The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

 

The Scooter

As a Johnny-Come-Lately to New York City and the Yankees, I never really got what dyed-in-the-pinstriped-wool fans found so special about Phil Rizzuto, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89. While he certainly held a link to the Yankees' glory years as part of seven world champion teams, objectively he wasn't as great or popular a player as Yankee legends like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, or even Yogi Berra. He wasn't an imposing hitter; his lifetime numbers don't even compare to crosstown contemporary Pee Wee Reese. Beyond his playing career, the descriptions of his lapses and malapropisms as an announcer suggest something less than one of history's great baseball minds. A relic, more sacred cow than "Holy Cow," was my conclusion.

Fortunately, Cliff Corcoran sets me straight with a touching tribute to the Scooter at SI.com:
Perhaps it's inappropriate to lead off this tribute to the memory of Rizzuto with such an insult, but Rizzuto lived his life in defiance of such insults, and lived a life that any of us would be fortunate to relive. Rizzuto was famously insulted by Casey Stengel when he tried out for Stengel's Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-'30s ("go get a shoeshine box," said Casey). A decade and a half later Rizzuto would be the starting shortstop on Stengel's five consecutive World Series-winning Yankee teams, earning the 1950 AL MVP award along the way.

Rizzuto was famously insulted by the Yankees organization in 1956 when George Weiss forced him into retirement by making Rizzuto select himself as the player to be removed from the roster to make room for Enos Slaughter. Weiss was slaughtered in the press for the move and the team's broadcast sponsor insisted that Rizzuto be hired to broadcast the team's games the following season. Rizzuto was still in the same job 39 years later when the team forced him to call a game rather than attend Mickey Mantle's funeral. Rizzuto, enraged and embarrassed, quit mid-game, but public outcry brought him back for a 40th and final season.

My voice was one of those calling Rizzuto back. The Scooter may have had more to do with my becoming a baseball fan than anyone else. Though my family is filled with Yankees fans dating back to the days of Babe Ruth, I had no older sibling to turn me on to baseball and neither of my parents was particularly interested in professional sports when I was growing up. Instead it was Rizzuto, with his enthusiasm, good humor and wildly entertaining and unpredictable asides (which were a good match for the often tragicomic play of the mid-'80s Yankees), who sold me on the joys of the game and its history despite the poor quality of the team I was watching.
Can't argue with that at all, nor with the various tales of how the 5-foot-6 scrapper clawed his way into the major leagues and the hearts of fans. Thanks to Cliff, the Bronx Banter community, Steven Goldman (and his not-so-evil twin), Joe Sheehan, Mark Lamster, Buster Olney and others for sharing their memories and their points of view. RIP, Scooter.

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