Published August 14, 2007
NEW YORK – Baseball Hall of Fame shortstop and longtime New York Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto died Tuesday, the team announced. He was 89.
Rizzuto had been in declining health for several years and was living at a nursing home in West Orange, N.J.
"Phil was a gem, one of the greatest people I ever knew. A dear friend and great teammate," said Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who frequently visited Rizzuto in his later years.
Rizzuto was one of the most influential and well-known figures in Yankees history.
"I guess heaven must have needed a shortstop," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. "He epitomized the Yankee spirit — gritty and hard charging — and he wore the pinstripes proudly."
Nicknamed "The Scooter," Rizzuto played shortstop for the Bombers for 11 full seasons in a career interrupted by service in World War II. In 1950, he was named Most Valuable Player in the American League. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994 and was the oldest living member of the Hall. Later he became a broadcaster for the team, holding that position for four decades.
Rizzuto was known both for his skills as a player and his popular but idiosyncratic style as a broadcaster made famous by his on-air pronouncement, "Holy cow!"
Rizzuto was a flashy, diminutive 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 for 13 seasons alongside the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
Still, as a player, the debate raged whether Rizzuto ranked among the best shortstops in major league history, and he was constantly compared to crosstown Brooklyn Dodgers rival Pee Wee Reese, who was a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection as a player.
Rizzuto stood just 5-foot-6 but was equipped with a productive bat, sure hands and quick feet that earned him his nickname. A leadoff man, Rizzuto was a master at the art of bunting, used to good advantage by the Yankee teams that won 11 pennants and nine World Series between 1941 and 1956.
Rizzuto tried out with the Brooklyn 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." He went on to become one of Stengel's most dependable players.
A Rizzuto bunt, a steal and a DiMaggio hit made up the scoring trademark of the Yankees' golden era, and he played errorless ball in 21 consecutive World Series games. DiMaggio said the shortstop "held the team together."
Rizzuto came to the Yankees in 1941 and batted .307 as a rookie, and his career was interrupted by a stint in the Navy during World War II. He returned in 1946 and four years later became the American League MVP. 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.
In his decades on the radio and TV, Rizzuto's favorite phrase was "Holy cow!" It became so common, 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."
Yankee fans also loved his unusual commentary, often punctuated with the phrase, "What a huckleberry!"
Despite his qualifications, Rizzuto was passed over for the Hall of Fame 15 times by the writers and 11 times by the old-timers committee. Finally, a persuasive speech by Ted Williams pushed Rizzuto into Cooperstown in 1994.
Finally, on February 25, 1994, Rizzuto was elected to Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee.
"I never thought I deserved to be in the Hall of Fame," Rizzuto would say. "The Hall of Fame is for the big guys, pitchers with 100 mph fastballs and hitters who sock homers and drive in a lot of runs. That's the way it always has been and the way it should be."
Rizzuto was an excellent-fielding shortstop who had one sensational offensive year for one of the greatest ballclubs of all time-the Yankees of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the only team to win five consecutive World Series.
Opponent Ted Williams said that Rizzuto made the difference in the sensational Yankee-Red Sox late-season pennant races during those years.
DiMaggio said that Rizzuto held the team together, while Yankee pitcher Vic Raschi said, "My best pitch is anything the batter grounds, lines, or pops up in the direction of Rizzuto."
The Sporting News had no doubt from 1949 through 1952, awarding Rizzuto honors as top major league shortstop each year.
Defensively, Rizzuto was one of the best American League shortstops of his time. He led all AL shortstops in double plays three times. One year he and Joe Gordon set the AL record for double plays by a keystone combo.
Rizzuto is survived by his wife, the former Cora Anne Esselborn, whom he married in 1943; daughters Cindy Rizzuto, Patricia Rizzuto and Penny Rizzuto Yetto; son Phil Rizzuto Jr.; and two granddaughters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.