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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Phil Rizzuto, Yankees' Hall of Fame shortstop and longtime broadcaster, dies at 89

By BEN WALKER, AP Baseball Writer
August 15, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) -- To fellow Hall of Famers, Phil Rizzuto was a guy who could put down a squeeze bunt, handle a tricky hop or make a nifty hook slide.

To a generation of fans who never saw "The Scooter" play a single inning, he became famous for something else -- "Holy cow!"

Part of the New York Yankees family for more than a half-century, Rizzuto died Monday night at 89. The team will wear his retired No. 10 on its left sleeves for the rest of the season.

"I guess heaven must have needed a shortstop," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. "He epitomized the Yankee spirit -- gritty and hard charging -- and he wore the pinstripes proudly."

A staple during the Yankees dynasty in the 1940s and 1950s, Rizzuto became a beloved broadcaster doing their games for four decades.

While many announcers spouted statistics, Rizzuto told stories. He delighted television and radio listeners by spinning yarns about his fear of lightning, his favorite place to get a cannoli and the prospect of outfielder Dave Winfield as a candidate for president.

His voice dripping with his native Brooklyn, Rizzuto liked to acknowledge birthdays and anniversaries, read notes from fans and send messages to old cronies. Once he noticed old teammate Bobby Brown -- then the American League president -- sitting in a box seat and hollered down, trying to get his attention.

"He would keep getting in trouble with WPIX for announcing birthdays and anniversaries," daughter Patricia Rizzuto recalled Tuesday.

If Rizzuto missed a play, he would merely scribble "ww" in his scorecard box score. That, he said, meant "wasn't watching."

His fans and colleagues never minded. Because by simply saying "Hey, White!" to longtime broadcasting partner Bill White, it was time for another tale.

"He didn't try to act like an announcer," Hall of Fame teammate Whitey Ford said. "He just said what he thought. It added fun to the game."

And, Rizzuto never strayed too far from his catch-phrase -- the same one that Harry Caray popularized in St. Louis and Chicago.

Rizzuto used it all sorts of ways, depending on what he was describing. He shouted "Holy cow!" when he called Roger Maris' record-breaking 61st home run, but he also employed it to express disbelief or acknowledgment.

For players who bothered him, however, it was always, "What a huckleberry!"

''Phil was a unique figure who exemplified the joy of our game to millions of fans," commissioner Bud Selig said.

In the New York area, Rizzuto's antics became a staple for TV ads. Nonbaseball fans got to know him, too, hearing his voice on Meat Loaf's rock hit "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" and watching Billy Crystal's imitations.

Rizzuto had been in declining health for several years. He had pneumonia and died in his sleep at a nursing home in West Orange, N.J., daughter Patricia Rizzuto said.

Rizzuto was the oldest living Hall of Famer and his Cooperstown plaque noted how he "overcame diminutive size." At 5-foot-6, he played over his head, winning seven World Series titles, earning the 1950 AL MVP award and becoming a five-time All-Star.

"When I first came up to the Yankees, he was like a big -- actually, small -- brother to me," said Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who frequently visited Rizzuto in his later years.

The flags at Yankee Stadium were lowered to half-staff before Tuesday night's game against Baltimore and flowers were placed by Rizzuto's plaque at Monument Park.

Public address announcer Bob Sheppard detailed some of Rizzuto's accomplishments before the team observed a pregame moment of silence. His number was painted on the grass in front of each dugout and marquees outside the stadium said "Phil Rizzuto 1917-2007"

"Scooter, we will miss you," Sheppard said as a video tribute aired on the scoreboard.

Rizzuto's numbers, by Hall standards, were not gaudy: a .273 batting average and 38 lifetime homers. After falling short in 26 elections, it took a passionate speech from Ted Williams to get him picked.

Rizzuto was a flashy player who could always be counted on to steal a key base or make a diving catch in a lineup better known for its cornerstone sluggers. He played 13 seasons alongside the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle in a career interrupted by Navy service in World War II.

Often overshadowed by Hall of Fame teammates, it made sense that Rizzuto was the first "mystery guest" on the old game show "What's My Line?" in 1950.

A leadoff man with quick feet that earned him his nickname, Rizzuto inspired Yankees teams that won 11 pennants and nine World Series between 1941 and 1956.

He was a Yankee all the way," Indians Hall of Famer Bob Feller said. "He knew the fundamentals of the game and he got 100 percent out of his ability. He played it hard and he played it fair."

Long after his playing career, Rizzuto could often be found talking ball in the Yankees clubhouse. He especially enjoyed his visits with shortstop Derek Jeter.

"Mr. Rizzuto serves as the ultimate reminder that physical stature has little bearing on the size of a person's heart," Jeter said. "Nothing was ever given to Phil, and he used every ounce of his ability to become one of the greatest Yankees to ever wear this uniform."

On Phil Rizzuto Day at Yankee Stadium in 1985, the team gave him a fitting present: a cow wearing a halo.

The cow knocked Rizzuto over and, of course, he shouted, "Holy cow!"
"That thing really hurt," he said. "That big thing stepped right on my shoe and pushed me backwards, like a karate move."

Rizzuto was passed over for the Hall of Fame 15 times by the writers and 11 times by the Veterans Committee. Finally, Williams' speech pushed Rizzuto into Cooperstown in 1994.

"If we'd had Rizzuto in Boston, we'd have won all those pennants instead of New York," Williams often said.

The flag at Cooperstown was lowered to half-staff and a laurel was placed around his plaque, as is custom when Hall of Famers die. With Rizzuto's death, executive Lee MacPhail, 89, became the oldest living Hall member.

Rizzuto is survived by his wife, Cora; daughters Cindy Rizzuto, Patricia Rizzuto and Penny Rizzuto Yetto; son Phil Rizzuto Jr.; and two granddaughters.

A private, family funeral is planned. The family is working with the Yankees on a memorial to be held at Yankee Stadium.

AP Sports Writers Hal Bock and Jay Cohen, Associated Press Writer Pat Milton, AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland, and Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Gold in Hillside, N.J., contributed to this report.

Updated on Wednesday, Aug 15, 2007 3:48 am, EDT


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