Voices of Yesteryear: Phil Rizzuto, New York Yankees (1957-96)

No question we live in a time where information is the essential capital and it flows more quickly than ever. The common citizen, mobile device in hand, is more informed, or just as informed as the best news and sports analysts and insiders. That is, if they choose to be.

You cannot secure a job in the sports media in any form unless you have your ear to the ground, ride the 24/7/365 electronic news wave and literally live and die on your iphone or android.

There are some exceptions. Keith Hernandez, the former Met first baseman turned television analyst, seems to be repeatedly out of the loop as does his TV ad partner, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who holds the same position with the Knicks.

Both men were great players and have a deep understanding of the sports they cover, but both have an old millennium way of conveying that understanding. New Yorkers enjoy their commentary even when they crank out archaic catchphrases and comparisons. Being a legend has it’s advantages, after all.

But there was a time when guys like these were the norm. In fact, they were considered the industry standard – someone with first hand experience down on the ice or the field. When I was a younger man, I loved listening to the likes of Marty Glickman, Bob Murphy, Marv Albert and Jim Gordon.

These were great play-by-play announcers who worked at breakneck paces and never seemed to run out of descriptive words. Those guys, with the exception of Albert, are all gone as are the analysts they had by their side. I miss them all, but in retrospect many of those guys would never be hired today. Sad, but true.

Here is Part One of a series of posts I put together featuring New York broadcasters of yesteryear. My first subject is Phil Rizzuto who did New York Yankees games from 1957-1996.

Rizzuto, a native New Yorker who attended Richmond Hill High School in Queens, was the Yankees’ shortstop from 1941 to 1956 and was a five-time All-Star and a seven-time World Series champion. His No. 10 was retired by the Yankees and he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994. Not bad for a guy who stood 5’6” and weighed just 160 pounds.

“The Scooter,” as he was affectionately known, was part of the old New York barroom argument between Yankee, Dodger and Giant fans about who was the best shortstop in New York along with the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese and the Giants’ Alvin Dark.

Ted Williams, the great Boston slugger, was asked why his Red Sox could not beat the Yankees year in and year out. Williams pointed to diminutive Rizzuto as the difference. “If we’d had Rizzuto in Boston, we’d have won all those pennants instead of New York,” Williams was known to say.

“He was a Yankee all the way,” Indians Hall of Famer Bob Feller said of Rizzuto. “He knew the fundamentals of the game and he got 100 percent out of his ability. He played it hard and he played it fair.”

Teammate Joe DiMaggio, the great Yankee who many adored on the field but could not get a grasp of off of it, summed up the importance Rizzuto played among Yankee fans.

“People loved watching me play baseball,” DiMaggio once said. “Scooter, they just loved.”

When Rizzuto retired from the game in 1956, he capitalized on his fame immediately by going into the broadcast booth for the Yankees on both television and radio, first as a color commentator and then as a play-by-play man. Rizzuto became a staple on Yankee broadcasts with his famous catch phrase, “Holy Cow!”, calling boneheaded players “huckleberries” and his folksy way of making listeners either hate him or love him.

He eventually became known as one of baseball’s biggest homers, not showing much in-depth knowledge about opponents and basically rooting for the Yankees on the air. Fans loved it. Rizzuto became a New York cultural icon with his TV spots for a lending outfit called “The Money Store”, and his guest voiceover on Meat Loaf’s iconic 1977 smash hit, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”.

By the end of his career, though, he became more and more detached from the nuts and bolts of the game, leaving broadcasts early to get home to his beloved wife, Cora, at a decent hour and spending a lot of his air time sending out best wishes and birthday greetings to friends, fans and other notables. When he wasn’t doing that, he was talking about his favorite meals and restaurants he frequented. A far cry from today’s broadcasters, who come equipped with a mountain of stats such as WHIP and WAR and hold Sabermetrics case to their hearts like a religion.

What Rizzuto didn’t know about the game near the end of his career could fill a book, leading booth mate Bill White to present him with a book entitled, “All I Know About Baseball,” by Phil Rizzuto. It was a book filled with empty pages.

Here is a clip of White and Rizzuto from 1986 during a rain delay.

Rizzuto died in 2007 at age 89. He is missed. Even by the anti-Yankee crowd.

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