Written by Mike Jensen. Originally published August 2007 on Obit-Mag.com.
For 15 seasons, Phil Rizzuto shared a lineup with Joe DiMaggio and later Mickey Mantle. Just as famously, he spouted “Holy Cow!’’ and “Unbelievable!’’ from the broadcast booth for four decades after that.
His nickname, the Scooter, suggested both his slight build and considerable fielding range. The 5-foot-6, 150-pounder was a shortstop for his era, playing for nine World Champion Yankees teams from 1941 to ’56.
When Rizzuto was named to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1994, Yankees fans considered the selection a long time coming, but many other experts condemned it. Not because of any questionable conduct by Rizzuto. Some just questioned what credentials he had beyond playing for all those great Yankees teams. Would he have been a Hall of Famer if his career had been spent in Kansas City?
It’s true that by today’s standards, Rizzuto’s statistics sound almost pedestrian. His career batting average was just .273, and he only hit 38 home runs. When he won the American League’s most valuable player award in 1950, he had just 66 runs batted in to go with his .324 batting average. But the Yankees won the World Series that year, and most other years when Rizzuto was the shortstop, and his peers always lauded his skills at that key position and his ability to get on base.
At first sight, Rizzuto didn’t look like a ballplayer. Before he caught on with the Yankees, he failed tryouts with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. “Go get a shoeshine box,’’ Casey Stengel famously told him, years before Stengel became his Yankees manager.
Later, “he pretended he didn’t remember,’’ Rizzuto told the New York Times about Stengel. “By ’49, I didn’t need a shoebox anyway. The clubhouse boy at the Stadium shined my Yankee spikes every day.’’
If you’re a Baby Boomer and grew up in or around New York, it’s hard to forget Rizzuto’s voice. For the Brooklyn-born son of a trolley motorman, the game itself was just a launching point for his quirky commentaries. Rizzuto offered birthday greetings to friends and was an unabashed homer, while bumbling ballplayers were invariably “Huckleberrys.’’
The man was in the booth for a lot of history, too. Here’s Rizzuto’s 1961 call when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record: “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!’’
Almost two decades later, Rizzuto was recruited to provide commentary for Meatloaf’s rock anthem, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.’’ He later said he didn’t realize the context of the words describing some anonymous ballplayer dramatically making his way around the bases, as Rizzuto announced, “Holy Cow, I think he’s going to make it!’’
Late in his broadcast career, Rizzuto became famous for leaving the booth early to get a jump on George Washington Bridge traffic. But that was all part of his charm and became part of his shtick. He’d announce to his wife on the broadcasts, “I’ll be home soon, Cora.’’
The day after he died, the New York Daily News asked for memories of Rizzuto on its website. They poured in, mostly remembrances of Rizzuto the broadcaster.
One fan wrote, “It was like watching the game with your grandpa or father or uncle.’’