God Bless The Scooter — and He Will
In 1941, a first-year Yankees shortstop entered the general manager’s office. "I didn’t know Ed Barrow," recalled Phil Rizzuto. "I did know that the man being shaved by a guy whom he kept calling Goulash was Barrow."
Rizzuto waited silently. "Young man," Barrow said, "what is your trouble?" Phil’s was money. ‘I give you this, and no more!" the g.m. flushed. "If OK sign! If not, get the **** out of here!" Goulash applied talcum power. Rizzuto signed.
Red Ruffing, Bill Dickey, and Joe DiMaggio gave Phil the cold shoulder. Hurt, the 5-foot-6 new kid on the block approached another star. "Relax, they’re not snubbing you," said Lefty Gomez. "They just haven’t seen you yet." Later, DiMag became a friend. "If you forget Phil was so tiny as a player, it’s because his reputation was so huge."
You gotta’ be kiddin! Holy Cow! What a huckleberry! Phil Rizzuto — The Scooter — died this week at 90. Smaller than the game, Rizzuto made baseball seem larger than it was.
The Legend Starts
Leave it to The Scooter — Fiero Francis Rizzuto, a trolley car conductor’s son — to be born in Brooklyn. At 16, he tried out for the Giants and Dodgers. "Go get a shoe nox," sniffed Brooklyn’s Casey Stengel. "That’s the only way you’ll make a living." Phil then phoned the Yanks. Signing, he went to Bassett, Virginia.
"Bassett!" said Rizzuto. "Sounds like I’m swearing a somebody." Holy Cow! Cows draped its hill. "The players told me that the front legs of the cows were shorter than the back because they were always on the hill. And I believed them. With my short legs, I’ve always had an affinity with cows" — thus, Phil’s trademark. Billy Hitchcock named him "Scooter": "Man, you’re not runnin’, you’re scootin’."
In 1941, the rookie reached the Bronx. Hitting .307, he replaced Joe DiMaggio at a Newark fireman communion breakfast. "Joe had a family illness, but they were still expecting him. So I get booed — at a communion breakfast!" Embarrassed, a fireman asked him home for coffee. Daughter Cora Esselborn then entered the room. Half-a-century later Phil’s blood ran, not scooted: "Those legs, her red sweater, those blue eyes." They married June 23, 1943.
By then, Rizzuto, in the Navy, had or would serve in the Philippines and Australia, anchor Pee Wee Reese’s team, and get malaria. Released in December 1945, he saw "a seminal American invention," Ron Fimrite wrote of Babe Ruth, break down. In June 1948, the stripes retired No. 3. Said Phil: "He was so sick [of cancer], it took two men to lift him."
Ruth leaned on Bob Feller’s bat like a cane. "Any time you want me to come to your house for Holy Communion, I’d be glad to do it," said His Eminence Cardinal Spellman. Babe smiled. "Thank you, but I’d rather come to your place." Rizzuto’s place was pressure: "It didn’t take long," said Ted Williams, "to see that in big games he was at his best."
A New Career
Phil hit a 1942 Series-high .381. His 1949 last-day triple eluded Williams to help win a pennant. A year later he got 200 hits, scored 125 runs, and was named MVP. "My best pitch," said Vic Raschi, "is anything the batter grounds, lines, or pops in his direction."
Scooter knew how to field, bunt (Joe D.: "the greatest I ever saw:"), hit behind the runner, and win (four All-Star teams, nine flags, and six titles). "Those years I made more money from Series cuts than I did from my salary for the whole year." 1953: now-skipper Stengel benched him. 194: Phil hit .195. 1955: The Yanks held his Day. 1956: The stripes hung a noose.
"We’ve got a chance to get Enos Slaughter. What do you think/" said g.m. George Weiss. "Boy," said Rizzuto, taking cyanide, "getting him would be a help." Enos replaced him on the roster. Holy Cow! Released on Old-Timers Day, The Scooter, 39, was unemployed. "From a **** good living, suddenly I didn’t have anything." Mel Allen had him call a half-inning here or there. The Orioles offered radio.Phil was torn, not wanting to leave New York.
