Phil Rizzuto: Great Player, Better Broadcaster

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.

0 thoughts on “Phil Rizzuto: Great Player, Better Broadcaster”

  1. Nice little Rizzuto story, Joe. I grew up a little upstate of NYC in the ’70s and ’80s and remember the broadcast team of Rizzuto, White and Messer fondly (Coleman was before my time). Just looked it up, and those three were together from 1971 to 1984, with one guy rotating out every three innings to handle the radio broadcast. I loved it when Rizzuto referred to his broadcast partner by just his last name. Hearing him say “Hey White!” is still etched in my brain.

    I’m really glad your in-person experience backs up that he’s the kind of guy many of us always imagined he was. Thanks for this, Joe.

  2. Joe, I mean this in the most appreciative and almost envious way. Your amazing experiences of being in the right place at the right time to have seen and met some of baseball’s great icons is right out of a movie like Forrest Gump who had that nack too of meeting various icons. (The comparison stops there of course as you know you are an amazing writer and not in any way like the fictitious Forrest.).
    Thanks for sharing this great story. One always hopes that your heroes are the way you picture them. It is so gratifying to hear that the Scooter was as fine a man as there could ever be. Could he have been any kinder or more humble, wow!
    I loved it when Bill White and Phil Rizzuto were together. I’d listen in the car, at home on tv whenever I could. They were funny as hell teasing each other and both still could talk a great game, both being smart baseball men.
    We all know how Scooter liked to snack while working and I remember how once in a while Bill White used to ask Scooter a question when Scooter had a mouthful. It was hysterical hearing Phil trying to answer while gulping down his food and then calling White a “huckleberry”.
    Thanks for the wonderful story and generating some long lost fond memories.

  3. When I was 6 years old in 1950 I lived on a block in Manhattan (Cathedral Parkway / W110th St.) that was largely Italian. That year the four best players on the World Champion Yankees were Dimaggio, Rizzuto, Berra and Raschi. Three guesses which team that block was rooting for.

  4. What sticks in my mind about Rizzuto’s playing days (he wore #10) was the oversized bat he used, choking up almost a third of the way. It did not help Rizzuto hit for the distance, but if memory serves, he did not strike out often. Another aspect of “the Scooter’s” playing was how short he was, especially for a shortstop, where size and range – along with a strong arm – are de rigueur qualities. But my most memorable recollection of his playing days is that the Yankees – with major contributions by the Italian-Americans (Rizzuto’s family came from Calabria, unlike the writer of this piece) who graced their team – beat the tar out of my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers in five of six World Series.
    As to Rizzuto the announcer, perhaps his stint in the US Navy during WWII taught him humility, but as Giuseppe described, there was no artifice about the man. I wonder today if “Holy Cow,” his singular addition of baseball announcing, would not have, let us say, a more vulgar dimension . I was never a Yankee fan; far from it, but it was said that in the 1950s, their teams were “a class act.” And no one was a classier guy than “the Scooter.” And that praise has nothing to do with the fact that both of our surnames end in the same vowel.

    Riquiescat in pace.

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