Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto, the Hall of Fame shortstop and long-time broadcaster for the New York Yankees died today at age 89, and this makes me sad. Holy cow.
I loved the Scooter.
But I never saw him play. My memory of him will always be as an announcer– funny, eccentric, happy-go-lucky and an unabashed Yankee cheerleader, a “homer” to be sure, but an endearing one.
Anyone who lived through the Yankees’ bleak years of the late 60s and early 70′, the so-called “Horace Clarke Era,” named after a mediocre second baseman on the team, remembers how Rizzuto always kept the faith. He was always light-spirited even when the team stunk, and if events on the field got even too much for him to stomach, (I’ll never forget his disgust when a journeyman third baseman by the name of Rich McKinney made three errors in one inning) he would just start reading birthday messages or something.
The Scooter drew on all the baseball cliches– “ducks on the pond,” “deuces are wild,” “dog days of August,” etc. but they never seemed tired coming from him. By to mid to late August, he would invariably remark on the mathematical reality of how hard it was at that point for a slumping batter to appreciably lift his batting average.
I don’t know why I remember that. Maybe there was a subtle message about life in general behind it.
He was a little guy, and in the pre-steroid era, Rizzuto always said that baseball was one of the few professional sports a little guy could play and be good at. This was always encouraging to skinny dreamers like me.
He had hilarious fears and phobias. Lightning, for example. Whenever there was a thunderstorm at the stadium, Rizzuto would duck for cover.
Grudges, too– Scooter never forgot a guy who spiked him at second base. But he was never malicious about i either. He always funny and self-effacing when he brought up the likes of such lifelong bete noires as Eddie Stanky and Enos Slaughter.
He could be unintentionally hilarious, maybe even insensitive at times. But he never meant to hurt anyone.
When Jose Feliciano got up to sing the National Anthem before a game, the Scooter announced, “Jose Feliciano, blind folk singer. Doesn’t let it affect him, though.”
Or when one of the Popes died, he said, “Tough break about the Pope. Hope it doesn’t put a damper on today’s Yankee game.”
Ah Scooter. There’s no lightning up there in Baseball Heaven.