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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #20 Phil Rizzuto

The only way to describe Phil Rizzuto’s career is with a simple and energetic “Holy Cow!”

Phil Rizzuto Photo by Photo File/Getty Images

Name: Fiero Philip Francis “Phil” Rizzuto
Position: Shortstop
Born: September 25, 1917 (Brooklyn, NY)
Died: August 13, 2007 (West Orange, NJ)
Yankee Years: 1941-42, 1946-56
Primary number: 10
Yankee statistics: 1,661 games, .273/.351/.355, 239 2B, 62 3B, 38 HR, 651 BB, 96 wRC+, 42.1 rWAR, 41.4 fWAR

Biography

Before there were John Sterling and Michael Kay, there was Phil Rizzuto. For four decades, the voice of the man affectionately known as Scooter graced the televisions and radios of Yankee fans throughout the tri-state area. He stepped into our homes, sharing with us some of the greatest moments in Yankees history, and it is his voice that is immortalized in the highlights and classic games regularly featured on the YES Network. With his trademark “Holy cow!” exclamation and his tendency to go on tangents when the action lulled, Rizzuto became an icon in the broadcast booth. In many ways, the YES Network models itself in Scooter’s image, bringing to the games a mixture of seriousness and fun that defines the summer in the Bronx.

It’s rare to find a Hall of Famer whose playing career is overshadowed by his post-career activities as much as Rizzuto. Had we ranked Top 100 people affiliated with the New York Yankees as an organization, he would sit high on the list purely based on his broadcasting career alone. Putting together his time on the field and in the booth, and it’s clear that Rizzuto deserves his place in the Top 20 Yankees.

Early Life

Historians generally agree that Phil Rizzuto was born on September 25, 1917. This is the date you will find listed in his obituaries, on the backs of his baseball cards, and in the encyclopedia. And yet, when visiting the hospital in Fort Lauderdale during spring training one year in the 1970s, Rizzuto reported his date of birth as September 25, 1916, then ordered reporter Murray Chass, who had driven him to the hospital, not to tell anybody. Chass would obey, and did not share the story until after Rizzuto’s death in 2007.

Why would a person born in the 1910s misrepresent their age? Perhaps, in an attempt to make up for his small stature — Rizzuto stood just 5-foot-6 and weighed at most 150 pounds — the young shortstop lied about his age to say that he was a year younger when at tryouts, hoping that the coaches would not see an undersized player but a kid who still could grow. In truth, we don’t know for sure, and this whole situation is complicated by the fact that the birth certificate on file with the NYC Department of Health lists his date of birth as 1917.

Open Air Trolley of Brooklyn Rapid Transit is passenger packed Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The date of his birth notwithstanding, the early life of Rizzuto is both fairly well-known and fairly typical for Italian-Americans of his time. His father Fiore, born in the United States, worked a number of jobs in Brooklyn before settling into a career as a trolley motorman and a dock watchman. Like most fathers in the 1930s, he was skeptical of his son’s desire to pursue a career in baseball. In fact, it was his mother, an immigrant from the Calabria region of Italy, who was the driving force behind Rizzuto’s baseball career.

From the get-go, Rizzuto struggled to force his way into the sport due to his “diminutive size.” As a student at Richmond Hill High School, he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but was told by manager Casey Stengel to “go get a shoeshine box.” The New York Giants also were not interested. The Yankees, however, perhaps having seen him face the likes of Satchel Paige as part of a semipro team, took a shot on Rizzuto, signing him as an amateur free agent in 1937 and assigning him to the Bassett Furnituremakers, their minor league team in Virginia.

