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.
"He asked me if I wanted a cup," Murcer said. "He got up in between innings¿..and he never came back. I'd never done play-by-play before, and there were about three innings left. The next day, he shows up with a cup of coffee and he says, 'here's your coffee.'"
He pulled the same stunt on another colleague, Jim Kaat, telling the former pitcher and novice Yankee announcer he had to go to the bathroom on a very cold night in Cleveland.
"I had never done play-by-play up to that point, and wouldn't you know it, he never came back," Kaat told Newsday last week. "I wound up working the last three innings by myself and it was the best lesson I could have ever learned in Phil Rizzuto's Broadcasting 101 class."
Rizzuto, a slick-fielding 5-foot-6 pepper pot and lethal bunter of the ball, joined the Yankees in 1941 and hit .306 his rookie season. He played 13 years and in nine World Series for the team, missing three seasons stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1994 by the old-timers committee.
Much to his chagrin, he also was let go as an active player by the Yankees on Old-Timers Day during the 1956 season. But the next year, he was hired to fill a spot in the WPIX-TV broadcast booth, working with Hall of Fame broadcasters Red Barber and Mel Allen.
Rizzuto was something of a broadcasting pioneer in an era when very few former players were working as baseball announcers after their careers on the field had ended. He spent 40 years in the Yankee booth, teaming with a wide variety of announcers, including a number of former players, and hardly ever called any of them by their first names.
He also used an interesting notation on his scorecard. If he happened to miss a play, he'd write down "WW." The translation -- "Wasn't Watching." His nickname was "The Scooter," and he rarely made it to the eighth or ninth innings of most ball games in the Bronx, mostly because he'd scoot out the press box and down to the parking lot to beat the traffic on the George Washington Bridge on his way to his home across the Hudson River in suburban New Jersey.
The one day the Scooter surely did not whistle while he worked came in August 1995, when Rizzuto was told by WPIX officials he had to be on the job for a game at Fenway Park in Boston rather than take the day off to attend the funeral of his friend and former teammate, Mickey Mantle. Rizzuto was so distraught, he resigned four days later, but Mantle's sons and Steinbrenner convinced him to return to the booth for one last season in 1996.
"I took (Mantle's death) hard and knew I made a big mistake," Rizzuto said, according to the N.Y. Times. He watched the Mantle service on television in the booth that day and "I got more upset as the game went on and left in the fifth. They tried to drag me back, but I wouldn't."
Call it a coincidence, but Rizzuto died on the very same date of Mantle's death a dozen years earlier, Aug. 13, and a day before the Aug. 14 date of Reese's death in 1999.
"I guess heaven must have needed a shortstop," Steinbrenner said last week of a late, great Yankee original who surely must have been whistling right through the pearly gates, even if my man Pee Wee was probably occupying the same position on the other side.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.