March 25, 2019

60 Years Ago (1955)–The Scooter’s Comeback

August 10, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Casey taketh away and Casey giveth back. On August 10, 1955, Stengel wrote Phil Rizzuto back into the Yankees’ line-up as the starting shortstop in the midst of a tight four-team race. It was 111 games down and 43 to go for the third-place Yankees who were one game behind the White Sox, half-a-game behind the Indians, and just half-a-game ahead of the Red Sox (who were still close but not really a contender). This was almost exactly a year after Stengel had taken Rizzuto out of the Yankees’ line-up as the starting shortstop, when they were in what was still a fight for the pennant with the 1954 Indians. Between August 15, 1954, and August 10, 1955, Rizzuto had started in only 17 of the 147 games the Yankees played. 
It hadn’t always been thus. Casey Stengel wrote only a handful of names onto his starting line-up card on a daily basis when the Yankees won five consecutive pennants and five straight World Series from 1949 to 1953—Yogi Berra behind the plate, Joe DiMaggio and then Mickey Mantle (their playing-health permitting) in the outfield, Gil McDougald somewhere in the infield after he was called up in 1951, and Phil Rizzuto at shortstop. With the Yankee Clipper at the end of his great career, and Mantle at the beginning of his, Berra and Rizzuto were the cornerstone players on those teams. They each won an MVP Award, Rizzuto in 1950 and Berra the year after.
In addition to his defensive excellence, the Scooter was effective in getting things started for the Yankees batting first or second at the top of the order. He was extraordinarily proficient in moving runners into scoring position, leading the league in sacrifice bunts every year from 1949 to 1952. So outstanding were his bunting skills that Rizzuto frequently beat out bunts for hits. All things considered, including his contributions at the plate, Phil Rizzuto was the best at his position in the American League, rivaled for the best shortstop in baseball only by fellow New York shortstops Pee Wee Reese at Ebbets Field and Alvin Dark at the Polo Grounds.
After playing Rizzuto nearly every day and rarely taking him out of games in his first four years at the Yankee helm, Casey in 1953 determined it was time to take account of his shortstop’s 35 years on planet Earth by relieving him of the burden of playing complete games. Although the Scooter had another very good year in 1953—batting .271, continuing to shine on defense, and finishing 6th in MVP voting—Rizzuto was still in the game for the final pitch in only 91 of the 132 games he started, almost always because Stengel chose to pinch hit for him, usually late in the game, in a bid for more runs. His thinking was clearly along the line of ARod’s famous comment about another Yankee shortstop, nearly half-a-century later, not being someone opposing teams worried about when they assessed the Yankee line-up.
Not getting any younger, it was even more frustrating for Rizzuto in 1954. In mid-August, his batting average at .202 and the Yankees only three games behind the Indians while trying to capture their sixth pennant in a row, Stengel replaced the Scooter at shortstop with Willy Miranda.

Willy Miranda is not a name anyone thinks about when thinking “1950s New York Yankees.” His role had been as Rizzuto’s defensive replacement after Stengel pinch hit for him, typically in the last third of the game. Now it was the Scooter’s role to be Miranda’s defensive replacement. He came into 19 games as a defensive replacement after Stengel had removed Miranda, himself a weak hitter, for a pinch hitter.

Rizzuto started just three more games the rest of the year, all after Cleveland had wrapped up the American League pennant. All told Rizzuto appeared in 126 games at short, started 97 of them, and played a complete game only 50 times in ’54.
In SI‘s preseason preview for 1955, Robert Creamer referred to Rizzuto as “the once-great Yankee shortstop” and mentioned Jerry Coleman as his likely replacement. In fact, however, it was Billy Hunter’s turn to be the Yankee shortstop.
Hunter had been acquired from Baltimore in a massive trade after the 1954 season ended that ultimately involved countless players—well, OK, 16 players—including those to be “named later.” Bob Turley and Don Larsen were the most notable Yankee acquisitions in the deal, with all due respect to Mr. Hunter, who had been the Orioles’ starting shortstop the two previous years, including his rookie season of 1953 when the Orioles were still the St. Louis Browns. He was considered to be much better defensively than he was at the plate, but in both disciplines . . . well he must better than Phil Rizzuto, now 37 years old.
Rizzuto started the first seven games of the season for the ’55 Yankees, batting eighth in the order. His .294 batting average and on-base percentage close to .500 was not enough to persuade Stengel to keep him in the line-up, and Hunter took over as the starting shortstop. Although often removed for a pinch hitter with the Scooter replacing him defensively, Hunter started all but eight of the next 98 games. Rizzuto did not see his name in the starting line-up again until over a third-of-a-season in games and nearly two full months later—on June 16. After three consecutive starts, Rizzuto started at shortstop only once more until August 6.
By then, Billy Hunter had played his last game for the Yankees in 1955. His hitting deficiencies were just too many for Stengel to accept. The Yankees were now in a white-hot pennant race with both the Indians and White Sox. On August 4, the Yankees played host to Cleveland in the finale of a three-game series, the two teams tied for second but only a single game back of Chicago. Trailing 2-1 in the sixth with the tying run at third, only one out, and the imposing power-pitcher Herb Score on the mound, Stengel pinch hit for Hunter. For Stengel, the move itself was not unusual. But having gone hitless in what proved to be his last seven starts of the season, his average dropping from a season-high .244 to .227 (and his on-base percentage from .285 to .269), the next day it was off to the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate in Denver for Billy Hunter to work on his skills.
Phil Rizzuto started at shortstop in 31 of the Yankees’ remaining 48 games after Hunter’s departure as the Yankees battled for AL bragging rights and a return to the World Series. In September he played much like the Rizzuto of days gone by, except batting at the bottom instead of the top of Stengel’s line-up, often-times even ninth when the madcap Perfessor chose to bat the pitcher eighth. He batted .297 in September as the Yankees went 17-6 in the final month to beat out the Indians by 3 games. Rizzuto started all seven games in the World Series, in which he batted .267 but also drew five walks, and so was often on base.
It was the Scooter’s last hurrah. Casey Stengel no doubt valued and was grateful for Phil Rizzuto’s contributions to the five straight championships he won in his first five years as the Yankees’ manager. But no sentimentalist was the Old Man. In stark contrast to how a future Yankee shortstop was handled, Rizzuto was called into Stengel’s office in mid-August 1956 and unceremoniously dumped from the team. No final fond farewells even by Yankee opponents and a touching tribute at Yankee Stadium for Rizzuto, as there was for Derek Jeter.

 

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