Sports Collectors Digest: Phil Rizzuto

By Marty Appel

The recent passing of Phil Rizzuto, at 89 the oldest living Hall of Famer, brought back so many wonderful memories for me. It was hard to think of Scooter – even in the week he passed away – without a smile.

I was first of all, a great fan of his broadcasting style. It was just so easy to take, so full of the love of the game and the joy of friendship. It was like watching the game with your favorite uncle, and if he didn’t remember the name of the third baseman, well, so what, you were having a good time, right?

When I first went to work in the Yankees PR department in 1968, I sought out the Scooter, then in his 12th year as a broadcaster, and said, “I just want to tell you how much I enjoy you on the air! In fact, when you go from TV to radio, I sometimes turn down the sound and turn on the radio so I continue to hear you!”

To which he replied, “Oh, don’t ever do that, you’ll catch all my mistakes!” Wonderful.

I worked with him throughout my time with the Yankees PR department, but later in my career I found myself as his boss, of all things! I had become executive producer of the Yankee telecasts for WPIX in New York, and as such, the announcers worked for me. Ha! Neither he nor I had any doubts about who was calling the shots.

“Scooter, you have to cut back on the birthday wishes.”

“Scooter, you can’t leave after 6 innings.”

“Scooter, you have to do some on-field interviews for us sometimes, it’s not fair to the other guys.”

Didn’t matter. He didn’t listen. And I made up my mind not to let it bother me. He had earned certain rights.

One thing I tried to accomplish – as others were trying to do as well – was to get him to write his autobiography. He wasn’t a rich man, and publishers were prepared to pay a nice advance, but he always refused.

“Oh, you wind up hurting someone’s feelings when you do that, even if you didn’t mean to. I don’t want to do that.”

It was the same attitude he had about going so long without being elected to the Hall of Fame.

“Oh, the Hall of Fame is for Ruth and Walter Johnson and Cobb and those guys,” he’d say. “I don’t belong with them.”

Of course, it was also the home of a lot of players he did stack up with, and he was genuinely overjoyed when he did finally get in. That day, I drove to his home in Hillside, NJ, just out of friendship. My days as a producer had ended some years earlier (most of the games went to cable), and we had patched up our little differences from the days I had to be the messenger not bearing enough money for him to continue. He was very underpaid for all he brought to the Yankees, but I could only offer him as much as my bosses would allow. Those were not my happiest career days.

Anyway, I went to his home to help him with the crush of media that day, and played a useful role in giving some organization to the passing hours, as well as telling Cora Rizzuto that she should hang the American flag out the window. It was, we all felt, like a national holiday. It was a great day, and I had the honor of joining them for dinner that night, along with my buddy John Moore, the director of the games. How many times do you have dinner with a guy the night he goes into the Hall of Fame?

We kept in touch, and when I was doing PR for Geppi’s Memorabilia Road Show through my own PR company years later, we got him to Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant in February 2006 for what would be his farewell to the New York media, a press conference for the auction of his personal memorabilia. He was 88, but in good form, with huckleberries and holy cows for everyone. It was a wonderful day.

As for a book, the closest he ever came to an autobiography was in 1962. Al Silverman, then a 25-year old sportswriter who had become the editor of Sport Magazine in 1960 (it’s glory years, as everyone remembers today), was approached by a friend to seek out Rizzuto for a telling of the great ’61 season.

Silverman, with help from the Yankees PR office, hauled a reel-to-reel tape recorder to the bowling alley Phil owned with Yogi Berra in New Jersey, walked him through the season, got his insight, and sprinkled Phil’s own life story through the narrative. The final product, “The Miracle New York Yankees,” would be published by Coward McCann in 1962.

“We didn’t get any royalties, and I think I made $1500 all together,” he recalls now from his Manhattan apartment. But I loved the assignment, was in awe of the whole setting, and had great fun working with him. It was my first hardcover book.”

Silverman had succeeded Ed Fitzgerald as Sport editor when Silverman went to the Literary Guild book club. Ironically, Silverman would leave Sport in 1972 to become the CEO of the Book of the Month Club, to be succeeded at Sport by Dick Schaap. Along the way he would write autobiographies with Paul Hornung, Frank Robinson, and the acclaimed “I Am Third,” with Gale Sayers, for which he and Sayers still receive royalties through a youth edition. (Al retired from Book of the Month Club in 1987, but then got an offer from Viking and spent nine more years as an editor).

There are two other “Rizzuto books” worth mentioning. Tom Horton, who had co-authored a good Berra autobiography, got Phil to write “The October Twelve: Five Years of Yankee Glory, 1949-1953” which were condensed bios of the twelve players who were part of the five straight world championship teams, Phil being one of them. And then there was one he had nothing to do with, “Oh Holy Cow” by Tom Peyer and Hart Seely, which took actual broadcast work by Scooter and transcribed it as though it was poetry. It was clever and fun and a fine tribute to Rizzuto, in the same spirit as his voice calling a play was included in a Meat Loaf recording which earned Scooter a gold record.

Phil’s broadcasting career ended in 1996, the first year of Joe Torre and Derek Jeter and the current run of championships, so it was nice that that bookend would compliment with the 1941 season, when as a rookie, he helped win a world championship for the Yankees in the company of Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez.

Phil Rizzuto led a wonderfully happy life, exceeding expectations at every turn, earning love and affection from fans of multiple generations, and leaving behind a legacy of good deeds and the joy of baseball.