As Richard Reeves writes of politics, broadcasting magnifies charm and institutionalizes seduction. By late 1956, Rizzuto had charmed Yankees sponsor Ballantine Beer head Carl Badenhausen, who told Weiss to hire him. "Can you picture a thorn between two roses [Mel and Red Barber]? I wouldn’t have hired myself!" he laughed. The joke was on them: Stomaching each other, they resented Scooter.
"They were pros," said axed-for-Phil Jim Woods. "Rizzuto’d write down stories in the dugout, go on the air, and hide the paper." Interrupting, he stole one sign — "Oh, my God! He’s going to steal home!" — as Allen called a pitch. Another game Mel and Red left the booth, forcing Phil not to halt, stumble, and brook dead air."
"Kansas City Ath-aletics," he would say. Mel corrected him on air: "No, Phil, it’s Athletics." Scooter accepted it. Mother Rose detested it. Gradually, the two pros warmed. In 1957, the thorn caught a bouquet: CBS Radio’s thrice-weekly five-minute "Phil Rizzuto on Sports." On October 1, 1961, he got another.
"Fastball, hit deep to right!" Scooter yapped. "This could be it! Way back there! Holy Cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Maris! Look at ’3m fight for that ball out there! Holy Cow! What a shot! Maris had expunged a ghost. "And they’re still fighting for that ball out there! People are climbing over each other’s backs. One of the greatest sights I’ve seen here at Yankee Stadium!" Mel called the World Series v. Cincinnati. Phil called upon aspirin. "I screamed so loud on Maris’ call I had a headache for a week!"
At first, he did two innings daily. "He’d leave in the seventh or eighth," said Allen. "Red and I’d finish." One game went overtime. "And now to take you into the tenth, here is … here is": Rizzuto was already on the George Washington Bridge. "He became famed for leaving early," added Bob Costas. "Even when he stuck around, you’d hear him hooking the mike into the stand announcing the final score."
June 24, 1962: Yanks at Detroit. Inhaled by 35,638: 32,000 hots dogs and 41,000 and 34,500 bottles of beer and pop, respectively, during 600 pitches, three seventh-inning stretches, and a seven-hour game: New York, 9-7, on Jack Reed’s 22nd-inning blast. "I’ve got to leave," an Ontario writer said two innings earlier. "Where are you going?" said a colleague. "My visa just expired."
Leaving in the seventh, Phil flew to LaGuardia Airport, headed to Jersey, and turned on the radio. Time: 7 p.m. The 1:30 game should have ended by 4. "I drop my jaw. Red’s starting the 19th": Mel has TV; neither can take a leak. "I’m on the bridge and say, ‘What am I gonna’ do? Should I turn around and fly back to Detroit? No, that doesn’t make sense.’"
He arrives home, kisses "my bride" Cora, and turns on WPIZ-TV. Allen’s warm-voweled lilt never seemed so cold.
The 1964 Yanks won the pennant. Next year’s flunked .500. Mel and Red both left. "They had Jerry Coleman, Joe Garagiola, but Rizzuto was the guy," wrote columnist Phil Mushnick. "Homework? Stick around? He’s The Scooter!"– increasingly his own best subject matter. An inning, George Vescey wrote, might link "birthday greetings, movie reviews, golf tips, war memories, frequent psychosomatic broodings, fearsome predictions of rain, sleet, snow, thunder, lightning, tornadoes, waterspouts," and allergies and insects: One dragon fly drove Scooter from the booth.
In 1974, Yankee Stadium began a $100 million facelift: Slumming at Shea Stadium, the 1976 pinstripes returned to win a flag. NBC aired the Series. "Under its new pact local Voices couldn’t broadcast," said Costas. Phil broke the rule, in his artful, artless way. Later Bob probed Rizzuto’s scorecard. A slash bespoke a K. "WW" seemed to mean a single and sacrifice. Puzzled, he said, "I’ve seen a lot of ways to keep score. What’s WW?" Phil: "Wasn’t watching."
