Our friends over at Seamheads.com had a great post about some of history’s most famous baseball voices. Included were Ernie Harwell, Red Barber, Mel Allen, Bob Prince and Vin Scully. I’ve heard them all. None held a candle to Phil Rizzuto who for 40 years did the New York Yankees’ color commentary.
For 15 of those years, I lived in New York and Rizzuto along with his numerous partners (Jerry Coleman, Frank Messer and Bill White) were my constant summer companions.
Rizzuto was a childhood hero for many reasons, most obviously because of his Italian heritage. The “Scooter,” as Rizzuto was universally known, was also Joe Di Maggio’s roommate. Di Maggio was another favorite…at least until I learned about the darker side of his character.
Years after I left New York for Seattle, I was traveling to Boston. Coincidentally, the Yankees were playing the Red Sox. As I checked into my small, out of the way hotel Rizzuto was walking through the lobby. I approached him, extended my hand which he shook firmly. I told Rizzuto that I had spent countless nights listening to him broadcast Yankee games and that his accounts gave me more pleasure than I could express. Luckily, I remembered his wife Cora’s name so I was able to ask after her, too.
Rizzuto could have brushed me off after I had spoken my piece. Instead he engaged me in a long conversation about baseball in general and the Mariners specifically. And Rizzuto asked me questions about my family, my occupation and whether I was going to the game that night.
Although I had other plans, Rizzuto pulled out two tickets and gave them to me. And somehow it didn’t seem right not to use them. Compliments of the Scooter, I went.
I’ll confess that I wanted to ask him for his autograph but, you know, I was in my mid-30s. And after my visit with Rizzuto, I felt more like a friend than a fan.
White had a great story about what it was like to share the booth with Rizzuto. Once, hoping to clarify a complicated scoring decision, White looked over Rizzuto’s shoulder. In the Scooter’s score book was this notation: “W.W.” A confused White asked his partner what “W.W.” meant. Rizzuto replied: “Wasn’t watching.”
Phil himself told my favorite Rizzuto story at his Hall of Fame induction. Talking about his early career in the Class D Southern League, Rizzuto served grits at his hotel breakfast. Rizzuto, who grew up in Brooklyn, had never seen grits. Not wanting to eat them but also not wanting to leave them on his plate, Rizzuto said: “I put them in my pocket and walked out.” Phil got a huge laugh.
For more Rizzuto humor, read O Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto.