Why New York Yankee Fans Loved Phil Rizzuto

Phil Rizzuto

Photo: Phil Rizzuto – Public Domain

Hand’s down, Phil Rizzuto is one of the most loved New York Yankees of all time. From just a personality perspective, no one matched Phil Rizzuto’s friendly and entertaining personality except for Yogi Berra. For those of us in our 50s and 60s, we got to know Phil Rizzuto from his broadcasting days with the New York Yankees. We were too young to see him play. For our parent’s generation, they knew Phil Rizzuto as one of the great New York Yankees shortstops to ever play the game.  It’s a shame that those under twenty five years old never got the chance to experience watching a New York Yankees game with the Scooter behind the microphone. No one ever called a game with the personality of Phil Rizzuto. He is one we miss dearly.

Phil Rizzuto was born in Brooklyn, New York during World War I on September 25, 1917. Phil Rizzuto was as New York as you could get. His mother Rose (Angotti) Rizzuto was born in Italy. His father Fiore had been born in New York. They were an Italian family that loved to play music yet made a living as laborers. Phil Rizzuto attended Richmond Hill High School in Queens. In high school he played spots and despite his small size, his huge talent and heart had him playing like a champion from the start. Like any good parent who wanted their children to find a profession that they could make a living in, Phil’s father was concerned that Phil Rizzuto would not be able to make a living as a baseball player. Nonetheless, Phil Rizzuto signed with the New York Yankees in 1937. Rizzuto’s career with the New York Yankees began in Virginia in the Class D Bi-State League.

Phil Rizzuto did not stay too long in Virginia. Eventually he landed in Kansas City of the American Association where he became the league’s MVP in 1940. It was his time in Kansas City where he earned the nickname Scooter from one of his teammates. The name was given to him because of his quickness on the bases.

In 1941, Phil Rizzuto replaced Frank Crosetti who was a popular New York Yankee who had played shortstop for the team for the previous nine years. In his first season with the New York Yankees, Phil Rizzuto had a better batting average than anyone on the team with the exception of Joe DiMaggio. Rizzuto hit 307 while Jolting Joe hit 357.  In his second season, Phil Rizzuto found himself being named to the American League All Star team.

After the 1942 season, Phil Rizzuto spent the next three baseball season in the military as World War II raged on. While stationed in Virginia, Phil Rizzuto met the love of his life. Her name was Cora Esselborn and every New York Yankee fan who listened to Phil Rizzuto broadcast the Yankees games for 40 years would learn all about her.

When Phil Rizzuto returned from the War, the Mexican Baseball League tried recruiting him as well as some other famous Major League ball players. The Mexican League offered a great deal of money to those players. The New York Yankees prevented Phil Rizzuto from joining the Mexican Baseball League. In the end, Phil Rizzuto’s return to the New York Yankees resulted in an incredible run of World Series Championships and personal achievements. By the time Phil Rizzuto had retired from his playing days with the New York Yankees he had earned seven World Series Rings, made the All Star team five times and won league MVP in 1950. All these accomplishments were made in just 12 seasons with the New York Yankees from 1941 to 1942 and 1946 to 1956.

For those alive who were baseball fans during that incredible run of New York Yankees World Series Championships, Phil Rizzuto was one of their favorites. His small size but incredible hustle and talent easily won over all the fans. Sadly, most of the generation of fans who watched Phil Rizzuto play baseball have passed away. However, I remember the stories my father and uncles would share about those New York Yankees. One could tell how loved Rizzuto was from their conversations. My generation knew another Phil Rizzuto. We knew Phil Rizzuto the broadcaster. Phil Rizzuto was hired by the New York Yankees as a broadcaster for the 1957 season. Phil would stay in that broadcast chair for the next forty years. During that span, there was no other broadcaster as loved as the Scooter was, unless you were a NY Mets fan.

Phil Rizzutto’s out right rooting for the New York Yankees was only a small reason New York Yankees fans loved him. We all loved him because he acted like one of us. He was one of us. The boy from Brooklyn who made it to the top and never forgot where he came from. Listening to Phil Rizzuto call a game was like listening to your favorite uncle talking about old times at the dinner table. We knew all about Phil’s world. We all knew his wife’s name Cora. You could tell how much he loved her in the way he spoke about her. We knew what he was eating during the games. We knew what he would be eating later that evening. Phil Rizzuto was an open book that had no problems sharing his life with millions of people. We loved hm for that.

