up in uniform. When Rizzuto showed the letter to his manager, Casey gave him Billy Martin's uniform to wear, and sent Martin in with Scooter's #10 on his back.

Not surprisingly, Scooter's diminutuve size prevented him from exploiting the game the way most of his peers did in the late 1940's and early 1950's, a time when walks and homers dominated the game, and an average team stole only about 40 bases per season. Scooter frequently stole 15-20 bases all by himself, finishing in the top 6 in the American League eight times in his 13-year playing career. He also ranked in the top 10 in triples three times, another testament to his speed, inspite of his short legs. His brand of slap-hitting, aggressive base-running and self-sacrifice brought a breath of fresh air in an otherwise boring era for baseball. Rizzuto led the AL in sacrifice hits four times and is third on the Yankees' all-time list, and ranks 10th among Yankees with 49 hit-by-pitches. He was widely regarded as one of the best bunters in baseball history, and later would try to impart his knowledge on the subject to Yankee players as a special instructor uring Spring Training, after his own playing career had ended.

A patient hitter with a keen eye (he walked 651 times in his career but only struck out 398 times), Scooter was not a sabermetrician's favorite type of player, but his skills clearly helped the Yankees to the nine American League pennants and eight World Series championships they won with him on the team. The sportswriters of his era recognized this, voting him the AL MVP in 1950. He placed second to Ted Williams in 1949 and got MVP votes six other times, ranking as high as 6th, in 1953. Though he hit only .246 in postseason play, he ranks among the top ten in hits, singles, walks, stolen bases, at-bats, and times on base, mostly because his 52 World Series games rank 6th all-time. He made the All-Star team five times, four of them after WWII, though he was never the same hitter he had looked like before he went into the service.

Much of Scooter's value as a player owed to his prowess as a defensive shortstop. Long before Cal Ripken proved that a man built like a Greek god could play short effectively, Rizutto was the quintessential defense-first, any-offense-is-gravy shortstop that most teams employed. Contemporary Hall-of-Fame shortstops like Pee Wee Reese, Arky Vaughan, Lou Boudreau and Luke Appling were all better offensive players...and were all at least three or four inches taller and weighed 15 or 20 pounds more than the Scooter. That he got as many hits as he did out of his wiry little fram is fairly impressive. And in spite of that, his defense, at its best, could rival many of the best defensive shortstops in history. Baseball Prospectus gives him four seasons with 20+ Fielding Runs Above Average, while Ozzie Smith, widely considered the best defensive shortstop in history, has only six such seasons, despite a much longer playing career.

Rizzuto, like many of his contemporaries, lost much of his career to the Second World War, playing three years (1943-45, his age 25-27 seasons) for the U.S. Navy's baseball team instead of in the American League. Certainly he could have compiled more stats if he had those three seasons in the prime of his career back, but more important, he might have helped the Yankees not to finish 3rd in 1944 and 4th in 1945 as he and his star teammates Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, Red Ruffing, Johnny Murphy and others were off contributing to the war effort.

Scooter's playing career ended in 1956, when he was apparently called into the general manager's office to look over the roster and help them decide who on the roster they should cut to make room for the recently acquired Enos Slaughter. After suggesting several names and having each one opposed for one reason or another, it became apparent to Rizzuto that his was the expendable name, and he was let go. Nevertheless, at the insistence of Ballantine Beer, one of the Yankees' biggest sponsors at the time, Scooter was almost immediately hired to do broadcasting, a job he held for about 40 years.

Rizzuto became a fixture on WMCA radio and in the WPIX broadcast booth, working with the likes of Mel Allen, Red Barber, Bill White, Bobby Brown, Bobby Murcer and many others during his long career. He became famous as an almost unabashed homer, more than occasionally lapsing from announcing the Yankee game to actually rooting for them. He famously always referred to his broadcast partners by their last names, as he had his former teammates. (The reason Bill White jokingly gave for why he was leaving the Yankees' booth to become president of the National League in 1989 was that after 18 years of working together, his partner still didn't know his first name!) Fans loved his humor, his "Holy cow!" exclamations during broadcasts, and toward the end of his career, his general lack of ability to follow the game itself. Though it became a challenge to follow the game when even the announcer would admit to lapses of attention (Rizzuto would mark his scorecard "WW" for "Wasn't Watching" whenever he missed a play, which was often), the genuineness and endearing nature of his broadcasts made him the longest-tenured and most loved announcer in Yankees history. His monologue full of baseball/sex-related double entendres, on the recording of Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", continually introduces new generations of horny teenagers to his style as they hear the song at parties and on the radio, even if they don't know it's the Scooter.

He retired from broadcasting for the last time (after threating to do so for years) after the 1996 season.

Phil Rizzuto, courtesy of BaseballLibrary.com

Rizzuto was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, by the Veterans Committee, after years of waiting, even though he had what most knowledgeable fans consider sub-par numbers. Despite that, and despite the fact that Bill James used him as a frequent illustration in his book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, James ranked him as the 16th best shortstop in history when his Historical Baseball Abstract was re-published in 2001.

Phil (Fiero Francis) Rizzuto
25 September 1917 – 14 August 2007

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