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Phil Rizzuto: Why the New York Yankees Are the Greatest, Part Ten

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Phil Rizzuto: Why the New York Yankees Are the Greatest, Part Ten

The Scooter, Phil Rizzuto, was a New Yorker all his life.  

 

Born in Brooklyn, Phil first tried out for the home-team Brooklyn Dodgers in 1935.

 

At that time Casey Stengel was the manager of the Dodgers. 

 

He told Rizzuto to go get a shoeshine box, because he was too small to play in the major leagues.

 

Rizzuto was listed as 5’5” and 150 pounds but probably was never that big.

 

Undeterred, Rizzuto kept working, and was signed by the Yankees in 1937.

 

After becoming Minor League Player of the Year in 1940, Rizzuto came to the Bombers in ’41.  But he had a little trouble even getting in the locker room in spring training. when the clubhouse manager turned him away as some kid looking for autographs.

 

Rizzuto took the job of long-time Yankee shortstop Frank Crosetti, who would continue with the Yankees for many years as third base coach.

 

Rizzuto came to the Yanks when they were loaded with talent.  His first year was the year Joe DiMaggio set the all-time record for hits in consecutive games. 

 

The team also featured Bill Dickey behind the plate, Charlie Keller and Tommie Henrich in the outfield, Red Rolfe and Joe Gordon in the infield and pitchers, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing and Spud Chandler.

 

Phil would play with the Yankees for many years and saw the advent of Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and many other great players.

 

But Rizzuto would never be a “Bomber.”  He was known for choking up on the bat, slapping down on the ball and being one of the best bunters in the history of the game.

 

And he was excellent on defense.  At the time he retired, after being cut loose by the Yankees in the middle of the 1956 season, Rizzuto had the second-highest fielding percentage of any shortstop who had played to that time and also the second-highest number of double plays.

 

Phil was always among the best.  He was a six time All-Star.  In 1949, he finished second only to Ted Williams in the balloting for MVP.  In 1950 he would win the MVP award, when he hit .324 in leading the Yankees to their second straight World Series win.

 

And Phil was the shortstop on the dynastic Yankees that won five-straight World Series from 1949 to 1953 and won again in 1955.

 

Phil was also the butt of many jokes.  He was afraid of almost everything from bugs and snakes to lightning.  He came to the big leagues at a time when the players would leave their gloves on the field when they went in to bat.

 

But Phil stopped that practice when his own teammates and opposing players would put things in his glove.  It might be a bug or a dead spider or a used plug of chewing tobacco.

 

When Phil ran back onto the field and put his hand in his glove he might throw it twenty feet in the air when he stuck his hand on the foreign objects.  So Phil started bringing his glove to the bench with him and other players followed suit.

 

When Manager Casey Stengel let Phil go as an active player in the middle of the 1956 season, the little shortstop was heartbroken.

 

But Phil was thirty-nine years old at the time, had played in only thirty-nine games for the Yanks that year and was hitting only .231. 

 

Gil McDougald was the main shortstop at that time and the team had a surplus of young talented infielders, including a young minor leaguer, Tony Kubek who would come up to the big team in 1957 and eventually become the regular at short.

 

After the Yankees cut him loose, Phil was offered a playing contract with the St. Louis Cardinals and a minor-league chance with the Dodgers. 

 

But soon after leaving the team, he filled in broadcasting radio for New York Giants games.  In later years, he said he had never had any idea that he would get into the booth.  But he must have had some idea when he submitted a tape in the offseason to the Baltimore Orioles.

 

When Yankee radio sponsor Ballantine Beer heard that Phil might go to Baltimore, they insisted that George Weiss hire him for the games.  Rizzuto joined the incredible duo of Mel Allen and Red Barber.

 

Allen and Barber had virtually invented the method of broadcasting baseball games during its infancy on radio and then on television.

 

That pair were calm, smooth-voiced, and erudite and then they were teamed with Rizzuto, the Brooklyn boy who was a ballplayer—not a trained announcer.  Phil had a high pitched voice that cracked and his vocabulary was certainly different from Mel and Red.

 

Phil would wow fans of all ages for the next forty years and become famous for his phrases such as “Holy Cow,” “You Huckleberry,” and “Whoa Man, Did you See That!?”

 

Rizzuto would also announce birthdays while a fly ball was on its way to an outfielder’s glove, would often confuse the audience as to whether a ball was fair or foul, a home run or caught by an outfielder, who was hitting or even what his name was.

 

He may have been best-known in his later broadcast years for the canolis people would bring him, or for just getting up and leaving a game early so he could beat the traffic home.

 

One of the funniest stories may have been about the time Bobby Murcer looked at Phil’s score card during a game and asked him why he had marked “WW” in several places. 

 

Unperturbed Phil responded:  “That stands for Wasn’t Watching.”

 

Rizzuto was loved by all, and had a genuine love for all he encountered—whether baseball players, fans or people on the street.

 

Phil was honored many times at Yankee Stadium after his career ended.  His Number 10 was retired and he has a plaque in monument park.

 

In 1994 Phil Rizzuto was elected by the veterans committee to the Baseball Hall of Fame and commented that he never thought he would make it.  “I thought the Hall of Fame was just for big guys.”

 

But at the induction ceremony, in classic Rizzuto style, he entertained the crowd and had everyone laughing as he spoke of his experiences and the game he loved so much.

 

Phil Rizzuto died in 1997, but he will remain alive forever in the hearts of not only Yankee fans, but baseball fans everywhere.  Rizzuto is just another reason the Yankees are the greatest team ever.

 

 

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