Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist
Sports Waves

Yankee Great Had an Endearing Way

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 21, 2007; 1:00 PM

A recently retired sportswriter friend offered up a delicious anecdote the other day about the late Phil Rizzuto, the Hall of Fame N.Y. Yankee shortstop and long-time broadcaster who died Aug. 13 at the age of 89.

My pal had been a college student at Georgetown back in the late 1950s and had camped outside the main gate at old Griffith Stadium hoping to score an autograph or two after a Yankee game against the old Washington Senators. As he waited in a cluster of fans, he began to hear whistling from up above. As the human song-bird made his way down the ramp to the ground floor and popped out the exit door, Rizzuto was still whistling a happy tune long after he had finished up in the broadcast booth.

"That's what I'll always remember about Phil Rizzuto," my friend said the other day. "He was truly a happy guy who loved what he did."

Personally, I usually hated what Rizzuto did on the field in 13 years with the Yankees, mostly because he was a key member of a dominant team that tormented my beloved wait-until-next-year Brooklyn Dodgers, at least until Da Bums finally ended the agony by winning the 1955 World Series over the pinstriped bullies.

Growing up in the New York area in the 1950s and '60s, you rooted for the Dodgers, Giants or Yankees. You loved only one and loathed the other two. We constantly argued the merits of the city's best centerfielder -- was it Willie Mays of the Giants, Duke Snider of the Dodgers or Mickey Mantle of the Yankees? (The Duke, of course!) But there also was considerable discussion on the best shortstop in town, another vexing situation between Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers and Alvin Dark of the Giants. (Pee Wee will always get my nod!)

Truth be told, I wasn't much of a fan of Rizzuto as a broadcaster, if only because he obviously cared so deeply for the Yankees, a team I've loathed my entire life, even well before George Steinbrenner obscenely opened up his checkbook and kept fielding the best team his mega-money could buy.

Still, I also must admit that Rizzuto did have an endearing way about him, even if he was a self-confessed homer who once said after learning of the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978, "well that kind of puts the damper even on a Yankee win."

His signature expression was "Holy Cow," and he began using it long before Cardinals and Cubs Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Caray adapted it as his own. A native New Yorker who grew up in Brooklyn and moved to Queens when he was 12, Rizzuto said he first started saying "Holy Cow" in order to avoid profanity at the suggestion of his high school baseball coach.

Rizzuto's most famous broadcasting call came on Oct. 1, 1961 at Yankee Stadium, the day Roger Maris, fueled mostly by nicotine and clearly sans steroids, stepped up to the plate and made baseball history by breaking Babe Ruth's single season home run record -- 60 in 1927.

"Here comes Roger Maris," Rizzuto said into the microphone. "They're standing up, waiting to see if Roger is going to hit No. 61. Here's the wind-up, the pitch to Roger, waaaaay outside, ball one. 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 wind-up. Fastball, hit deep to right. This could be it. Waaaaay back there. Holy Cow! He did it! Sixty-one home runs! And look at them fight for that ball out there. Holy cow, what a shot!"

Rizzuto had other terms that endeared him to generations of Yankee fans. A player on either team who made an error or committed some other egregious transgression would be labeled a huckleberry. He always talked about his favorite Italian pastry, the cannoli, and his broadcasts were often interrupted by birthday greetings to Tillie in Teaneck or giving well wishes to Mary in Mount Sinai Hospital.

"I've never met someone so lovable and so talented at the same time," Bobby Murcer, a former Yankee outfielder and broadcaster in the booth with Rizzuto for many years, said in a statement released by the Yankee-owned YES Network. Early in his own broadcasting career, Murcer recalled that the veteran Rizzuto once told him he was leaving the booth to get some coffee.

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