Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Phil Rizzuto Will Be Missed

Here's the windup, fastball, hit deep to right, this could be it! Way back there! Holy cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Maris! And look at the fight for that ball out there! Holy cow, what a shot! Another standing ovation for Maris, and they're still fighting for that ball out there, climbing over each other's backs. One of the greatest sights I've ever seen here at Yankee Stadium!
- Phil Rizzuto's radio call of Roger Maris's 61st home run on October 1, 1961

Despite a thrilling ninth-inning win for the Yankees that featured another lights-out appearance by rookie phenom Joba Chamberlain, yesterday was a very sad day in the Yankee universe. Phil Rizzuto, a Hall of Fame Yankee shortstop and longtime Yankee announcer, passed away at the age of 89.

"Scooter" worked for the Bombers from his signing of a minor league contract to play shortstop in 1937 to his retirement from broadcasting after the 1996 season, but he never left the Yankee family. For many years he was the face of the organization, at once the team's biggest fan and its most beloved employee. Not bad for a kid that grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and only signed for the hated rivals in the Bronx when then Dodgers manager Casey Stengal told the diminutive shortstop: "Kid, you're too small. You ought to go out and shine shoes."

When Rizzuto was unable to attend Old-Timers' Day in 2006 and again in 2007, I, like many Yankee fans, knew he had to be in bad shape. Scooter was always one of the last guys to be announced during the pre-game ceremony, and he always earned one of the loudest ovations. Old-Timers' Day was his day, and if he wasn't there, it was clear something was very wrong. As it turns out, he was in a nursing home in New Jersey, no longer able to live at home with his wife of more than 50 years, Cora.

I knew this day was coming, so I was not surprised to see the report of his death go up today on ESPN.com. But that didn't make it any easier to take. There are few public figures that we get to know and love via television to an extent that their losses feels like losing people we knew. For me, Phil Rizzuto was one of those people.

My earliest memories of being a Yankee fan are of watching and listening to games announced by Rizzuto, Bill White and Frank Messer. My dad may have taught me about baseball and the Yankees, but Scooter was my Yankee guide, keeping me company while I watched and learned. I am convinced that part of my love of baseball and the Yankees comes from the joy that Rizzuto imparted from the booth, and the fun that he and White brought to the game, while at the same time respecting baseball and using their wealth of knowledge to educate viewers.

I noted that Rizzuto's death was at the top of a list of stories on ESPN.com that also contained the news that Don Imus was settling his lawsuit against WCBS and negotiating his return to radio with WABC. At first, it seemed wrong that Scooter would have to keep such odious company on this sad day, but it occurred to me the juxtaposition was actually quite perfect, since it was a reminder that Rizzuto was everything that Imus isn't -- good-hearted, positive and joyful.

Scooter was a very good baseball player, winning an American League MVP award, playing in five All-Star Games, and manning the key shortstop position for Yankee teams that won seven World Series titles, leading to a woefully belated invitation to the Hall of Fame in 1994. But Rizzuto's legacy goes well beyond his playing statistics.

He faced early derision from other players because of his Italian ancestry. Joe DiMaggio had to intercede, and Rizzuto was eventually accepted by his teammates. And yet, Scooter didn't emerge bitter. He was happy-go-lucky and always proud to be a New York Yankee. I don't mean to suggest that Rizzuto was a civil rights activist, but he lived his life in a way that, intentionally or not, set an example, sending out the message that he didn't care what color you were, he cared about who you were and what you could do. Whether it was his interactions with teammate Elston Howard (the first African-American Yankee), or later his jovial banter with White during telecasts, you got the feeling that the idea of hating anyone for any reason was beyond Scooter's makeup.

After he retired as a player, Rizzuto moved up to the broadcast booth, where he relied on his goofy charm rather than a polished presence. In a traditional sense, Scooter was not a legendary announcer in the same category as Mel Allen and Vin Scully. He was apt to Yogi-esque malapropisms, and it was not unusual for him to completely bungle the call of a play. But Yankee fans didn't care. They knew where Rizzuto was coming from. He loved the Yankees, and despite his occasional bobbles and constant self-deprecation, he knew baseball backwards and forwards.

Most of all, the fans loved Scooter himself. He would talk on the air about a good cannoli he ate, offer well-wishes to people celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, and wander off on topics far off the path of the game he was presumably watching. (When he kept score, he would write "WW" for "wasn't watching" when he missed an at-bat.) But that was Scooter. He wasn't some kind of canned, prefabricated character. He was genuine, and the fans loved him. And, he always was right on top of the action when the game got serious. As much as Rizzuto liked to joke around, he loved baseball and the Yankees even more.

Scooter's reactions to the events around him were real. His trademark "Holy Cow!" wasn't a studied, carefully crafted signature line (like you might find used by a current SportsCenter anchor), but just the way he spoke when he was excited, whether he was in front of a microphone or not. When he called someone a "huckleberry" for doing something wrong, there wasn't an ounce of venom behind it. It was just his good-natured comment on the situation.

Because he was beloved, Rizzuto was always in demand outside of baseball. He did a string of commercials, most famously for The Money Store (you can watch one of them on YouTube). He was the mystery guest on the first ever episode of "What's My Line?" (and appeared several times over the show's run). He also famously provided the spoken/broadcasted bridge to the Meat Loaf hit "Paradise By the Dashboard Light," with his play-by-play of a batter's trip around the bases used to represent a couple's first time having sex. There have been conflicting stories as to whether Rizzuto knew how the recording would be used, but after he took heat from conservative groups for appearing on such a racy track, he didn't throw Meat Loaf under the bus and create a stir that he had been victimized. Rather, Scooter just laughed it off, letting the whole thing take residence as another funny story in a long, happy and successful career.

While I like the current Yankee announcers (especially the exceptionally bright Ken Singleton and the observant and dryly funny Paul O'Neill), Yankee telecasts haven't been the same since Scooter moved on. While you probably wouldn't use tapes of Rizzuto in a broadcasting class as examples of the right way to do it, his combination of spirit, warmth, good nature and baseball knowledge added so much to Yankee broadcasts. As a kid, I couldn't have imagined a world where the Yankees existed without Rizzuto, and I still feel that way sometimes.

Today is a sad day for Yankee fans, and for anyone who was lucky enough to catch Phil Rizzuto being himself for America, whether he was appearing on a rock record or doing a commercial with Yogi for a radio station. I will miss him as a part of my youth and as an integral piece of my affection for the Yankees. George Steinbrenner, in a statement, said about Rizzuto's death, "I guess heaven must have needed a shortstop." More likely, heaven must have needed a nice man. And now they've got one.