Dispelling myths about Phil RizzutoThe Scooter was a gamer and a deserving Hall of Famer
"The Yanks should honor his memory tonight by leaving en masse after the 7th inning to beat traffic on the bridge." Neil deMause
Phil Rizzuto had one of the more interesting and unlikely careers of any Yankee, even before he became a broadcast fixture beloved for his idiosyncratic, distracted way of calling a game.
There are three myths about him. The first myth we should dispel is that Rizzuto was not a great player, that being undersized (and his lack of stature really was no exaggeration he really was one of the smallest players to have a significant big league career) somehow limited him. In fact, he was an excellent prospect who might have been more of an impact player if not for three physically debilitating years spent in the military.
As a 20-year-old in the Piedmont League, Rizzuto batted .336 with 10 triples and nine home runs. Moving up to the highest level of the Minor Leagues at 21, Rizzuto joined the Yankees' farm team at Kansas City. The Blues' roster had been totally turned over, and the team jumped from 84-67 in 1938 to a pennant-winning 107-47. Rizzuto batted .316 and slugged .412. The league averages were .276 and .411. In the process, Rizzuto beat out Pee Wee Reese, in the league with Louisville that year, for a berth on the All-Star team. Roughly a year younger, Reese hit .279 and slugged .417.
Rizzuto was young and the incumbent shortstop at the Major League level, Frank Crosetti, was popular and regarded as a good defender, so the Yankees made the decision to send the Scooter back to the minors for another year. This would prove to be a fatal mistake. Though only 28 in 1939, Crosetti's bat had ceased to function after 1936 and would not be coming back to life again. While Crosetti had hit well enough in 1935 and 1936 to be almost an impact player (given what shortstops of the hit in comparison), from 1937 to 1939, "Crow" had hit .243/.346/.351 in a league that hit .289/.365/.429. In 1937, even his fellow shortstops out-hit him. In the two seasons after, he held his own with that group, but even that was about to change.
Back with the Blues in 1940, Rizzuto hit .347 and slugged .482. The league averages were .278 and .395. Simultaneously, Crosetti's bat died altogether, with his rates dropping to .194/.299/.273. Manager Joe McCarthy scouted Rizzuto, decided he wasn't ready, and not only continued to play Crosetti but kept him in the leadoff spot as well. The Yankees lost the pennant race by just two games, and McCarthy admitted, correctly, that he had blown the race, and what might have been nine straight pennants, with that decision.
Rizzuto's first two major league seasons suggest a developing hitter. McCarthy finally gave Rizzuto Crosetti's job in the spring of 1941, but with his average stuck in the .240s in the early going and the team struggling, McCarthy benched him in favor of Crosetti. Much like Joe Torre wishfully returning to Chuck Knoblauch or Bernie Williams every once in awhile to see if they'd gotten young again, had Crosetti hit, Rizzuto might have gone into the war as a utility infielder. Instead, Crosetti flopped again and Rizzuto hit over .300 for the rest of the season, finishing at .307/.343/.398. Rizzuto fancied himself more of a hacker than a leadoff man at this time, and walked just 27 times. The next year, he batted .284/.343/.374, which seems like a comedown until you realize that American League offense dropped between 1941 and 1942 and that Rizzuto greatly improved his walk rate. He would never have power, but he might have developed into a more consistent hitter than he eventually became. What he was in 1950, the MVP year, might have been where he would have arrived without the war.
Even without being consistent at that level, Rizzuto was a very good player. Stories of his defensive prowess seem unexaggerated, he was the best bunter of his time, and one of the last few true practitioners of the art of bunting in the modern era. He was a key part of one of the greatest teams of all time. If you're looking for a modern comparison, think of Omar Vizquel wearing six championship rings. Vizquel has had greater longevity than Rizzuto, whose skills succumbed to age, declining eyesight, and injury at about 35. One also presumes that Vizquel has never owned a bowling alley. That aside, the on-field results are almost exactly the same Rizzuto had a touch more pop in his bat, Vizquel was faster on the bases.
A second myth concerns the "Casey Stengel Incident." It never happened. The story, which Rizzuto told numerous times over the years, involved his participation in an open tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he was 17 or 18.
Stengel was the manager of the Dodgers. Supposedly, Stengel took one look at Rizzuto, concluded that he was too small to succeed, and told him to go get a shoeshine box. Rizzuto carried that slight around with him for the rest of his life. Yet, he didn't tell the story consistently. He also tried out with the Giants at that time. The team was managed by Bill Terry, who was even more of a hard case than Stengel was.
In some of Rizzuto's tellings of the story, Terry is the one who made the shoeshine crack (the Dodgers at least let Rizzuto play; Terry refused to let him on the field). In others, Stengel wasn't even present, and it was Dodgers coach Otto Miller who insulted Rizzuto, or Giants coach Pancho Snyder. For example, in a 1941 Sporting News interview, Rizzuto said, "I tried to work at Ebbets Field, but no dice. The Dodger scouts were in California looking for players. Then I went to the Polo Grounds. One of the coaches was working with a lot of kids, and he looked down at me and laughed, 'Boy, you better go out and boy yourself a shoe-shine box.' Now, that hurt me. I wasn't looking for remarks, just a chance. Still, I was such a small guy, I don't blame them."
At some point, the story coalesced around Stengel, who Rizzuto resented for other reasons, like replacing McCarthy, pinch-hitting for him, and forcing the end of his career in 1956.
The third and final myth about Rizzuto is that he didn't belong in the Hall of Fame, that George Steinbrenner bullied him in. If you want to argue that on the basis that Rizzuto isn't Honus Wagner, go ahead, but that's not what the Hall of Fame is about. Rizzuto wasn't enshrined on that basis. He made it for the reasons above, that he was a star, one of the most popular players of his day, and because of that he was an ambassador for the game. He never ceased to be a proponent not only of the Yankees, but more important for our tarnished age, for the kind of professionalism he learned from Crosetti, Joe DiMaggio, and Joe McCarthy.
McCarthy said, "You're a Yankee. Act like one." Rizzuto also maintained that that was the way the game should be approached. He maintained a high level of public affection for the rest of his life, in large part because he was enthusiastic and he appeared to be guileless (the obfuscation about Stengel seems more likely to be the product of Rizzuto's famously poor memory than any impulse towards distortion) - there must be a thousand stories about Rizzuto as the subject of pranks. It is said that the reason that players no longer leave their gloves on the field between innings is that Rizzuto carried his off for fear that someone would stick a spider in it when he wasn't looking.
Alistair Cooke once wrote a biographical sketch of Benjamin Franklin that ended, "He died, full of years, friendships, and honors." The same description applies to Rizzuto's departure from our midst. Though Franklin could count his friends in the thousands, thanks to mass media, the Scooter could count his in the millions. Few men, including ballplayers, can say that. He belongs to a select group of players who were honored by the game and brought honor to it in return. The Hall of Fame is enriched by his presence.