Rizzuto spent just a short time in Virginia, as he would make his major league debut in 1939, but that time was both important for Rizzuto’s legacy and filled with anecdotes. According to the shortstop, his arrival in Virginia was straight out of a comedy movie: when he got off the train, he could not find the town he was staying in...until the train left the station, revealing “a drugstore, a post office, and a diner.” The escapades did not stop there: the first time he got grits at a Richmond diner, he did not know what to do with them and put them in his pocket. Another time, he stepped in a gopher hole, the injury got infected, and — sometimes, depending on the telling — nearly required amputation. Once again, the truth behind the story is unclear, as Rizzuto told it a different way every time he told it.

The most important story of Rizzuto’s minor league career came during his two-year stint in Kansas City. During this time, Rizzuto’s teammate Billy Hitchcock coined the nickname “Scooter” for him, on account of his swiftness of foot.

Due to his strong performance in the minors, Rizzuto opened the 1941 season as the starting shortstop for the Yankees, who were looking to move on from the aging Frankie Crosetti (#73 in our rankings). Due to the popularity of the veteran he was replacing, the young Scooter struggled to acclimate himself in the clubhouse, with only Joe DiMaggio and Crosetti himself having his back from day one. Looking back, Rizzuto particularly highlights how his predecessor taught him the ins and outs of the position, saying, “If it hadn’t been for Crosetti, I’d have looked like a bum. He made me look great.”

Phil Rizzuto Short Stop for New York Yankees in Catching Position Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Despite the rough introduction to the team, Rizzuto shined as a rookie, slashing .307/.343/.398 while providing strong defense. He earned himself a couple of down-ballot votes for AL MVP that year, which ultimately went to DiMaggio. The Yankees went on to win the World Series, the first of seven rings Rizzuto would end up with.

Rizzuto put together an even better sophomore campaign, and the Yankees would win the pennant once more. Despite his strong performance — he hit .381 in the World Series — the Cardinals would win the series in five games. Still, as the 1942 season came to a close, the future looked bright.

Three years would go by before Rizzuto would return to Yankee Stadium.

Off to War, then to Church, then back to War

Like many of his teammates and opponents, Rizzuto joined the armed forces before the 1943 season. Assigned to the Navy, Scooter was initially stationed at the Naval Training Station in Norfolk, Virginia, where he played on the dock teams. While in Norfolk, he married his wife, Cora Esselborn, whom he had met in 1942 while filling in for DiMaggio at a communion breakfast in Newark. Telling the story of their meeting years later, Rizzuto spun a tale that sounds almost out of a fairy tale:

“I saw this vision of loveliness come down the stairs, and you know how they say in the movies, it was love at first sight. I’d never dated a girl. Holy Cow, I was struck.”

We should all hope to find somebody who speaks of us the way Rizzuto spoke about Cora. Unfortunately, he would not be near his new wife all that long, as the Navy transferred Rizzuto from the Training Station to the Pacific. He would lead a 20 mm gun crew; unfortunately, my attempts to determine which ship he was on have been in vain.

While in the Pacific, Rizzuto contracted malaria and was reassigned to Australia for recovery. After a brief stint on the USS Triangulum, a cargo ship, he bounced around serving as an athletic trainer and organizing sports programs — a much better use of his skills, and a relief to the chronically seasick Rizzuto.

Victory Cargo Ships Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The Mexican (League) Standoff

Upon his return from the war, Rizzuto did not immediately return to the Yankees. Jorge Pasquel, a Mexican industrialist and president of the Mexican League, offered Rizzuto a five-year contract worth $12,000 annually ($187,508 in today’s money) to forego his commitment to the Yankees, part of a large-scale push to poach American baseball players. Major League Baseball and the Yankees filed lawsuits to prevent this, however, and Rizzuto remained in New York.

That would prove to be the right decision. A pair of solid but disappointing third-place finishes sandwiched a World Series championship in the first three post-war seasons. Starting in 1949, however, the Yankees hit arguably the most dominant years in franchise history, as they won five straight World Series championships.

