Wednesday, August 15, 2007
NEW YORK -- His speed and spunk made him a Hall of Famer.
"Holy cow!" made Phil Rizzuto famous.
Popular as a player and beloved as a broadcaster, the New York Yankees shortstop during their dynasty years of the 1940s and 1950s died Monday night. "The Scooter" was 89.
Rizzuto had pneumonia and died in his sleep at a nursing home in West Orange, N.J., daughter Patricia Rizzuto said Tuesday. He had been in declining health for several years.
"I guess heaven must have needed a shortstop," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. "He epitomized the Yankee spirit -- gritty and hard charging -- and he wore the pinstripes proudly."
Rizzuto was the oldest living Hall of Famer and his Cooperstown plaque noted how he "overcame diminutive size." At 5-foot-6, he played over his head, winning seven World Series titles and an AL MVP award and becoming a five-time All-Star.
""Phil was a gem, one of the greatest people I ever knew. A dear friend and great teammate," said Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who frequently visited Rizzuto in his later years. "When I first came up to the Yankees, he was like a big -- actually, small -- brother to me."
Rizzuto's No. 10 was retired by baseball's most storied team, and the club will wear his number on its left sleeves for the rest of the season.
The flags at Yankee Stadium were lowered to half-staff before Tuesday night's game against Baltimore and a bouquet was placed by Rizzuto's plaque at Monument Park. A moment of silence was held and a video tribute played on the center field scoreboard screen.
Yet it was after he moved into the broadcast booth that Rizzuto reached a new level celebrity with another generation of Yankees fans.
Rizzuto delighted TV and radio listeners for four decades, his voice dripping with his native Brooklyn. He loved his favorite catch-phrase -- exclaiming "Holy cow!" when Roger Maris hit his 61st home run -- and often shouted "What a huckleberry!"
In an age of broadcasters who spout statistics, Rizzuto was a storyteller. He liked to talk about things such as his fear of lightning, the style of an umpire's shoes or even the prospect of outfielder Dave Winfield as a candidate for president.
"He didn't try to act like an announcer," Hall of Fame teammate Whitey Ford said. "He just said what he thought. It added fun to the game."
Rizzuto liked to acknowledge birthdays and anniversaries, read notes from fans, talk about his favorite place to get a cannoli and send messages to old cronies. Once he noticed old teammate Bobby Brown -- then the American League president -- sitting in a box seat and hollered down, trying to get his attention.
"He would keep getting in trouble with WPIX for announcing birthdays and anniversaries," one of his daughters, Patricia Rizzuto, recalled.
And if Rizzuto missed a play, he would scribble "ww" in his scorecard box score. That, he said, meant "wasn't watching."
His fans and colleagues never minded. Because with a simple shout of "Hey, White!" to longtime broadcasting partner Bill White, it was time for another tale.
Rizzuto's popularity was such that at a recent auction a Rizzuto cap embedded with a wad of chewing gum sold for more than $8,000. In the New York area, Rizzuto's antics became a staple for TV ads. Nonbaseball fans got to know him, too, when his voice appeared on Meat Loaf's 1977 rock smash "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."
"Phil was a unique figure who exemplified the joy of our game to millions of fans," commissioner Bud Selig said.
Rizzuto was a flashy player who could always be counted on for a perfect bunt, a nice slide or a diving catch in a lineup better known for its cornerstone sluggers. He played 13 seasons alongside the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle in a career interrupted by Navy service in World War II.
Often overshadowed by Hall of Fame teammates, it made sense that Rizzuto was the first "mystery guest" on the old game show "What's My Line?" in 1950.
A leadoff man with quick feet that earned him his nickname, Rizzuto was a staple on the Yankees teams that won 11 pennants and nine World Series between 1941 and 1956.
"He was a Yankee all the way," Indians Hall of Famer Bob Feller said. "He knew the fundamentals of the game and he got 100 percent out of his ability. He played it hard and he played it fair."
Rizzuto came to the Yankees in 1941 and batted .307 as a rookie. After the war, he returned in 1946 and became the American League MVP in 1950. He batted .324 that season and also went 58 games without an error.
He led all AL shortstops in double plays three times and had a career batting average of .273. He played errorless ball in 21 consecutive World Series games and DiMaggio said the shortstop "held the team together."
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Rizzuto compiled a .627 personal winning percentage during his 13-year major-league career (1,039-618). No active position player with even 200 career games played has a winning percentage that high. The only active position player with a career personal winning percentage in the .600s in at least 1,000 games is Derek Jeter (1,081-713, .603).
Long after his playing career, Rizzuto could often be found talking ball in the Yankees clubhouse. He especially enjoyed his visits with Jeter.
"Mr. Rizzuto serves as the ultimate reminder that physical stature has little bearing on the size of a person's heart," Jeter said. "Nothing was ever given to Phil, and he used every ounce of his ability to become one of the greatest Yankees to ever wear this uniform."
On Phil Rizzuto Day at Yankee Stadium in 1985, the team gave him a fitting present: a cow wearing a halo.
The cow knocked Rizzuto over and, of course, he shouted, "Holy cow!"
"That thing really hurt," he said. "That big thing stepped right on my shoe and pushed me backwards, like a karate move."
Rizzuto was passed over for the Hall of Fame 15 times by the writers and 11 times by the Veterans Committee. Finally, a persuasive speech by Ted Williams pushed Rizzuto into Cooperstown in 1994.
"If we'd had Rizzuto in Boston, we'd have won all those pennants instead of New York," Williams often said.
"I never thought I deserved to be in the Hall of Fame," Rizzuto once said. "The Hall of Fame is for the big guys, pitchers with 100 mph fastballs and hitters who sock homers and drive in a lot of runs. That's the way it always has been and the way it should be."
The flag at Cooperstown was lowered to half-staff and a laurel was placed around his plaque, as is custom when Hall of Famers die. With Rizzuto's death, executive Lee MacPhail, 89, became the oldest living Hall member. Among the eldest of living Hall of Famers are Bobby Doerr and Feller (born in 1918), Monte Irvin (1919) and Stan Musial (1920).
Rizzuto is survived by his wife, Cora, whom he married in 1943; daughters Cindy Rizzuto, Patricia Rizzuto and Penny Rizzuto Yetto; son Phil Rizzuto Jr.; and two granddaughters.
A private, family funeral is planned. The family is working with the Yankees on a memorial to be held at Yankee Stadium, Patricia Rizzuto said.