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Was Phil Rizzuto the most popular Yankee voice ever? Reading historian Curt Smith’s piece, you can think so

Curt Smith

To warm baseball’s current lockout chill, we present a series of profiles of top past and present broadcasters by Curt Smith: to USA Today, “the voice of authority on baseball broadcasting.” Below, the Yankees’ revered late announcer, the incomparable Phil Rizzuto.

In 1941, replacing veteran Yankees shortstop Frank Rosetti, Phil Rizzuto received the cold shoulder in spring training from Red Ruffing, Bill Dickey, and Joe DiMaggio. Hurt, the 5-foot-6 new kid on the block sought out Lefty Gomez. “Relax, they’re not snubbing you,” said the pitcher. “They just haven’t seen you get.”

Later, DiMag became a close Rizzuto friend, saying “If you forget he was so tiny as a player, it’s because his reputation was so huge.” Smaller than the game, the Yanks’ arguably all-time most beloved announcer made baseball seem even larger than it was.

Leave it to Fiero Francis Rizzuto, the Bronx Bombers 1941-56 shortstop and 1957-96 radio/TV Voice, to be born in 1917 Brooklyn. As a teenager, he vainly tried out for the Giants and Dodgers. Phil then phoned the Yankees, who signed him in 1937, Rizzuto reporting to Bassett, Virginia, of the Class D B-State League. “Bassett!” he said. “Sounds like I’m swearing at somebody.”

In Bassett, cows draping a hill, “Holy Cow!” became Phil’s favored adage. “The players told me [the] front legs of the cows were shorter than the back because they were always on the hill. And I believed them,” he said. “With my short legs, I’ve always had an affinity with cows.” In 1939, Phil vaulted to American Association Kansas City, where mate Billy Hitchcock named him Scooter, saying, “Man, you’re not runnin’, you’re scootin’.” Rizzuto died in 2007, but Scooter he remains.

In 1941, reaching the Bronx, he replaced DiMaggio at a Newark firemen communion breakfast. “Joe had a family illness, but they were still expecting him,” Rizzuto said. “So I get booed—at a communion breakfast!” Embarrassed, a fireman asked him home for coffee. Daughter Cora Esselborn then entered the room. More than half-a-century later, Phil’s blood ran, not scooted: “Those legs, her red sweater, those blue eyes.” They married in 1943.

Scooter had hit a 1942 World Series-high .381. Next year he joined the Navy, serving in the War through 1945. In 1949, his last-day triple helped beat Boston for the pennant. Next year he had 200 hits, batted .324, and became American League Most Valuable Player. At shortstop, he made Yanks pitcher Vic Rasch opine, “My best pitch is anything the batter grounds, lines, or pops in his [Rizzuto’s] direction.”

Phil knew how to field, bunt—to Joe D., “the greatest I ever saw”—hit behind the runner, and win: the four-time All-Star taking nine pennants and six world titles. “Those years I made more money from Series cuts,” Rizzuto said, “than I did from my salary for the whole year.” He was benched in 1953 by Yanks skipper Casey Stengel. In 1955, the Bombers held a day in the aging Scooter’s honor. In 1956, he had no extra-base hits in 31 games.

Late that year GM George Weiss told Phil the club had a chance to acquire Enos Slaughter from the Kansas City Athletics. “What do you think?” he shrewdly asked. Rizzuto enthused, “Boy, getting him would be a help.” Weiss then released Phil on Old Timer’s Day, Slaughter taking his roster spot. Holy Cow! At 39, Scooter was through. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “The pinstripes meant so much to me then.” Overnight, what mattered was a job.

Baltimore offered a broadcast post, but Rizzuto opted to stay in New York. As Richard Reeves wrote of politics, broadcasting magnifies charm and institutionalizes seduction. By late 1956, Phil had charmed the head of team sponsor Ballantine beer, which got Weiss to dump Jim Woods, wrote Peter Lyon, so that Phil could “become the junior member of the team that broadcasts all of the Yankees games with Mel Allen and Red Barber, the country’s best-known sports announcers.”

To his credit, Scooter knew the score: “Can you picture a thorn between two roses?” he yelped. On the field, Phil personified “small ball.” Above it, he mimed a boat without an oar. Stealing a sign, Rizzuto interrupted Allen, about to call a pitch: “Oh, my God!” Phil told the audience. “He’s going to steal home!” Once Mel and Red left him behind the mic—“outside the booth if I messed up, but I was alone”—as he learned to fill dead air. Stomaching each other, they resented the ex-jock.

