Phil Rizzuto passed away at the age of 89 on Monday. He’d’ve been 90 on September 25. There’s been the typical outpouring of tributes. When a Yankee dies, it’s supposed to mean more, I suppose, than when, say, a White Sox dies. Or a Phillie. Typical New York media biases apply.
In fact, Rizzuto was a controversial figure, his folksy persona notwithstanding. Brooklyn-born, he played shortstop for the Yankees from 1941 to 1956, losing the years 1943-45 to World War II. He participated in nine World Series, of which the Yanks won seven, including a 5-1 record against the Dodgers. Rizzuto even won a Most Valuable Player Award, in 1950, during the years when Yankees players often took turns garnering that honor. (DiMaggio’s turn, Berra’s turn, Mantle’s turn, Rizzuto’s turn...)
How good was Rizzuto? At this juncture, it’s probably impossible to know. We have hearsay reports of a guy always termed “scrappy,” and “a gamer,” and “the heart of the Yankees,” etc. He was reportedly a great bunter, for whatever that’s worth, making him no doubt one of the greatest bunters ever allowed into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Rizzuto (left, in uniform) compiled a lifetime batting average of .273, with 1,588 hits, 877 runs scored, 38 home runs, and 563 RBIs. Decent numbers, certainly useful enough for the shortstop on a Yankee juggernaut that won five consecutive world championships from 1949-1953. But except for 1950, when Rizzuto had 200 hits, scored 125 runs and batted .324, his numbers were ordinary. His contemporary on the Red Sox, Vern Stephens, whose career spanned from 1941-55, retired with 1,859 hits, 1,001 runs scored, 247 homers, and 1,174 RBIs. The year Scooter won the MVP, Stephens had 30 homers and 144 RBIs with a .295 batting average, making him the most productive shortstop in his league. The previous year, 1949, Stephens clubbed 39 homers and drove in an astronomical 159 runs (the same as teammate Ted Williams). Stephens never even sniffed the HOF.
Rizzuto’s career fielding percentage was .968, which puts him slightly above Tony Kubek (.967), who eventually replaced him—and definitively above his most immediate local crosstown competitors, the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese (.962) and the Giants’ Alvin Dark (.960)—but far below the greatest of baseball’s shortstops. Even Gil McDougald, who replaced Rizzuto initially in 1956, after moving over from second base, had a higher career fielding percentage at shortstop (.973). So did Rizzuto’s contemporary, Chico Carrasquel of the White Sox (.969). For more perspective, consider that former Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger had a lifetime fielding percentage of .977, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith clocked in at .978, and Larry Bowa, a similar “firebrand”-type player like Rizzuto (but not a Hall of Famer), compiled a .980 lifetime fielding percentage. Needless to say, comparisons to current Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter are pointless. Jeter’s on track for quick legit Hall of Fame enshrinement, currently with a .317 lifetime batting average and a career .975 fielding percentage.
So Rizzuto’s in the Hall, though clearly not based on his numbers. For more than 30 years, Rizzuto was turned down for baseball immortality by the Hall’s voters, including the Veterans Committee, which exists to rectify historical oversights. Finally, in 1994, Rizzuto got in, with sympathy pressure and New York media bias having reached a sufficiently obnoxious level.
Rizzuto was unceremoniously released by the Yankees during the 1956 season. He was almost 39, and hitting .231, but he didn't want to quit playing ball. Connections with a beer sponsor greased the way for a new career—as a Yankees announcer. Rizzuto (pictured, left, in later years) wasn’t the first ex-jock in a broadcasting booth, but in many ways he broke unfortunate, unprecedented ground. Just like the jocks of today, without training or experience in front of a microphone, and without any journalistic or show-biz background, Rizzuto was thrust upon the radio audience to call the games. His ascent rubbed veteran New York broadcasters like Mel Allen and Red Barber the wrong way, both of them non-jocks who considered themselves media professionals who had paid their dues to reach the pinnacle of their business and went about their jobs with a particular panache geared to civilize the sport for the fans.
As a broadcaster, Rizzuto had no regard for decorum or the English language. He went at it like everyone’s goofy Uncle Tony, hollering out reportage that offended his better-trained colleagues, who figured he’d vocally bombed the profession back to the Stone Age. Because he was Rizzuto, the ex-Yankee, his blather was tolerated, until he then became dubbed “loveable.” St. Louis and Chicago broadcaster, the late Harry Caray, eventually absorbed the mantle of loveable, too, after he got older, then had a stroke, and started to slur words and mispronounce names and comport himself eccentrically on-air. Yet in his prime, Caray was a crackling good play-by-play guy, and it was only age that dimmed his star. Rizzuto, on the other hand, was arguably an embarrassment from the get-go; only his Yankee-ness got him a lifetime pass to a second career that lasted more than three times as long as his tenure as a player. Being a "loveable" ex-jock will trump broadcast professionalism every time.
So when you next hear a really bad ex-jock announcer on the radio or television—you know, the guys who can’t speak English well, who make inane comments, who are clearly under-educated, who mispronounce players’ names, who not only misuse cliches in context but often completely butcher them—think fondly of Scooter, the luckiest man ever to don a baseball uniform or grasp a microphone.