Memories of the loveable Scooter

Phil Rizzuto was truly one of a kind
08/14/2007 1:38 PM ET
By Phil Pepe / Special to

Rizzuto (left) was affable in and out of the booth.(AP)
This was a rainy afternoon in Minnesota on a Yankees trip in the early seventies. Looking to kill a few hours, several players and writers decided to take in the popular X-rated movie of the day. Phil Rizzuto was invited to join the group.

"Oh, no," said The Scooter. "I can't be seen at something like that."

Off we went, Scooterless, to the theater. We were sitting in the dark for about an hour when, on the screen, flashed a particularly ribald scene. Suddenly, from the back of the silent theater, a familiar shriek was heard.

"Holy Cow!"

Rizzuto had slipped into the theater surreptitiously, wearing a raincoat with the collar turned up, a hat and sunglasses so as not to be recognized, but with two words he had blown his cover.

That was one of my first thoughts when I learned that the lovable Scooter had passed on Tuesday. I repeat this story not to embarrass him, but to relate what a genuine, unpretentious, humble person Rizzuto was. For me, traveling with him, knowing him, sharing time with him, was one of the joys of my more than 20 years as a Yankees beat writer.

I saw him only briefly as a player, enough to know that he was special, so special that the incomparable Ted Williams once said, "If we had Phil Rizzuto all those years (the forties and fifties), we would have won all those championships instead of the Yankees."

For those who knew Rizzuto only as a broadcaster, I can report that what you saw is what you got. Unlike many of his contemporaries in what became his second career, Rizzuto on the air was exactly what Rizzuto was off the air: the fear of flying and of things, animate and inanimate, that crawl, squiggle or creep, the early departure from games in order to beat the traffic over the George Washington Bridge and get home to his beloved Cora, the hours spent on the road watching movies on television (his favorite was "North By Northwest" with Cary Grant, which he claimed to have seen more than a dozen times) the naiveté, the ability to poke fun at himself and to admit ignorance of some fact or some recently arrived player.

I remember one airplane flight late in the season. I was sitting in the row behind Rizzuto talking with a Yankees pitcher. When the pitcher left to go to the lavoratory, Rizzuto turned to me and asked, "Who's that guy you were talking to?"

"That's Larry Gura, Scooter," I said. "He joined us in June."

So many thoughts came rushing back to me when I learned The Scooter was gone, the on-air birthday greetings, the arrival of cannolis to the press box, the malaprops, the utterances that were uniquely Scooter.

• "There's (American League umpire) Larry Napp dusting off home plate from Staten Island."

• "I'm here in Seattle and I couldn't believe it, I'm staying in a round hotel. My room is round. I'll never be able to corner Cora tonight."

• Hank Majeski has a broken jaw and they have wired his jaw shut because if they didn't he could eat something and choke to death and then he'd be in trouble."

• The Yankees' attendance is higher than it's ever been in quite some time."

• "That play went six to three for those scoring at home."

I remember looking at Rizzuto's scorecard one day and spread all over it were the letters "WW."

"What is WW?" I asked.

"Wasn't watching," Scooter replied.

The last time I saw Scooter was about a month ago. I heard he was in a nursing home and I paid him a visit. When I walked into his room, he gave me a big smile. I stayed only a few minutes because I was told he was not having a good day. I don't think he knew me. He never called me by name (he and I were both baptized Philip Francis). I got the feeling that he recognized me as someone from his past, but he didn't seem to know exactly what our relationship was.

Still, I'm glad I went, especially when I learned that every Wednesday, Yogi Berra would visit his buddy and teammate and play bingo with him.

To know Scooter was to love him. To know that I will never see him again, never hear him again, never spend time with him again, never poke fun at him again, never laugh at his idiosyncrasies again, leaves a void that can never be replaced.

Former Yankees beat writer and acclaimed author Phil Pepe is a regular contributor to comments