The early Scooter aped play-by-play’s normal rhythm: balls and strikes, a story now and then. Job one was trying not to butcher language. “Kansas City Ath-a-letics,” Rizzuto would say. “No, it’s Athletics,” Mel corrected him on air, enraging Phil’s mother. Gradually, the two roses warmed. In 1957, the thorn caught a bouquet: CBS Radio’s thrice-weekly five-minute Phil Rizzuto On Sports. On October 1, 1961, he caught another, etching Roger Maris’s 61st home run to pass Babe Ruth’s single-season 60.

In the fourth inning, Boston’s Tracy Stallard took his “windup,” said Scooter. “Fastball, hit deep to right! This could be it! Way back there! Holy Cow! He did it! Sixty-one for Maris! Look at ’em fight for that ball out there! Holy Cow! What a shot! Another standing ovation for Roger Maris … One of the greatest sights I’ve ever seen here at Yankee Stadium!” For the next week Rizzuto relied on aspirin: “I screamed so loud on Maris’s homer I had a headache for a week.”

For a time, Scooter did two innings daily. Allen held a session of dos and don’ts, the latter including not to leave before the final pitch. When a 1957 game went overtime, Mel said, “And now to take you into the tenth, here is … here is”—only to find Rizzuto on the George Washington Bridge, going home to “my bride” Cora, a term he used till death. “Phil became famed for leaving early,” said Bob Costas. “Even when he finished a game, you’d hear him hooking the mike into the stand announcing the final score.”

Retrieve June 24, 1962’s Yanks at Detroit seven-hour marathon. In the 20th inning, an Ontario writer in the press box said, “I’ve got to leave.” “Where are you going?” said his friend. Writer: “My visa just expired.” Leaving in the seventh, Phil flew to LaGuardia Airport, headed to his New Jersey home, and turned on the radio. It was seven o’clock. The 1:30 game should have ended by four. “I drop my jaw, Red’s starting the 19th,” Scooter said. Mel had TV. Neither could take a leak.

On the bridge, Phil said, “What am I gonna’ do? Should I turn around and fly back to Detroit? That doesn’t make sense.” He arrived home, kissed Cora, and turned on WPIX TV, finding Allen, in red-faced living color, still on play-by-play. Ultimately New York prevailed, 9-7, on Jack Reed’s 22nd-inning blast. In 1964, Mel was sacked, Scooter replacing him on NBC TV’s World Series. Barber bit the dust in 1966. Liberated, Rizzuto increasingly became the Yankees’ broadcast identity, forging an idiosyncratic style unlike any other.

“They had Jerry Coleman, Joe Garagiola arrived,” wrote the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick, “but Rizzuto was the guy”: progressively, his own best subject matter. To the Times’s George Vecsey, a typical inning wed “birthday greetings, movie reviews, golf tips, war memories”—Scooter served in Southeast Asia—”frequent psychosomatic broodings, fearsome predictions of rain, sleet, snow, thunder, lightning, tornadoes, waterspouts,” and allergies and insects, one dragon fly shooing Phil from the booth.

In 1971, former All-Star first baseman Bill White joined the booth as baseball’s first black big-league play-by-play man. Commuting two hours each day from Bucks County, outside Philadelphia, he critiqued the taped segments of every game he did on radio. Slowly, Bill improved, Scooter putting him at ease. Rizzuto unlocked his wit. In turn, Bill—to Phil, always “White”—became Rizzuto’s comedic foil.

“Scooter made me laugh,” said White. Once Phil recalled putting grits in a pocket his first time South, saying, “It looked like oatmeal. I didn’t know what to do.” He began a broadcast, “Hi, everybody, this is New York Yankees baseball. I’m Bill White. Wait a minute! I swear to God I didn’t.” The Apple chortled at Rizzuto’s constant use of his partner’s surname. “How’d you like to work 18 years with a guy,” Bill said, “who never learned your first name?”

In 1964, the Yanks won their last pennant until 1976-78’s three in a row. Regardless of their record, Scooter enthralled. One day the camera spotted a lovely belle. “White,” said Rizzuto, “she reminds me of the old song, ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like a Memory.’” Bill:  “Ah, Scooter, I think that’s ‘melody.’” Phil: “Really? How do you know her name is Melody?” His scorecard was as personal. Perusing it, Costas noted how “WW” seemed to mean a single and sacrifice. Puzzled, he said. “I’ve seen a lot of ways to keep score. What’s ‘WW’ mean?” Scooter: “Wasn’t watching.”

