Lazzari’s Vault: Remembering Phil Rizzuto
Looking back, I’d have to say that Phil Rizzuto was the “voice” of my youth. It was the “Scooter’s” unmistakable, high-pitched voice that would be resounding throughout the steamy living room during those summers in the late 60’s when I first started following America’s pastime. Whether it was his trademark “Holy Cow!” (which, at times, could be heard a block away) or his sending of birthday wishes to the “average Joe” in New Jersey or New York, you just KNEW it was summer when you heard Phil Rizzuto.
Yes, I can picture homes in my old neighborhood—windows open—and actually hearing a collective Yankee telecast echo down the street in those days; Rizzuto’s voice was everywhere. I guess it was a “comfort thing” when it came to listening to the “Scooter;” no, he wasn’t your trained, polished broadcaster, for sure, but his voice and antics gave many of us a warm, comforting feeling. You see, whether you were a N.Y. Yankees fan or not, the voice of Phil Rizzuto—to many of us—was the endearing backdrop of our younger days as we grew so fond of Doubleday’s game. In fact, when I hear old tapes of Phil to this day, I wonder if many of us would have ever become baseball fans AT ALL were it not for his ubiquitous presence; Channel 11, the Yankee Stadium facade, green grass, and one Phil Rizzuto–yes, folks, significant clues that baseball was in session.
Let me preface my admiration of the “Scooter” by saying that he surely would not have achieved “legendary” Yankee status on his playing ability alone. Sure, he was the catalyst of some great Yankees teams of the 40’s and 50’s, a tremendous fielder/ bunter, a former MVP, and an overachiever in every sense of the word. But in all honesty, a .273 lifetime average with 38 home runs over 13 seasons doesn’t exactly warrant being mentioned in the same breath as Yankee greats such Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle (and it may be safe to say that if it weren’t for the lobbying on Phil’s behalf by the great Ted Williams, the Veteran’s Committee may NOT have voted to finally enshrine the “Scooter” in Cooperstown back in 1994).
However, there’s something to be said for timing, being around the right people, and making the most of it–and Phil surely did. No, Phil Rizzuto is a legend/Hall of Famer for his COLLECTIVE body of work for the N.Y. Yankees; I can safely say that NO ONE in team history can call himself more of a “true Yankee” than Mr. Phil Rizzuto. In a career that spanned from 1941-1996 as both a player and broadcaster, no one was connected to the pinstripes more than old #10. You could hear it in his voice over the years—his immense love for the team and the organization in general; his devotion was endless and no one really seemed to mind when his voice rose a few extra decibels in the broadcast booth when his beloved Yankees would take a late-inning lead.
We loved Phil because we loved his PASSION. In a modern society where devotion is often half-hearted and flip-flopping one’s allegiance has become commonplace, Phil Rizzuto was there for the LONG run—and THAT’s what made him great. Yes, after being told by Dodgers manager Casey Stengel that he’d never amount to anything after that tryout so many years ago, Phil donned the pinstripes–and it was a lifetime Yankee love affair from that moment on.
His endearing nature was second to none—mainly because he showed us his human side so very often. He made mistakes on the air, laughed them off, and would then talk about the best-tasting cannolis around; it truly felt like he was on the couch next to you during a Yankee telecast, you know, the guy next door over for a beer. He COMMUNICATED to us over the airwaves—journalistic deficiencies aside—and his ability to grab the audience in a blue-collar way was, without doubt, his greatest gift.
Finally, Phil Rizzuto—in spite of his celebrity status—never distanced himself from his fellow man; his “level-headedness” was astounding. Baseball writer/rules consultant Rich Marazzi tells me the story of when Phil attended former teammate Spec Shea’s memorial service here in CT a few years back; Phil exits his car and is encouraged by funeral staff to go to the front of the line of mourners. Phil declines, saying he’d rather stand in line like everyone else. That’s Phil Rizzuto in a nutshell.
We lost Phil recently at the age of 89; he’ll surely be missed. On last week’s FOX telecast, Tim McCarver remarked, “When you think of Phil, it makes you smile.” Wow, what a great gift to leave. Thank you, Mr. Rizzuto, for being such a part of my baseball upbringing. And thanks for showing us your HUMAN side–and the vulnerability possessed by all of us. Your excellence on the ball field was more than matched by your ability to touch fellow human beings in your own unique way. You may have referred to people affectionately as “huckleberries” during your day, but you were truly a “peach” in my book.
Rest in peace, “Scooter.”
The above was originally published on “Lazarri’s Sports Roundup” on August 25, 2007.