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Phil Rizzuto, 89; Hall of Famer was Yankees shortstop and broadcaster

August 15, 2007|From the Associated Press and Bloomberg News

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, has died. He was 89.

Rizzuto had pneumonia and died in his sleep late Monday night, daughter Patricia Rizzuto said Tuesday. He had been in declining health for several years and was living at a nursing home in West Orange, N.J.

Nicknamed "the Scooter" for his quick feet, the 5-foot-6 Rizzuto was the oldest living Hall of Famer. He played for the Yankees during much of the 1940s and '50s, won seven World Series titles, was an American League MVP and played in five All-Star games.

Rizzuto later announced Yankees games for four decades. His No. 10 was retired by baseball's most storied team and a plaque was placed in Monument Park behind center field at Yankee Stadium.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page Metro Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Rizzuto obituary: The obituary of New York Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto in Wednesday's California section said his lifetime fielding percentage was at least .930. The exact figure is .968.

"He epitomized the Yankee spirit -- gritty and hard-charging -- and he wore the pinstripes proudly," Yankee owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement.

"Phil was a gem, one of the greatest people I ever knew -- a dear friend and great teammate," said Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra.

"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 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 and his superb skills were used to good advantage by the Yankees teams that won 11 pennants and nine World Series between 1941 and 1956. He played errorless ball in 21 consecutive World Series games.

"Phil could hit, he could run, he was good on the base paths, and he was a great shortstop. He knew the fundamentals of the game and he got 100% out of his ability. He played it hard and he played it fair," said Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians.

Born in Brooklyn on Sept. 25, 1917, Philip Francis 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." When Stengel managed the Yankees years later, Rizzuto became one of his most dependable players.

Rizzuto came to the Yankees in 1941 to replace longtime shortstop Frank Crosetti 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.

After being released by the team on Aug. 25, 1956, Rizzuto began a second career as a broadcaster, one for which he became equally well known.

His voice dripped with his native Brooklyn and Yankee fans loved his unusual commentary, often punctuated with the phrase, "Holy cow!"

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

He acknowledged birthdays and anniversaries, read notes from fans, praised the baked delicacies at his favorite restaurant and sent messages to old cronies.

And he was on hand to announce some of the biggest events in baseball history, including Roger Maris' 61st home run on Oct. 1, 1961, to eclipse Babe Ruth's single-season record:

"Here's the windup, fastball, hit deep to right, this could be it! Way back there! Holy cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Maris! And look at the fight for that ball out there! Holy cow, what a shot! Another standing ovation for Maris, and they're still fighting for that ball out there, climbing over each other's backs. One of the greatest sights I've ever seen here at Yankee Stadium!"

He also had his share of bloopers like the time he noted that "If Don Mattingly isn't the American League MVP, nothing's kosher in China."

The phrase "Holy cow!" became so associated with him that 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."

Over the years, his popularity spread beyond New York, fueled by his appearance on Meat Loaf's 1978 hit song, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" and parodies by comedian Billy Crystal.

Despite his qualifications, Rizzuto was passed over for the Hall of Fame 15 times by the writers and 11 times by the Veterans Committee.

Finally, a persuasive speech by Ted Williams pushed Rizzuto into Cooperstown in 1994.

Williams, a member of the Veterans 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."

The flags at Cooperstown and Yankee Stadium were lowered to half-staff in tribute to Rizzuto.

At the Hall of Fame, a laurel was placed around his plaque, as is the custom when any of those enshrined at Cooperstown die.

With Rizzuto's death, former American League President Lee MacPhail, 89, becomes the oldest living Hall member.

Rizzuto is survived by his wife, Cora, whom he married in 1943; daughters Cindy and Patricia Rizzuto and Penny Rizzuto Yetto; son Phil Rizzuto Jr.; and two granddaughters.

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