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Archive for Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Hall of Fame shortstop Rizzuto dies at 89

August 15, 2007

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— His speed and spunk made him a Hall of Famer.

"Holy cow!" made Phil Rizzuto famous.

Popular as a player and beloved as a broadcaster, the New York Yankees shortstop during their dynasty years of the 1940s and 1950s died Monday night. "The Scooter" was 89.

Rizzuto had pneumonia and died in his sleep at a nursing home in West Orange, N.J., daughter Patricia Rizzuto said Tuesday. He had been in declining health for several years.

"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."

Rizzuto was the oldest living Hall of Famer, and his Cooperstown plaque noted how he "overcame diminutive size." At 5-foot-6, he played over his head, winning seven World Series titles and an AL MVP award and becoming a five-time All-Star.

"When I first came up to the Yankees, he was like a big - actually, small - brother to me," said Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who frequently visited Rizzuto in his later years.

Rizzuto's No. 10 was retired by baseball's most storied team, and the club will wear his number on its left sleeves for the rest of the season.

The flags at Yankee Stadium were lowered to half-staff before Tuesday night's game against Baltimore, and a bouquet was placed by Rizzuto's plaque at Monument Park. The team planned a moment of silence and a video tribute.

Yet it was after he moved into the broadcast booth that Rizzuto reached a new level celebrity with another generation of Yankees fans.

Rizzuto delighted TV and radio listeners for four decades, his voice dripping with his native Brooklyn. He loved his favorite catch-phrase - exclaiming "Holy cow!" when Roger Maris hit his 61st home run - and often shouted "What a huckleberry!"

In an age of broadcasters who spout statistics, Rizzuto was a storyteller. He liked to talk about things such as his fear of lightning, the style of an umpire's shoes or even the prospect of outfielder Dave Winfield as a candidate for president.

"He didn't try to act like an announcer," Hall of Fame teammate Whitey Ford said. "He just said what he thought. It added fun to the game."

Rizzuto liked to acknowledge birthdays and anniversaries, read notes from fans, talk about his favorite place to get a cannoli and send messages to old cronies. Once he noticed old teammate Bobby Brown - then the American League president - sitting in a box seat and hollered down, trying to get his attention.

"He would keep getting in trouble with WPIX for announcing birthdays and anniversaries," Patricia Rizzuto recalled.

And if Rizzuto missed a play, he would scribble "ww" in his scorecard box score. That, he said, meant "wasn't watching."

His fans and colleagues never minded. Because with a simple shout of "Hey, White!" to longtime broadcasting partner Bill White, it was time for another tale.

Rizzuto's popularity was such that at a recent auction a Rizzuto cap embedded with a wad of chewing gum sold for more than $8,000. In the New York area, Rizzuto's antics became a staple for TV ads. Nonbaseball fans got to know him, too, when his voice appeared on Meat Loaf's rock hit "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."

"Phil was a unique figure who exemplified the joy of our game to millions of fans," commissioner Bud Selig said.

Rizzuto was a flashy player who always could 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 13 seasons alongside the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle in a career interrupted by Navy service in World War II.

Often overshadowed by Hall of Fame teammates, it made sense that Rizzuto was the first "mystery guest" on the old game show "What's My Line?" in 1950.

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