Mr. Smith's Neighborhood

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Phil Rizzuto, Yankee Legend, Dead at 89 August 14, 2007

Truly a New York Icon

Early this morning, we learned the news that Phil Rizzuto had passed away in his sleep at the age of 89. Rizzuto, a Baseball Hall of Fame Shortstop for the New York Yankees from 1941 to 1956, and a Yankee broadcaster for four decades, was a beloved New York icon. Conventional wisdom among New Yorkers was that you either loved or hated “The Scooter” but, regardless of your loyalty to the Brooklyn Dodgers or New York Giants, Rizzuto was truly one of the happiest, nicest and most beloved men who ever played the game.

Like many, I cried this morning when I heard the news. For my generation of kids in New York, there were two men who personified the greatness of the New York Yankees. The first was Mickey Mantle. Most of the kids in the New York area grew up wanting to be Mickey Mantle. We fought to get the uniform with the number “7” on the back. We wanted to play centerfield and hit clean-up. We all dreamed of hitting long-towering home runs just like Mickey.

But we also felt like Phil Rizzuto was our buddy in the broadcast booth. I remember the Sundays from my childhood like they were yesterday. We would head to my grandmother’s house, or the family would come to our house. The women would be in the kitchen cooking the meatballs and the gravy, smoking up a storm and yelling at each other. Meanwhile, all the guys would be in front of the TV, enjoying the Yankee game while catching a quick forty winks here and there.

Phil was not the poster boy for perfection as a broadcaster. He was far from it. What we liked about him was the way he seemed just like one of us. He laughed at himself in a way that made you love him more. Phil never failed to catch the excitement of the moment. Yes, he was what you’d call a “homer” and he wanted the Yankees to win. When they won, you could feel him jumping up and down along side you. When we lost, you knew he was just as angry and disgusted.

But, most of all, we laughed. We listened to him say “Holy Cow” more times in one inning than Perry White said, “Great Caesar’s Ghost.” We remember some of the Yankee moments that he made special, like Roger Maris’ 61st home run and Chris Chambliss’ walk-off home run to win the 1976 ALCS. We remember “Phil Rizzuto Day in 1985 when the Yankees gave Phil a “holy cow” that bumped into Rizzuto and knocked him to the ground. And no game was every boring when Rizzuto teamed up with his broadcast partner from 1971 to 1987, Bill White, who served as President of the National League from 1988 to 1994.

My favorite memory of Phil was when he finally made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I was happy because it was the right thing, and something that should have happened years sooner. But I was happier for Phil because, like Yankee fans everywhere, I knew how much the Hall of Fame meant to him. We wanted it for him. And watching his face as he have his acceptance speech meant everything in the world to me, Yankee fans and many baseball fans.

From his first tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers, when Casey Stengel told him that he’d do better shining shoes for a living, to the day he retired from the broadcast booth, Rizzuto was a fighter and earned everything. Even when he was unceremoniously released by the Yankees to make room for Enos Slaughter in August 1956, he did not have a tantrum in the media. He bit his tongue, and was rewarded in return when he was offered the opportunity to become a Yankee broadcaster. He made the most of that opportunity too.

Rizzuto was a class act. He is engrained in many aspects of popular culture (see Wikipedia). My favorite Phil Rizzuto piece is the bit he does during Paradise by the Dashboard Lights by Meat Loaf (calling the action in the front seat like it is a baseball game). I can remember the first time I heard the song and I remember where I was (in the car on the Bronx River Parkway). While the reference to my teenage years was humorous enough, the funniest part was listening to WNEW-FM, the great rock station of that day, and hearing Phil Rizzuto in the middle of the song.

I also still laugh at the Seinfeld episode with the Phil Rizzuto key chain that says “Holy Cow.” And, from time to time, I love calling a silly and obnoxious person a huckleberry.

Only Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Moose Skowron remain from the team of my childhood. Rizzuto knew how lucky he was to have been blessed by the game of baseball. He gave the game and the Yankees everything he had. His life is truly inspirational and, in the words of Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay, a great example of the American Dream. We can only hope that he knew how much he was loved and how much we will miss him.


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