Portrait of Phil Rizzuto of the New York Yankees Photo by Curt Gunther/Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Rizzuto was a big reason for the Yankees’ success. In 1949, he finished runner-up to Ted Williams for AL MVP, as he slashed a .275/.352/.358 while providing good defense atop the Yankee order. Then, in 1950, Scooter put together the best season of his career, posting a .324/.418/.439 line with 50 extra-base hits, 6.9 fWAR, and a league-leading 19 sacrifice bunts, all while going 238 chances at short without making an error — a record at the time. Fresh off this performance, the Yankees signed their star shortstop to a $50,000 contract, the third-richest contract in franchise history at the time.

Across the next three seasons, Rizzuto demonstrated time and time again his importance to the Yankees. Although his numbers don’t pop off the page — from 1951 to 1953, he posted just a .266/.354/.346 slash line, a 96 OPS+ — he received down-ballot MVP votes and All-Star nods each year, a testament to his strong defense and ability to get on base in front of the likes of DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle. Rizzuto’s most satisfying Fall Classic likely came in 1951, when he hit .320/.393/.440 in a six-game triumph against the Giants — one of those teams that wouldn’t give him a second look when he was getting started.

Rizzuto was also known as an expert bunter, once driving in DiMaggio from third with a suicide squeeze on a pitch near his eyes to win the game in the bottom of the ninth against Bob Lemon. Stengel, now the Yankee manager, called it “the greatest play [he] ever saw.”

The Yankees’ World Series streak ended in 1954. Perhaps not coincidentally, that is the same year Rizzuto’s decline began. For the first and only time in his career, he finished the season with a batting average below .200 (.195) and on-base percentage below .300 (.291). In 1955, he became a part-time player, which saw his stats bump up slightly. In 1956, he was suddenly released in the middle of the season, an unceremonious end to his first career.

From the Diamond to the Booth

When he was cut, Rizzuto was furious. Snuffy Stirnweiss (No. 58 on our rankings) told him to go home and calm down before he did something he’d later regret. That would prove to be the best piece of advice Rizzuto ever received. Soon after, the Yankees hired him to join Mel Allen and Red Barber in the broadcast booth.

For the next four decades, Rizzuto was one of the voices of the Yankees. More a storyteller than a play-by-play analyst, Scooter blended the on-field action with personal anecdotes, birthday and wedding congratulations, and whatever else popped to mind. Note the absence of the word “seamlessly” in that sentence: rather famously, his scorebooks were filled with the letters “W.W” — Wasn’t Watching — because he was too busy telling a story or getting something to eat.

Rizzuto’s antics frustrated his producers to no end, but the fanbase loved him. He was everybody’s fun uncle, with his entertaining stream-of-consciousness style allowing him to connect on a personal level with the fans in a way most broadcasters can only dream. And, much like the fun uncle at family gatherings, Rizzuto had a tendency to dip out early, leaving as early as the sixth inning sometimes in order to beat rush hour traffic over the George Washington Bridge.

Over the course of his lengthy career, he lent his voice — and his signature “Holy cow!” — to many historic Yankee moments. Here’s just a few:

Rizzuto served in the broadcast booth consistently until August 1995, when he resigned abruptly in deep regret over missing Mickey Mantle’s funeral to call a game. He came back in 1996 for one last season, however, bringing his total number of years in the broadcast booth to 40 — more than anyone else in franchise history.

The Rizzuto-Berra Bowling Lanes

As part of my research for this piece, I stumbled upon a bit of fun trivia. While they were at the tail end of their playing careers, Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra founded a bowling alley together at a strip mall in New Jersey, which broke ground in 1956 and opened in 1958. While their family members were the ones in charge of day-to-day operations, the two were frequently in the establishment, which contained a Yankee Stadium-shaped bar known colloquially as The Stadium Lounge and which was for years the home of several awards won by its two owners.

