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Archive for Friday, August 17, 2007

Mayer: Rizzuto one hall of a guy

August 17, 2007

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Lawrencian Bill James knows more about baseball than any living creature. He thinks the late Phil Rizzuto was a marginal, though popular, entry into the Hall of Fame in 1994.

For me, Scooter cinched that honor in 1939 when he autographed my Kansas City Blues program, asked my name and remembered it the next time I was waiting outside the locker room to glimpse my heroes.

Far be it for this clod to challenge James on the subject, but Bill loses this contest on the basis of emotion.

From 1938-41, at least, the K.C. crews operating as New York Yankee farm teams were good enough to play at least .500 baseball in today's American and National leagues. Bill James concurs on that. But it was the '39 gang that was my first love, playing in a terrific American Association that included Columbus, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Indianapolis, Louisville and Toledo.

Ted Williams had torn up the league in 1938 with Minneapolis, and Pee Wee Reese was still starring at shortstop at Louisville. That's the incredible caliber of talent that helped create the most exciting battles you will ever find.

Consider my great luck. For a dime you could go by street car from 21st and Quindaro on the Kansas side to 22nd and Brooklyn, where I'm not sure I'd go now with a National Guard escort.

For 25 cents you could take in a doubleheader at Ruppert Stadium on Knothole Gang days. Another dime would get you home by rail. If you could screw up another 20 cents, you could get the best chili dog ever created at a little stand over by the car stop.

Would it pass today's sanitation tests? Don't know, don't care - when you can go to baseball heaven and back for 65 cents, tops, to hell with ptomaine poisoning!

Scooter Rizzuto, all 5-foot-6, 150 pounds of his New York-bred frame, was a 1939 and 1940 star shortstop on Blues rosters that were jammed with title-winning talent. The all-rookie infield in '39 included first baseman Johnny Sturm, second baseman Gerry Priddy and third baseman Billy Hitchcock. All made the big leagues.

Catchers Clyde McCullough and Johnny Riddle reached the bigs, the oldest DiMaggio, Vince, pounded the cover off the ball, Jackie Saltzgaver was a big-time utility man, outfielders Bud Metheny, Tommy Holmes and Buzz Boyle were deadly, and pitcher-hitter Johnny Lindell was used a lot of ways by manager Bill Meyer.

Pitchers? Tommy Reis, Johnny Babich and Marv Breuer won 17 games each, and Al Piechota got 16. Their earned-run averages ran from 2.30 to 2.88. This didn't include Tiny Bonham (10-9) who emerged as the best big-league performer with a 103-72 record.

Little Phil, however, may have been the No. 1 crowd favorite. He and Pee Wee Reese battled for base-stealing honors, Phil 33, Reese 35. Rizzuto, Priddy and Sturm combined for a whopping 182 double plays, and the '39 team's 107-47 record was the best ever posted by a minor-league club.

In 1941, Rizzuto was called up to replace aging all-star Frank Crosetti as the Yank shortstop. Phil played 13 seasons before becoming a beloved announcer. After being passed over 15 years by writers and 11 times by the veterans committee, Phil was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1994 after a forceful Ted Williams insisted he make it.

Little guy, huge presence. But Phil made my hall of fame 55 years earlier when he signed my program and remembered a 14-year-old moppet's name.

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