By Marty Appel / Marty Appel Public Relations
When Phil Rizzuto broke in with the Yankees in 1941, the year of the great 56-game hitting streak of Joe DiMaggio, among the pitchers he faced were 41-year old Lefty Grove of Boston and 40-year old Ted Lyons of Detroit. Among the managers in opposing dugouts were Connie Mack in Philadelphia, Bucky Harris in Washington, Roger Peckinpaugh in Cleveland and Jimmy Dykes in Chicago.
Grove and Lyons were born in 1900; Harris and Dykes in 1896, Peckinpaugh in 1891 Connie Mack in 1862 while the Civil War raged. His own manager, Joe McCarthy, was born in 1887. And there was our Scooter, 24, on the field with them all, establishing himself, marching towards a world championship in his rookie season.
Fast forward to 1996. It was the Scooter’s last season in the WPIX broadcast booth, his 30th. The Yankee team included Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada. There he was, between cannolis and birthday greetings, describing the budding careers of this new generation of Yankee greats. He called Jeter’s first home run. And fittingly, he went out with another world championship.
And so it is safe to say that a century after Phil’s playing debut – 2041 – there will be millions of fans still around who learned their baseball from him, cherished the joy he brought to the broadcasts, and felt like part of his family. Yes in 2041, fans will think fondly of a guy who batted against Lefty Grove and played against Connie Mack as though he was their personal tutor to the game of baseball.
What a legacy. What a man.
Scooter defied conventional wisdom at every turn. Many thought he was too small to be a Major League ballplayer, and at 5’6 and 150 pounds (soaking wet), one could see the argument. Even in the ’30s, when he was trying out, that was small for a big leaguer.
But he had guts and natural talent – a great contact hitter, maybe the best bunter in the game’s history, and remarkable range at shortstop. Oh, could he hang in there on the double play with spikes flying high to knock him over. He had soft hands and a strong accurate arm, and once anyone gave him a good chance, he proved his worth.
How many guys can claim to have been a team’s regular shortstop on five consecutive world championship teams? Only one. Number 10. And throw in an American League MVP award in the midst of that too.
Okay, so then he retires and the folks at Ballantine Beer, along with the Yankees, decide to make a broadcaster out of him.
“I had no broadcasting skills other than knowledge of the game and the active players,” he said. “And they put me in the booth with Mel Allen and Red Barber, maybe the two greatest broadcasters of all time.”
As a player, he had broken in with DiMaggio and Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing, and he was taking the popular Frank Crosetti’s job. The veterans barely made room for him to take batting practice.
Broadcasting was tougher. Mel and Red had a low regard for players becoming broadcasters. Allen was kinder, but still had his strong broadcast style and would cringe when Phil’s efforts didn’t meet his high standards. Barber was just plain tough. He didn’t like the idea and he didn’t make it easy for Phil.
But Rizzuto outlasted them and ultimately gained their acceptance. (Well, at least Mel’s). And then he would team with others – Joe Garagiola, Frank Messer, Jerry Coleman, Bill White, Fran Healy, Tom Seaver, George Grande – anyone remember Bob Gamere and Dom Valentino? – and somehow, now that he was the senior announcer, instead of being a difficult taskmaster like Mel and Red, he brought out the best in every partner he worked with. Phil had no ego that got in the way. He loved to give his partners plenty of time to talk, loved to needle them, loved to help them develop their own styles.
It was that same modesty that he applied to the daily questions he used to get about going into the Hall of Fame. “The truth is,” he would tell friends, “that while I’d love to be in there, to me the Hall of Fame is about Ruth and Cobb and Hornsby and Wagner and Walter Johnson – I’m not one of those guys!”
But eventually, the Veteran’s Committee decided he was. His pal Yogi Berra, a member of the committee, called him at home and said, “You’re in.” What a joyous day that was at his Hillside home. Cora Rizzuto hung the American flag over the front door as media came calling from early in the morning until late at night. Tears were in Rizzuto’s eyes. He would wind up giving one of the great induction speeches that Cooperstown had ever seen. And after regaling the audience with stories and laughter for 40 minutes, it was time to sit down, at which point he said, “Wait a minute, I haven’t even mentioned my broadcast career!”
No one, not on any team, ever won over more fans, taught more people to love baseball, made everyone enjoy the game so much, as did Philip Francis Rizzuto, the homegrown product who defied all odds to land in Cooperstown and in the hearts of baseball fans who will still be talking about him when the 21st century reaches middle age.
Holy cow to that!