Yogi Berra breaks ground as partner Phil Rizzuto watches dur Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Although the pair sold their share in the alley to their relatives in the ‘60s, it was later sold outside the family and rebranded as Astro Bowl, before ultimately closing in 1999. Currently, a Michael’s inhabits the space, a small shadowbox filled with memorabilia all that remains of the original bowling alley.

Monument Park, The Hall of Fame, & Legacy of Scooter

Due to his less-than-stellar counting numbers, Rizzuto’s Hall of Fame candidacy was controversial, and he failed to receive a ticket to Cooperstown through the traditional writers’ vote. It took until 1994, when Yogi Berra, Bill White, and Pee Wee Reese sat on the Veterans’ Committee, for Rizzuto to finally receive the honor he so definitely deserved. If you’ve never heard his Hall of Fame speech, then you are missing out because it is a riot.

New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Even as Major League Baseball wasted time giving Rizzuto the credit he deserved, the Yankees made clear just how much he meant to the organization. First, they retired Rizzuto’s No. 10 and gave him a plaque in Monument Park in 1985, while he was still a broadcaster for the team. As part of the celebration, the organization presented him with a halo-wearing cow — a holy cow, so to speak — which famously proceeded to immediately knock him over.

After his retirement, he continued to make regular appearances at the Stadium, including annual visits for Old-Timers’ Day. He followed the career of Derek Jeter particularly closely, believing him to be on track to become the greatest Yankee shortstop of all time; rather famously, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to a game in the 2001 postseason, mimicking Jeter’s iconic flip to home plate earlier that month against the Athletics.

When Rizzuto passed away after a long period of declining health on August 13, 2007, the Yankee Universe was shattered. Rizzuto had been, in many ways, the ultimate Yankee, whose 53 years as a player and a broadcaster represented by far the longest-tenured stretch with the organization in franchise history. He bled the pinstripes, and in his honor, the Yankees finished out the 2007 season with a black band and a No. 10 patch on their arm.

The final line of his obituary in the New York Times sums up Rizzuto’s life best. Upon hearing the news that Pope Paul VI had died in 1978, the Italian Catholic said on air:

“Well, that kind of puts the damper on even a Yankee win.”

Chicago White Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Staff rank: 20
Community rank: 23
Stats rank: 23
2013 rank: 19

References

Baldassaro, Lawrence. “Phil Rizzuto.” Society for American Baseball Research. Accessed January 16, 2024.

Baseball Almanac — Phil Rizzuto

Baseball Reference — Phil Rizzuto

Bedingfield, Gary. “Phil Rizzuto.” Baseball in Wartime. August 14, 2007.

BR Bullpen — Phil Rizzuto

Chass, Murray. “Rizzuto’s Secret of Youth Lasted for Years.” New York Times. August 19, 2007.

Cichalski, Dan. “These Yankees legends went from pinstripes to pins.” MLB.com. May 1, 2022.

ESPN News. “Rizzuto, Yankee Hall of Famer, dies at age 89.ESPN.com. August 14, 2007.

FanGraphs — Phil Rizzuto

Ferenchick, Matt. “Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #58 Snuffy Stirnweiss.” Pinstripe Alley. December 7, 2023.

Phil Rizzuto.” National Baseball Hall of Fame. Accessed January 16, 2024.

PHILIP(FIERO) FRANCIS “SCOOTER” RIZZUTO. The United States Navy Memorial. Accessed January 16, 2024.

Rizzuto, Phil. “Phil Rizzuto (1993).” By Lawrence Baldassaro. Society for American Baseball Research. June 12, 1993.

Profiles of Valor: Phil Rizzuto.” Bob Feller Act of Valor Award. Accessed January 16, 2024.

Sandomir, Richard. “Phil Rizzuto, Yankees Shortstop, Dies at 89.New York Times. August 14, 2007.

Vetcollector. “Serving Behind the Scenes, Rizzuto Shared His Heart for the Game.” Chevrons and Diamonds. June 5, 2020.

Previously on the Top 100

21. Graig Nettles
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