Sunday, February 7, 2010

10 Days Until Spring Training: Phil Rizzuto

The 1956 celebration of Old Timer's Day took place on August 25th. At that point, Phil Rizzuto was already a bit of an old timer himself, nearly 40 years old having spent 13 seasons with the Yankees and served 3 years in the Navy during World War II. Scooter had lost his position as everyday shortstop for the Yanks to Jerry Coleman and Willie Miranda starting back in 1954 and had struggled in the plate appearances he was given in '56, hitting only .231/.310/.231. It was clear that his career was nearing its end, but the way that it came to a close blindsided Rizzuto.

Before the game against the White Sox that day, Casey Stengel called Phil into his office. The Yankees had just acquired Enos Slaughter from the Kansas City Athletics off of waivers and Stengel began discussing ways in which he could fit him on the 25 man roster. He had Rizzuto read down the roster and suggest players that could be moved to make way for Slaughter. Scooter would read off a name and Stengel would reject the idea. He kept looking over the roster until it was clear that Stengel was trying to get him to chose his own name. Naturally, Rizzuto was less than pleased with the way the Yankees had gone about this.

Stengel and general manager George Weiss assured Rizzuto that he would be added to the World Series roster as a back up for Gil McDougald should the Yankees make it that far. But adding to the fire, Weiss and Stengel reneged on their offer, eventually choosing Billy Hunter instead. Scooter felt betrayed and that broken promise very nearly ended Rizzuto's relationship with the Yankees. Fortunately for generations of fans of the Bombers, Rizzuto was the bigger man, forgave the team and went on to become one of the most recognizable ambassadors of the franchise for the next 50 years.

Rizzuto's Yankee career began almost twenty years before the infamous Old Timer's Day event and it might not have begun at all if it weren't for Casey Stengel. A Brooklyn native, Rizzuto explained that he grew up rooting for the Dodgers because it was easier to sneak into Ebbets Field than Yankee Stadium. Fresh out of high school, Rizzuto showed up at Ebbets Field to fulfill his childhood dream and try out for the team. The Old Perfessor was managing the Dodgers at the time, took a quick glance and Scooter's 5'6" frame and famously told him to "go get his shinebox" because that was the only way he was going to make a living.

Although dejected by the dismissal, Rizzuto didn't give up. Shortly thereafter, the Yankees invited him to a one week tryout camp. Even at that early age, Scooter was already and adept fielder, bunter and base stealer. Those skills, along with a home run that he hit during one of the scrimmages netted him a deal with the team.

Rizzuto spent the next four years in the minor leagues, jumping from D to B to AA-ball and maintaining an average over .300 wherever he went. During his 1940 season in Kansas City, he hit .347 and was named Sporting News minor league player of the year. He made his major league debut on April 14th, 1941.

As a 24 year old rookie, Scooter started 128 games a shortstop, hit .307 and finished 20th in the MVP voting. The Yankees went on to win the World Series against the Dodgers that year, although Rizzuto only manged 2 hits in 21 plate appearances. He was named to the All-Star team the following year and the Yankees made it back to the World Series but lost to the Cardinals.

In 1943, he was drafted into the Navy. Scooter never saw active duty and instead played on the Navy baseball team alongside Dodger's shortstop Pee Wee Reese, Dom DiMaggio, Don Padgett and Benny McCoy. He served for three years, missing the '43, '44 and '45 MLB seasons.

When he returned to the Yankees, it took Rizzuto a few years to regain his form as a hitter. He struggled through three below average seasons before Casey Stengel took over the reigns as manager. In 1949, Stengel moved Rizzuto from the bottom of the line up to the top, which coincided with a bump in his performance and a second place in the MVP vote behind Ted Williams. More importantly though, the Yankees won their first of 5 consecutive World Series, this one again over Rizzuto's childhood team, the Dodgers.

In 1950, Scooter finally put it all together, hitting .324/.418/.439 and winning the AL MVP. It was especially sweet with Stengel as manager - the most emphatic way possible that Rizzuto could have proved his offhanded dismissal of him at Ebbets Field years before was wrong.

After his MVP campaign, Rizzuto played two more years as the Yankees' full time shortstop before eventually becoming a part time player. While he was never a force offensively, he was better than most shortstops of his time. His career OPS+ was 93, but the a big reason that the Yankees were able to have the success that they did during Rizzuto's time in Pinstripes was that he offered roughly league average production from a premium defensive position. And Scooter's defense was well renowned. His former teammate Vic Raschi once said, "My best pitch is anything the batter grounds, lines or pops in the direction of Rizzuto."

After his unceremonious dismissal from from the Yanks in 1956, Rizzuto considered severing ties with the team. He felt spurned but eventually set his pride aside and joined the organization as a broadcaster the following year.

He was added to a booth with veterans Mel Allen and Red Barber and didn't initially fit in very well. Rizzuto felt that the two resented him for his inexperience. It would be precisely that lack of finish that endeared him to Yankees fans over his 40 year career in the booth.

While Rizzuto was known for his ability to play baseball the right way and lauded for his alertness in the field, his broadcasting style was much of the opposite. He was prone to miss things that happened during the game and interjected the broadcast with moments of personal levity and downright goofiness, such as "Bouncer to third, they'll never get him! No, why don't I just shut up!". He would openly advertise the fact that he was leaving the game early to beat the traffic over the George Washington Bridge and take time to wish friends and family a happy birthday over the air.

Rizzuto's success as a player earned him great respect throughout baseball but his trademark broadcasting style endeared him to generations of Yankees fans in a way his on-the-field play never could have. By narrating tens of thousands of games to people in driving in the cars or sitting in their living rooms, he became a familiar part of their lives. By sharing intimate details about his likes (golf, canolis) and dislikes (spiders, traffic, lightning) he was more than just a disembodied voice coming through the radio and eventually the television set.

The Yankees retired his number and dedicated a plaque in Monument Park to him on August 4th, 1985. He was passed on for the Hall of Fame repeatedly by both the writers (15 times) and the Veteran's committee (11 times) but eventually gained entrance in 1994 partially because of a persuasive speech given by Ted Williams. During it, Williams said that if the Red Sox had Rizzuto, they might have been the ones who won those pennants in the 40's and 50's.

By all accounts, Rizzuto was one of the kindest and friendliest personalities in all of baseball. When he passed away in 2007 at 89 years old after a few years of declining health, the Yankee community lost one of its pillars. He was the oldest living Hall of Famer at the time of his death.

Yogi Berra used to visit Scooter in the nursing home where he lived on a regular basis during the final years of his life. As a tribute to his best friend, he appeared briefly in the broadcast booth that night. It was difficult for Yogi as he was choked up for most of the appearance, but he went through with it as a way to honor all the years that Scooter spent in the booth. Earlier that day, Yogi talked about his lifelong pal during a lengthy media session in the Yankees dugout with Joe Torre at his side:

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