Yankees say goodbye to 'Scooter'
Players across generations remember beloved Hall of Famer
NEW YORK -- On the day that Phil Rizzuto's long wait for the Baseball Hall of Fame finally ended, Yogi Berra had the honors of being on the other end of the telephone line, informing his longtime friend.
It was perhaps Rizzuto's happiest conversation of a life filled by thousands of them. Rizzuto enjoyed dual careers as a standout ballplayer and the friendly voice of Yankees summers, embraced by New Yorkers across decades.
So as Berra sat in the Yankee Stadium dugout on Monday afternoon, recalling tales of Rizzuto's days of duty in uniform, in the broadcast booth and all places inbetween, Berra decided upon two memorable words to describe The Scooter:
The Yankees placed flags at half-staff on Tuesday in honor of Rizzuto, who passed away Monday at 89 after an extended illness. The team placed a wreath by his No. 10, retired in Monument Park, and honored the longtime infielder and broadcaster with a moment of silence before their game against the Baltimore Orioles.
For the remainder of the season, the club will also wear Rizzuto's No. 10 on the left sleeve of all uniforms.
"I guess heaven must have needed a shortstop," Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. "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."
Commissioner Bud Selig issued a statement on behalf of Major League Baseball, saying, "I am terribly saddened by the death of Phil Rizzuto. Phil was a unique figure who exemplified the joy of our game to millions. He was an integral part of the New York Yankees through the 1940s and 1950s before bringing his distinctive personality and infectious enthusiasm to the broadcast booth."
As numerous Yankees players and personnel shared their reminisces of Rizzuto, an eccentric and energetic personality who was once actually bowled over by a so-called "Holy Cow" on the Stadium turf in 1985, the one shared aspect of Rizzuto's life was a wide grin. Everybody loved the Scooter.
|"You could feel it; he liked being around and talking the game. The first year I went to Major League camp down in Fort Lauderdale, he was in the cages and he would show you the technique. A guy like that, you're going to listen."|
|-- Don Mattingly on Rizzuto|
Every time Guidry saw Rizzuto after that, he said, he'd jump on the diminutive broadcaster and jokingly give him a difficult time.
"It's not that I didn't like it, but I teased him," Guidry said. "One day, I told him, 'Go home tonight, sit at your desk and write the damn name about 100 times. See if you don't get aggravated signing it. Everywhere you go, that's what [fans] want, and that was not my nickname. There are five letters in Gator, and Louisiana Lightning has 18.'"
The New York fan base treasured memories of Rizzuto's on-air plugs for hospitable city bakeries, early exits to dash across the George Washington Bridge, and birthday wishes for what often seemed like half the metropolitan region. Those idiosyncrasies also kept Rizzuto welcomed in the Yankees clubhouse.
Guidry recalled sitting on the bench alongside Rizzuto and listening to descriptions of the worst sailor in the United States Navy -- Rizzuto said he was sick every single day he was at sea during his service. Other times, Guidry said he would listen to Rizzuto's rambling telecasts and sometimes become lost right alongside the Scooter.
"It was his character," Guidry said. "You might try to watch the game and then all of a sudden, you'd get caught up in what he's talking about. You just want to see how it's going to come out, and you'd forget about the game. A few innings pass, and he didn't say anything about the game, but you still enjoyed what he was saying."
Rizzuto also wasn't shy about sharing baseball thoughts from a mind which he once claimed lacked a "trap door" to catch errant thoughts.
Yankees bench coach Don Mattingly recalled Rizzuto roaming the fields during the Yankees' Spring Training camps in the 1980s, following up on one of his personal pet peeves -- players who couldn't get bunts down in game action. Always an excellent bat-handler, Rizzuto tried to offer advice and help set the table for the season to come.
"You could feel it; he liked being around and talking the game," Mattingly said. "The first year I went to Major League camp down in Fort Lauderdale, he was in the cages and he would show you the technique. He showed you how to use the bat and how to use it to bunt. A guy like that, you're going to listen."
"He'd jump over them," Berra said. "He got rid of the ball quick. He'd just get you at first, but he was quick."
Rizzuto was also fast with a quip. Broadcast partner Bobby Murcer called Rizzuto an "incredible prankster" -- one time, with a game only about two-thirds complete, Rizzuto left the booth to fetch Murcer a cup of coffee, or so he said. Rizzuto never returned.
"I had never done play-by-play before, and there were about three innings left," Murcer said. "The next day, he shows up with a cup of coffee and he says, 'Here's your coffee.'"
Jim Kaat, a former partner of Rizzuto's in 1986, shared similar memories. The former Major League pitcher was just getting his broadcast feet wet and said he learned a lot from Rizzuto's crash course, teaming in a three-man booth along with Bill White.
"He kept things loose in the booth," Kaat said. "He kept the broadcast enjoyable for the fans. He was unique in the fact that very few announcers can get by with the so-called shtick that Scooter had, being a cheerleader for one team like that.
"That wouldn't go over too well in these days; the critics would hammer you pretty good rooting for the home team. He could do that because he was part of the Yankee organization his whole life."
As the Yankees family mourned Rizzuto's loss, the words with which he concluded his lengthy, disjointed 1994 Hall of Fame speech -- "Too long," Berra recalled with a chuckle -- seemed ultimately appropriate.
"All of you have been there for the most wonderful lifetime that one man can have," Rizzuto said. "I just want to say, God bless all of you and God bless this wonderful game that they call baseball."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.