Philip Francis Rizzuto (September 25, 1916-August 13, 2007) was a Major League Baseball player and radio/television sports announcer, known both for his skills as a player and his popular but idiosyncratic style as an announcer.
"The Scooter", as he is frequently nicknamed, was at the time of his death the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rizzuto had long given his birth year as 1917, but admitted to sportswriter Bill Madden for the 2003 book Pride of October he had chopped a year off when signing with the Yankees, after other ballplayers told him it would give him an extra year at the end of his career.
Rizzuto was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a streetcar motorman. Despite his diminutive size — usually listed during his playing career as five feet, six inches tall and 160 pounds — he played both baseball and football at Richmond Hill High School in Queens, New York.
Rizzuto played his first major-league game on April 14, 1941. For his entire 13 year career in the major leagues, he played for the New York Yankees, almost exclusively as a shortstop. Like many baseball players, he left the game for a stint in the United States Navy during World War II, from 1943 through 1945, where he played on the Navy's baseball team.
He was voted Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1950. He played in five All-Star Games, in 1942 and each year from 1950 to 1953. Also, in 1950, he won the Hickok Belt, as top professional athlete of the year.
He was lesserly known as "the absorber," a nickname given to him by a minor league manager in tribute to his fielding range. His strong defensive skills and clutch hitting helped the Yankees win seven World Series. He was also regarded as one of the best bunters in baseball history, and talked about the several different kinds of bunts he would use in different situations. Later during his broadcasting career, he would become frustrated that the art of bunting had largely been lost in baseball.
Excerpt from 1953 Topps baseball card: "Phil was turned down by the Dodgers because he was too small. He tried out for the Yanks. Despite his size, a scout liked him and sent him to a Yank farm. Later Phil was the Yank shortstop who helped N.Y. beat the Dodgers in 3 World Series!"
- 5 Time All-Star: 1942, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953
- 7 Time World Series Champion: 1941, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953
After retiring, he served for 40 years broadcasting Yankee games on radio and television where, like Harry Caray, his popular catchphrase was "Holy Cow." Although Caray was using the phrase while Rizzuto was still playing, Rizzuto once claimed he'd been saying it earlier, as a suggestion of something to say instead of using profanity.
He also became known for saying "Unbelievable!" or "Did you see that?" to describe a great play, and would call somebody a "huckleberry" if he did something Rizzuto didn't like. He would frequently wish listeners a happy birthday or anniversary, send get-well wishes to fans in hospitals, and speak well of restaurants he liked. He would also joke about leaving the game early, saying to his wife, "I'll be home soon, Cora!" and "I gotta get over that bridge," meaning the nearby George Washington Bridge, which he would use to get back to his home in Hillside, New Jersey.
His broadcast partners included Mel Allen (1957–1964), Red Barber (1957–1966), Joe Garagiola (1965–1967), Jerry Coleman (1967–1970), Frank Messer (1968–1985), Bill White, (1971–1988), former Yankee slugger Bobby Murcer (1983–1996, still part of the Yankee broadcasting team in 2005), Billy Martin (baseball 1950) (1984–1985, in between his third and fourth stints as Yankee manager) and Tom Seaver (1989–1996). Allen, Barber, Garagiola and Coleman have all been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame as broadcasters, Seaver as a player. Coleman and Martin had played second base for the Yankees and had been double-play partners of Rizzuto's.
In a tradition of referring to his playing teammates by their last names, he would usually refer to his broadcast partners in the same way, calling them "White", "Murcer", and "Seaver" more often than "Bill", "Bobby", or "Tom".
Rizzuto's most significant moments as a broadcaster were the new single-season home run record set by Roger Maris on October 1, 1961, which he called on WCBS radio:
- "Here's the windup, fastball, hit deep to right, this could be it! Way back there! Holy cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Maris! And look at the fight for that ball out there! Holy cow, what a shot! Another standing ovation for Maris, and they're still fighting for that ball out there, climbing over each other's backs. One of the greatest sights I've ever seen here at Yankee Stadium!"