Instead, Phil fixated on the endearing and unique. Once a 90-year-old woman wrote a letter. Rizzuto read it on air “before it gets too late. She might not be with us the whole game”— going to bed or the Great Beyond, he didn’t say. Another day a viewer wrote a missive “beefing about that Holy Cow!” Phil said. “He said in India the cow is sacred, and I shouldn’t say such a thing.” Love that Scooter. If it’s sacred, he mused, what’s wrong with Holy Cow?”

In 1985, the Yanks marked Phil’s birthday by presenting a cow named Huckleberry—his humorous putdown of a bonehead play—who promptly stepped on Rizzuto’s foot, decking him. Later Scooter began waving from the second deck: “You know, Mussolini used to do this.” A visitor arrived from San Jose. Scooter: “San Jose? I love San Jose. What’s that song?” Someone began singing Dionne Warwick’s tune, “Do you know the way …?” Phil amended: “No, it isn’t San Jose. It’s Phoenix.” Always, he projected innocence in a cynical world.

In 1987, Rizzuto cut lyrics for the musical group Meat Loaf’s song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” not realizing that the sing lauded teenage sex. “Meat Loaf said, ‘I’ve got this song for you,’” mused Phil, who added pricelessly, “I thought it was a singing part—all Italians love to sing.” At the recording session. Meat Loaf told Scooter his was a talking part.” Phil: “Where’s the band to accompany me?” Meat Loaf: “We’ll put it in later.”

Upon its release, Phil’s son said, “Dad, you’re a rock star!” Six times pop reran the album, finally grasping its core. “I never knew, so help me. My priest gave me hell”—Scooter amusing, diverting, a character, not drone. Was Rizzuto a professional? He never pretended to be, telling a joke, saying “a day without cannoli is a day without sunshine,” luring a vast public even among those who deemed a fielder’s choice a selection on a menu.

In 1994, the Veterans Committee belatedly ushered him to Cooperstown. “For years baseball wanted me to sing the Anthem the day players were inducted,” said the Metropolitan Opera’s Robert Merrill. “I said, ‘Not till Rizzuto’s in.’” On Induction Eve, Scooter’s daughter phoned him. “Mr. Merrill, Dad’s so nervous he’s losing his voice.” Merrill gave her lozenges. Later, Phil said: “Where do I get those drops?” He used them to give a sublime 35-minute stream of conscious speech.

That fall the Rizzutos got a trip to Europe from the Yankees. At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II changed his schedule to meet them. “I’ll tell you,” said Phil, “that’s as close to God as you can get.” A year after Rizzuto retired in 1996, Times columnist Richard Sandomir asked, “Where are you, Scooter? The MSG Network’s Phil-free games miss his mirth.” His death at 89 made baseball a far less joyous place.

Bad game, good game, Scooter meant a fun game: more playactor than play-by-play man, baseball’s paisan with pizazz. Wrote the Denver Post: “Rizzuto reciting stats would be like Jim Carrey doing Shakespeare.”

 

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Curt Smith

CURT SMITH is the author of 18 books, including Voices of The Game, recently named by Esquire magazine among “the 100 Best Baseball Books Ever Written.” His latest is the official Hall of Fame book, Memories from the Microphone. USA Today calls Smith “the leading voice of authority on baseball broadcasting.” He wrote more speeches than anyone for President George H. W. Bush, The New York Times styling his work “the high point of Bush familial eloquence.” Since 1998, Smith has been Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Rochester, teaching Public Speaking and Presidential Rhetoric. curtsmith@netacc.net

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Michael Green
7 months ago

First, I’ve got to ask: IS that Ernie Harwell in the photo with them? Lovely article, and I think there’s a distinction to be drawn. Mel Allen was and will be the voice of the Yankees forever and ever, amen. But was he beloved in the way that the Scooter was? I don’t think so. And I wonder how much of it was that Mel did the Yankees at their peak and Scooter became the lead announcer about the time they went down the tubes–and his style was conducive to enjoying them at that point, because the baseball sure wasn’t… Read more »

cello700
cello700
7 months ago

What a wonderful piece. Most broadcasters would weave their personal stories into their baseball. Scooter would weave his play-by-play into his personal stories! Curt Smith, like his namesake Red, is the king of his castle!