Ben Walker

The Covington News - - SPORTS -

NEW YORK — Phil Riz­zuto, the Hall of Fame short­stop dur­ing the Yan­kees’ dy­nasty years and beloved by a gen­er­a­tion of fans who de­lighted in hear­ing him ex­claim “Holy cow!” as a broad­caster, died Tues­day. He was 89.

His death was con­firmed by the Yan­kees. Riz­zuto had been in de­clin­ing health for sev­eral years and was liv­ing at a nurs­ing home in West Orange, N.J.

Riz­zuto, known as “The Scooter,” was the old­est liv­ing Hall of Famer. He played for the Yan­kees through­out the 1940s and ‘50s, won seven World Se­ries ti­tles, was an AL MVP and played in five Al­lS­tar games.

Riz­zuto later an­nounced Yan­kees games for four decades and his No. 10 was re­tired by base­ball’s most sto­ried team.

“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.”

At 5-foot-6, Riz­zuto was a flashy player who could al­ways be counted on for a per­fect bunt, a nice slide or 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.

“Phil was a gem, one of the great­est peo­ple I ever knew — a dear friend and great team­mate,” said Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who fre­quently vis­ited Riz­zuto in his later years.

“When I first came up to the Yan­kees, he was like a big — ac­tu­ally, small— brother to me. He’s meant an aw­ful lot to base­ball and the Yan­kees and has left us with a lot of won­der­ful mem­o­ries,” he said.

Riz­zuto was equipped with a pro­duc­tive bat, sure hands and quick feet that earned him his nick­name. A lead­off man, he was a su­perb bunter, used to good ad­van­tage by the Yan­kee teams that won 11 pen­nants and nineWorld Se­ries be­tween 1941 and 1956.

“He was a Yan­kee all the way,” said In­di­ans great Bob Feller, who at 88 be­came the old­est liv­ing Hall of Famer.

“Phil could hit, he could run, he was good on the basepa­ths and he was a great short­stop. 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,” he said.

Born in Brook­lyn, Riz­zuto tried out with the Dodgers and New York Gi­ants when he was 16, but be­cause of his size was dis­missed by Dodgers man­ager Casey Sten­gel, who told him to “Go get a shoeshine box.” He went on to be­come one of Sten­gel’s most

de­pend­able play­ers.

A Riz­zuto bunt, a steal and a DiMag­gio hit made up the scor­ing trade­mark of the Yan­kees’ golden era, and he played er­ror­less ball in 21 con­sec­u­tive World Se­ries games. DiMag­gio said the short­stop “held the team to­gether.”

Riz­zuto came to the Yan­kees in 1941 and bat­ted .307 as a rookie. Af­ter the war, he re­turned in 1946 and be­came the Amer­i­can League MVP in 1950. He bat­ted .324 that sea­son with a slug­ging per­cent­age of .439 and 200 hits, sec­ond most in the league. He also went 58 games with­out an er­ror, mak­ing 288 straight plays.

He led all AL short­stops in dou­ble plays three times and had a ca­reer bat­ting av­er­age of .273 with at least a .930 field­ing per­cent­age. He played in five All-Star games.

Riz­zuto re­mem­bered Aug. 25, 1956, as a day he thought was the “end of the world,” the day Sten­gel re­leased him to make room for clutch-hit­ting Enos Slaugh­ter in the pen­nant drive.

Riz­zuto then be­gan a sec­ond ca­reer as a broad­caster, one for which he be­came at least equally well known. His voice dripped with his na­tive Brook­lyn.

In his decades on the ra­dio and TV, Riz­zuto’s fa­vorite phrase was “Holy cow!” He trot­ted it out when call­ing Roger Maris’ record-break­ing 61st home run in 1961 and the say­ing be­came so much a part of him, the team pre­sented him with a cow wear­ing a halo when they held a day in his honor in 1985. 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.”

Yan­kee fans also loved his un­usual com­men­tary, of­ten punc­tu­ated with the phrase, “What a huck­le­berry!”

In an age of broad­cast­ers who spout sta­tis­tics and re­peat the ob­vi­ous, Riz­zuto loved to talk about things like his fear of light­ning, the style of an um­pire’s shoes or even the prospect of out­fielder Dave Win­field as a can­di­date for pres­i­dent.

He liked to ac­knowl­edge birth­days and an­niver­saries, read notes from fans, praised the baked del­i­ca­cies at his fa­vorite restau­rant and send mes­sages to old cronies. And if he missed a play, he would scrib­ble “ww” in his score­card box score. That, he said, meant “wasn’t watch­ing.”

His pop­u­lar­ity was such that at a re­cent auc­tion a Riz­zuto cap embed­ded with a wad of chew­ing gum sold for more than $8,000. In the New York area, Riz­zuto’s an­tics be­came a sta­ple for TV ads.

De­spite his qual­i­fi­ca­tions, Riz­zuto was passed over for the Hall of Fame 15 times by the writ­ers and 11 times by the old-timers com­mit­tee. Fi­nally, a per­sua­sive speech by Ted Wil­liams pushed Riz­zuto into Coop­er­stown in 1994.

Wil­liams, a mem­ber of the com­mit­tee, ar­gued that Riz­zuto was the man who made the dif­fer­ence be­tween the Yan­kees and his Red Sox. He was fond of say­ing, “If we’d had Riz­zuto in Bos­ton, we’d have won all those pen­nants in­stead of New York.”

As in his play­ing days, Riz­zuto was over­shad­owed by the head­lin­ers, team­mates like DiMag­gio, Man­tle, Whitey Ford and Berra. All of them reached the Hall of Fame be­fore he did.

The flag at Coop­er­stown was low­ered to half-staff and a lau­rel was placed around his plaque, as is cus­tom when all Hall of Famers die.

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