- "He hits one deep to right-center! That ball is out of here! The Yankees win the pennant! Holy cow, Chris Chambliss on one swing!" [As fans poured onto the field, tearing it up for souvenirs] "And the Yankees win the pennant. Unbelievable, what a finish! As dramatic a finish as you'd ever want to see! And this field will never be the same, but the Yankees have won it in the bottom of the 9th, seven to six!"
When Rizzuto was doing both radio and TV, he would generally stay on top of the play, rooting for his old club occasionally without being overbearing. The rooting became more pronounced starting in the 1987 season, when his calls were limited to WPIX television.
Occasionally in his sportscasting career, Rizzuto's excitement would get the better of him:
- "Uh-oh, deep to left-center, nobody's gonna get that one! Holy cow, somebody got it!"
- "All right! Stay fair! No, it won't stay fair. Good thing it didn't stay fair, or I think he would've caught it!"
- "Bouncer to third, they'll never get him! No, why don't I just shut up!"
- "Oh, these Yankees can get the clutch hits, Murcer. I might have to go home early, I just got a cramp in my leg."
As Dave Righetti hurled his no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox on July 4, 1983 at Yankee Stadium, Rizzuto—broadcasting on WABC radio—described the video of a close play as if his listeners could see it. Partner Frank Messer gently jogged the Scooter's memory by quipping "Which side of the radio are we looking at?" (To be fair, Rizzuto and Messer alternated that day between WABC radio, TV's SportsChannel (now Fox Sports Net New York) and the Fan Appreciation giveaways on the field.)
Rizzuto once opened a broadcast "Welcome to New York Yankee Baseball. I'm Bill White..." -- causing White, standing to Scooter's left, to burst out in laughter.
Rizzuto's relationships with White and radio-only partner Fran Healy produced some classic exchanges, including one with White during the WPIX telecast of the American League Eastern Division title game on October 2. 1978. Boston Red Sox batter Bob (Beetle) Bailey, who had gained a little weight, had just stepped into the batter's box:
- RIZZUTO: "Looks a little out of shape, doesn't he, Bill?"
- WHITE: (chuckles) "Well, Beetle's been around a while..."
- RIZZUTO: "Yeah."
- WHITE: "Got a lot of money -- from the Pirates. Put it all in California real estate. That's why he's got that big...uh..."
- RIZZUTO (chuckles): "Big WHAT?"
- WHITE: "Well, big BANK account." (Both men laugh)
The Yankees retired his number 10 in a ceremony at Yankee Stadium on August 4, 1985. During this ceremony, he was also given a plaque to be placed in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park. The plaque makes reference to the fact that he "Has enjoyed two outstanding careers, all-time Yankee shortstop, one of the great Yankee broadcasters."
Most baseball observers, including Rizzuto himself, would later decide that Derek Jeter had surpassed him as the greatest shortstop in team history. The Scooter paid tribute to his heir apparent after one first-ball ceremony at Yankee Stadium; jogging back to the Yankee dugout, he tossed the ceremonial baseball backhand, imitating Jeter's backhand throw to home plate to eliminate Jeremy Giambi during the Yankees' 2001 American League Division Series triumph.
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, following a long campaign for his election by Yankee fans who were frustrated that he had not received the honor, especially after 1984, when Pee Wee Reese, the similarly-talented and similarly-regarded shortstop of the crosstown Brooklyn Dodgers, was elected.
Rizzuto is also somewhat famous as the announcer who provides the play-by-play commentary during the long spoken bridge in Meat Loaf's 1977 song "Paradise by the Dashboard Light". He also served for a number of years as the television spokesperson for The Money Store, a New Jersey based sub-prime lender.
Rizzuto's cultural status was further elevated in 1993 when editors Tom Peyer and Hart Seely published O Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto, a collection of Rizzuto's on-air monologues and ramblings rendered as found poetry.
In the off-season Rizzuto, along with several other big leaguers, would work at the American Shops off of U.S. Route 22 near Bayonne, New Jersey.
- Signed as an amateur free agent by New York Yankees (1937).
- Released by New York Yankees (August 25, 1956).