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How the New York Yankees Respected and Then Disrespected Phil Rizzuto

Harold FriendChief Writer IFebruary 2, 2011

NEW YORK - JULY 9:  Phil Rizzuto runs onto the field during the New York Yankees 59th annual old-timers' day before the start of the Yankees game against the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 2005 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Indians defeated the Yankees 8-7. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Phil Rizzuto joined the New York Yankees in 1941. He batted .307 and played adequate defense at shortstop as the Yankees won the pennant and went on to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.

The following season, Rizzuto made the All-Star team as the Yankees again won the pennant, but they lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals despite Rizzuto's .381 batting average.

From 1943-45, Rizzuto had an adventurous time in the Navy. He was stationed at Norfolk Naval Training Station in 1943 where he played baseball, but then he served in the Pacific. The second greatest shortstop in Yankees' history caught malaria and was sent to recover in New Guinea.

Rizzuto resumed his career in 1946, and after four decent seasons, broke out in 1950 with a year that time would show matched some of Derek Jeter's better seasons.

The Yankees, on their way to a record five consecutive World Championships (1949-53), won the pennant and World Series for the second consecutive season. Rizzuto batted .324 with a .418 on base average and, although not a power hitter, a .439 slugging average.

He was voted the American League's MVP.

It is interesting that Derek Jeter was the 2000 all-star game MVP as well as the World Series MVP, but he has yet to be voted the American League MVP.

The Yankees rewarded Rizzuto for his great 1950 season by making him the third highest paid Yankee ever. Only Joe DiMaggio ($100,000) and Babe Ruth ($80,000) eclipsed Rizzuto's $50,000, which was a $15,000 raise.

Rizzuto never again approached his MVP season. The highest he ever batted from 1951-56 was .274 in 1951. It was obvious that his skills were eroding.

Late in Aug. 1956 Rizzuto was batting only .231 as a part-time shortstop. On Old-Timers' Day, the Yankees announced that they had released Phil Rizzuto.

Once again, it is necessary to compare then with now.

When it was clear that Rizzuto was finished as a fulltime shortstop at the age of 38, the Yankees didn't hesitate to release him. It was the right move, but having it occur on Old Timers' Day was not in good taste.

Free agency didn't exist in 1956. The Yankees were loaded with stars, and even in his best years, Rizzuto was never the top Yankee. Today's Yankees are loaded with stars, but when one says "Yankee," the response is "Jeter."

In 2010, 36 year-old Derek Jeter had an off season. He didn't perform badly, batting .270, which is only 0.003 points lower than Rizzuto's lifetime average, but Jeter plays in a completely different era.

The Yankees signed Jeter to a three-year contract, which will pay him $15 million in 2011. The Yankees, Jeter, and many fans think he can return to form.

The Yankees were right, although insensitive in releasing Rizzuto. Only time will determine if they were right in retaining Derek Jeter.



References

Baseball Reference

Baseball in Wartime

VECSEY, G. (2007, Rizzuto was the yankees' chatty talisman. New York Times (1923-Current File), pp. D1. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/848089926?accountid=46260

Rizzuto, Shocked by Release, Says Club Offered Reinstatement After Sept. 1, New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 27 Aug 1956: pp. 23.

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