Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Scooter, RIP

The glue that held the Yankees' dynasty together in the 1940s and '50s was not the bad-ball hitting catcher, the smooth centerfielder(s), or even the team's iconoclastic manager, The Perfesser. Instead, it was the diminutive little paesan shortstop with the big ears and the big heart.

This morning, that World War II Naval veteran, four-decade broadcaster, Money Store and Bank of New York shill and the oldest living Hall of Famer passed away. Phil Rizzuto was 89 but had unfortunately been diminishing for about a decade -- he had resided in a nursing home in West Orange, NJ for years.

Rizzuto is the little guy that could -- only 5-foot-6 and with zero power, he not only put the short in shortstop, but became the model for the position (see Patek, Freddie) before Cal Ripken, Jr. reinvented it. Rizzuto was a tremendous fielder, a basestealer, a bunter (who always complained about how modern players couldn't bunt, except for Bucky Dent) and the prototypical dirty-uniform guy who would leap, dive and throw his body around to help the team win. Want to see Rizzuto play today? Watch David Eckstein of the Cardinals. Want to watch his favorite player? Tune in for Derek Jeter -- whom Rizzuto repeatedly referred to as the best player in the game.

Rizzuto went basically straight from the field to the booth -- he became an icon as a Yankees' broadcaster with his signature call "Holy Cow!" (what -- you thought that hack Mike Patrick originated the call?), his jibes to his broadcast partners (to whom he always referred by last name, even when talking to them again after they moved on -- like former Cardinal, Yankee broadcaster, and NL President Bill White) and his fear of lightning and thunder.

As goofy and funny as he was, he commanded tremendous respect. Larry Doby offered kudos to Rizzuto on a visit to the Yankees' telecast booth, specifically noting Scooter as one of the good guys when Doby faced racism as the first black AL player ("you were a ballplayer, that's what mattered," said Scooter); Joe DiMaggio said Rizzuto "held the team together" and Ted Williams declared "If we'd had Rizzuto in Boston, we'd have won all those pennants instead of New York." The respect of Williams, and Steinbrenner's relentless campaign for him, ultimately resulted in Scooter's election to the Hall of Fame in 1994.

Here's Steinbrenner's remembrance (HT):

I guess heaven must have needed a shortstop. Phil Rizzuto’s contributions to the Yankees and the sport of baseball were immense for a period of over 50 years. He was one of the greatest Yankees of all time and a dear, close friend of mine whose loss is enormous to me and to the entire Yankee family. He epitomized the Yankee spirit – gritty and hard charging – and he wore the pinstripes proudly.

While Scooter may have been smaller in size than some, he was among the tallest in his stature as a Yankee. He was a favorite of fans both as a player and later as a broadcaster. His voice and “Holy Cow” will be part of baseball for as long as we play the game.

No one deserved his place in the Hall of Fame more than Number 10. Our condolences to his wife, Cora, and the rest of his family.

So here's to the Scooter -- the Yankee icon and a player who gave everything for the team.


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