Back in the late 1980s I was working with Red Holzman on his autobiography "RED ON RED."and having a ball. He mentioned that during WW II he had become friends with Phil Rizzuto. They both were athletes, both originally from Brooklyn. Red and his wife Selma were invited to dinner with Phil and his wife Cora.
Red has his usual scotch or two to start things off. Then he asked for the menu and learned that it would be tomato juice, tomato soup, pasta with tomato sauce.
"And for dessert tomato pie," Red smiled.
'No," Phil said, "huckleberry pie, you huckleberry!"
Under ordinary circumstances Red Holzman , lover of food that he was, might have left the room. But he dearly loved Phil Rizzuto. "That little guy," Red told me, "was one my favorite all time. Just a lovely and decent man."
Now with the passing of "the Scooter," it seems there are hundreds of thousands who shared the same feelings about him, including me.
I was at Yankee Stadium, hungry, with my tray of food in the press room restaurant, if one can call it that. Full house. Phil Rizzuto was there. He gestured that I come over and arranged for another chair at his table so that I could sit and eat. Kindness to a guy he barely knew.
Casey Stengel who rejected the 16-year-old Rizzuto at a Brooklyn Dodger tryout told him that he was too small, too skinny and that he should get a job shining shoes. Later Casey Stengel said: "He's the greatest shortstop I've ever seen. Honus Wagner was a better hitter, but I've seen this kid make plays Wagner never did."
The Dodgers turned him down. The Giants turned him down. But the Yankees did not. Ed Barrow said, "His signing cost me fifteen cents, ten cents for postage and five cents for a cup of coffee we gave him the day he worked out at the Stadium."
As a minor leaguer, the young Rizzuto was knocked down a couple of times by lightning, triggering some of his fears and superstitions like closing his eyes when passing a cemetery to insure getting a hit that day. He always stepped out of bed on the same side, always avoiding stepping on the baselines, was always on guard against insects who he feared. All through a Yankee 19-day winning streak, he kept a large wad of gum on the top of his cap. The smell got so bad, nobody would come near him on the field.
In 1941, Philip Francis Rizzuto replaced Frank Crosetti at shortstop for the Yankees and batted .307. "The Scooter," one of the littlest Yankees went on to be durable, driven, the glue on the Yankee teams he played on for 13 years that won nine pennants and seven World Series.
In what were the original "Subway Series" games for fans but bus rides for most players, the team bus of the Yankees in the 1952 World Series had a police escort to and from Yankee Stadium to Ebbets Field. At one moment a red sports car attached itself to the cavalcade going to the Stadium. A motorcycle cop pulled alongside the flashy auto set to shoo the driver away. It was Phil Rizzuto who had come along for the ride from his home in New Jersey.
Former Yankee batboy Joe Carrierri mused: "Phil Rizzuto was my favorite player. At one point I became his secretary. He would get hundreds of letters every day. He would ask me to answer them so I would take them home and send a postcard with his signature engraved on it just so the good will public relations kept going."
Down the home stretch of the 1956 season the Yankees picked up outfielder Enos Slaughter. They asked Rizzuto to go over the Post season roster with management at the Stadium to find the player to cut to make room for the ex-Cardinal. Each player the little shortstop suggested be cut, management gave reasons why that player should stay. On August 25, 1956, Rizzuto was given his release by the Yankees. The only expendable Yankee was the little shortstop.
Being released in Rizzuto's phrase "was like the end of the world" for him. But he picked himself up and began another career from 1957-1996 as a Yankee broadcaster. A natural at it, he spun the tales of Yankee baseball in a voice punctuated by Brooklynese. "He used to drive me crazy," his WPIX-TV director Don Carney said, his talking about people's birthdays, Italian food or some restaurant or who got married. Once he announced a funeral. He used to take off the 8th and 9th innings, saying he had to go to the bathroom. And that was it. Gone. One of the greatest turnarounds in the history of baseball was when Rizzuto returned around on the George Washington Bridge and came back to the Stadium to do extra innings. He was afraid of lightning. I used to record giant lightning flashes, and before a storm, I'd get out those tapes and scare him half to death.
One of his most famous calls was on WCBS radio, the Roger Maris 61st Home Run:
"They're standing, waiting to see if Maris is gonna hit Number Sixty-one. We've only got a handful of people sitting out in left field," Rizzuto continued but in right field, man, it's hogged out there. And they're standing up. Here's the windup, the pitch to Roger. Way outside, ball one...And the fans are starting to boo. Low, ball two. That one was in the dirt. And the boos get louder...Two balls, no strikes on Roger Maris. 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."
"I knew," the Scooter said, "every nook and cranny at Yankee Stadium, and we had the fans behind us. Being from New York, it meant a lot for me to play in my hometown."
It meant a lot for all of us to have Phil Rizzuto.