New Yorkers know BS when they hear it. Phil Rizzuto was genuine. There have not been many broadcasters who could call a game while making it sound like they were hanging out on the couch watching it with you. It’s why everyone also loved John Madden. They didn’t hold back. They were not cruel, but they could let players have it when they deserved it. Phil Rizzuto’s famous expression when he was upset with someone is he would call them a “huckleberry.” It was innocent, funny and straight to the point. Phil Rizzuto was an ex-Yankee great, he had the stature to call out anyone if he wanted to.

Perhaps the greatest commonality Phil Rizzuto shared with many fans was his desire to leave games early to beat the traffic. As anyone who has ever attended a ball game in New York City can attest, the difference between leaving before a game ended as opposed to waiting till it was over could save you and hour or two in traffic. Phil Rizzuto would leave the stadium all the time early and he took a great deal of good natured ribbing for it from his fellow broadcasters and producers. Many times during a ball game’s last three innings, the show’s producers would broadcast a live picture of the George Washington Bridge while Bill White or Frank Messer would comment,”hey there’s Rizzuto on the bridge.”

From 1972 to 1982 Phil Rizzuto, Frank Messer and Bill White were the three voices of the New York Yankees on broadcast television. They were together for a longer period of time in different combinations but it was that ten year period from 1972 to 1982 that defined the glory years of that much loved broadcast team. They were not all glory years for the New York Yankees as the late 1960s and early 1970s defined one of the worst eras of New York Yankees baseball Yankee fans ever had to endure.

Frank Messer was a professional broadcaster who played the straight man to Rizzutto. Bill White found his ground somewhere in the middle. As a former player for the St Louis Cardinals, Bill White usually gave Phil Rizzuto a little more ribbing than Frank Messer did. Regardless of who did what, the three of them created a broadcast that was incredibly enjoyable to watch despite the New York Yankees poor play on the field in what many term as the Horace Clarke years.

The growth of cable tv in the late 1970s and the rise of sports channels eventually fueled a changing in the New York Yankees broadcast booth on radio, broadcast television and cablevision. Phil Rizzuto would work with a host of other broadcasters into the 1990s including Tom Seaver and the late great Bobby Murcer.

Many people remember Phil Rizzuto on all those Money Store commercials. You could not blame him for earning what he could. Ballplayers during his days made nowhere near the money today’s baseball players make. We also all loved Phil Rizzuto’s great cameo on Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light.” When they all made that recording no one had any idea that Meat Loafs Bat Out Of Hell album would be as successful as it became.

There are so many fans who have stories of meeting Phil Rizzuto on the streets, in a store, at the stadium etc.etc. If you talk to any those fans who met Phil Rizzuto you will find they all share the same common story about meeting him. Phil Rizzuto was always interested in hearing what you had to stay. And if he came back your way again, he would always ask if you were around. He remembered and he cared no matter who you were or what you did. That’s an old school guy for the streets, from the neighborhood, a good one, a great one!

Phil Rizzuto retired from broadcasting in 1996 after forty years behind the microphone. It was a year in which the New York Yankees said goodbye to one of their greatest shortstops of all time while opening the door for a player who would become a new legendary shortstop in Derek Jeter.

In the twentieth century, the New York Yankees always promoted Mel Allen as the voice of the New York Yankees. They promoted their stadium as the house that Ruth built. The team paid constant tribute to Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. These were the greatest New York Yankees of all time. They were loved by all New York Yankee fans. Nonetheless, for so many of us, Phil Rizzuto was a man who bled pinstripes more than any other. Holy Cow!, do we miss him!

Sources:

DeVito, Carlo. Scooter: The Biography of Phil Rizzuto. Chicago: Triumph Books, 2010.

Lupica, Mike. “Brooklyn kid turned Bronx icon made us feel like part of family”. Daily News Sports. NY Daily News.com. Retrieved 12 July 2016.

One Response

  1. Peter Steinman April 4, 2019
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