Carmel DiPaolo, 90, writes a letter. ‘Before it gets too late," Phil replied, "she might not be with us the whole game" — going to bed or the great beyond, he doesn’t say. The camera spots a lovely teenage girl. Rizzuto: "She reminds me of that old song, ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like A Memory.’" Partner Bill White: "Scooter, I think that’s ‘Melody.’" Rizzuto: "Really. How do you know her name is Melody?" Cora said hat everyone has a trip door at the back of the head. "When a thought reaches the door, the brain asks if I should say this. My door is always open."
In 1985, the Yanks marked Phil’s birthday by presenting a convertible, golf clubs, and cow named Huckleberry, who stepped on his foot, decking him. Soon begins waving from the second deck. "You know, Mussolini used to do this." A visitor arrives from San Jose. "San Jose? I love San Jose. What’s that song?" Someone begins Dionne Warwick’s tune, "Do You Know The Way …?" Phil amends: "No, it isn’t San Jose. It’s Phoenix."
A grounder finds the hole. "They’ll never get him! They got him! I changed my mind before he got there so that doesn’t count as an error." At The Stadium, he vows to drive north to Philadelphia, then notes how Benjamin Franklin invented lightning. A sidekick starts laughing. "You know what I meant," Rizzuto says. I didn’t mean that Franklin invented lightning. I meant he discovered it." Among other things, he tells of putting grits in his pocket on visiting the South."My first time there. It looked like oatmeal. I didn’t know what to do."
A Hindu "or Indian or something" wrote a letter "beefing about that Holy Cow," said Scooter. "He said in India the cow is sacred, and I shouldn’t say such a thing." Love that Phil. If it’s sacred, he answered, what’s wrong with "Holy Cow!"?
Heaven of a Voice
In 1987, Rizzuto cut lyrics for Meat Loaf’s "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," not grasping how it hailed teenage sex. "Meat Loaf said, I’ve got this song for you.’ I thought it was a singing part — all Italians love to sing." Phil attended the recording session. Meat Loaf says: "It’s a talking part." Scooter: "Where’s the band to accompany me?" Meat Loaf: "We’ll put it in later." By and by his son said out of the blue, "Dad, you’re a rock star!" Six times pop reran the album, finally grasping its core. "I never knew, so help me. My priest gave me ****" — Rizzuto amusing, diverting: a character, not drone.
"Any idiot can call a great game," the Cubs’ Jack Quinlan claimed. "It takes a different tack — tell a joke, explain making moonshine, anything — with a game that’s dull." Was Phil a professional? He never feigned to be, said Associated Press’ Will Grimsley, "[attracting] a broader spectrum of the audience, nonbaseball people who might otherwise be watching," say, Friends or A&E — the most popular broadcaster to ever darn the stripes.
In 1994, the Veterans Committee belatedly drove him into Cooperstown. "For years baseball wanted me to sing the Anthem the day players were inducted," said the Metropolitan Opera’s Robert Merrill." I said, ‘Not till Rizzuto’s in.’" Scooter’s daughter phoned Induction Eve. "Mr. Merrill, Dad’s so nervous, he’s losing his voice." Merrill gave her lozenges. Later, Phil: "Where do I get those drops?" The Rizzutos got a trip to Europe that fall from the Yanks. At The Vatican, Pope Paul II changed his schedule for an audience. "I’ll tell you," said Phil, 76, "that’s as close to God as you can get."
Next August roused another sense of time running out. Mickey Mantle’s 1995 death of alcoholism "just hit me. I started thinking of my family." The funeral was in Dallas. Phil aired a game from Boston. "When I saw the [TV] service, I realized what a big mistake I had made [not going]." Distraught, he left in the fifth inning, retired, returned in 1996, and retired again.
In 1997, critic Richard Sandomir wrote, "Where are you, Scooter? The MSG Network’s Phil-free games miss his mirth." Bad game, good game, Scooter meant a fun game: more playactor than play-by-playman, baseball’s paison with pizzaz. God bless Phil Rizzuto — and He will.