There was this restaurant in Newark, a popular place called Don's One Twenty One where the proprietor had this great idea. He would have everybody sign a petition to help get Phil Rizzuto voted into baseball's Hall of Fame. It caught on big, and there were 100,000 signatures before Rizzuto got word of the thing and had them call it off, "because I was embarrassed."
To a well-wisher in the New York Yankees' training camp, Rizzuto was saying the other day: "I wish my friends wouldn't push this thing. When my time comes, if it does, Cooperstown will let me know. Anyway, there are guys like Bobby Doerr and Ernie Lombardi, great ballplayers who belong in there ahead of me."
Unknowingly, Rizzuto had called it, because a couple of days later it was Doerr and Lombardi who won the nod from the jurors on the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. Again Rizzuto had failed to make it, but in contrast to other players who had been passed over in previous years and bleated about the unfairness of it all, there was no grousing by Rizzuto.
That Rizzuto, the littlest Yankee of them all for the 12-plus seasons he wore their pinstripe -- down-sized to fit his mere 5 feet 6 inches -- ever would be a solid candidate for Cooperstown is one of baseball's most unlikely stories, and a chapter to be savored in the romance of the game. (He could make it on the next go-round).
He's 67 now, his one-time black thatch fairly flecked with gray, and gold-rimmed glasses also saying that youth, indeed, has fled. He's now a popular fixture in the Yankees' TV booth, and reaping from his many television commercials the big loot missed by players of his era. Teammate Joe DiMaggio was a $30,000-a-year man when he hit in those 56 straight games in 1941.
As a ballplayer, little Phil Rizzuto had made the wholly implausible come true. Who would have taken the odds that the tiny kid from the New York City sandlots, often mistaken for the Yankees' bat boy, would win memory as one of the game's most skillful and admired shortstops? Not by cutting the game down to his size, but by meeting the challenge on major league terms, and becoming a stickout.
Over breakfast the other day, Rizzuto was talkative. The way it began, he said, he was 17 years old and, along with other city kids, went to a tryout camp the 1936 Brooklyn Dodgers were holding. "Casey Stengel was the manager and he cut the squad quick. He made us race from the left field foul line to the right field line, and those who weren't in the fastest 20, he told to go home."
Rizzuto made that cut, but not the next one. "Stengel gave me one turn at bat and then took me aside later and said, 'Kid, your best bet to make a living is to get a shoeshine box.' " This was the same Casey Stengel whose Yankees teams Rizzuto later would help to win six pennants (1949-53, 1955). He got to the Yankees before Stengel did, and was in there helping Joe McCarthy and Bucky Harris win other pennants in 1941, 1942 and 1947.
"I had a good year in 1950," Rizzuto said. Good year? Here is some of the testimony. On a club that boasted Joe DiMaggio, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, Tommy Henrich and Gene Woodling, who was its leading hitter? The littlest Yankee of them all, with his .324 average.
And incidentally, this was Rizzuto also tied for second in the American League in runs scored and in stolen bases, and third in doubles. On top of that he was chosen as the AL's most valuable player. An extra fillip: he led the league's shortstops in fielding.
Rizzuto's perseverance had paid off. He said that after the Dodgers turned him down in 1936, "a friend arranged for a tryout with the Giants, but Bill Terry took one look and wouldn't let me put on a uniform. Terry said, 'You can stay around and watch the game if you like.'
"The next tryout I got that year was with the Cardinals and that was a quick one. Billy Southworth said I was too small, and that was that.
"My fourth tryout camp paid off. It was with the Yankees, for five days under game conditions. They signed me for their Bassett, Va., team in the Bi-State League at $75 a month. My bonus was a ham sandwich and a glass of milk. I went down there knowing nothing about organized ball except you had to touch all the bases."
Rizzuto never batted under .300 in the minors, making good use of the bunt. "My high school coach, Al Kunitz, told me, 'You're not gonna hit home runs. Learn to bunt and hit-and-run and you've got a chance to make it.' "
The Yankees moved him up to Norfolk and Kansas City, where he teamed with Gerry Priddy in the minors' most famous shortstop-second base double play combination. "Yeah, Priddy was great," Rizzuto said. "Made me look awful good. He could take my toss to second and throw across the body like nobody who ever played the game."
The Yankees had regarded Priddy as the prize of the pair. It didn't work out that way, Priddy lasting only a part of two seasons before being shuffled off to the Washington Senators, while Rizzuto became an instant regular. "I was in the right place at the right time," he said, "Frankie Crosetti was getting through as the Yankees' established shortstop ."
At shortstop, Rizzuto was fielding everything gettable, earning the nickname of Scooter and more than carrying his weight with the bat. "I didn't have the greatest arm, so I had to play shallow," he said. "Thank God, I had that quick release, or I would have been creamed a hundred times by those big guys coming into second on force plays."
He said there are a thousand pictures still around showing his leap in the air to get away from the traffic at second base. A staple of every Yankees brochure and sports pages nationwide was Rizzuto in midair after completing a throw to first.
Rizzuto savors the memory of those wonderful years. "All those great guys I played with, DiMag, Yogi, Bauer, Henrich and later Mantle. Remember, day games started at 3 o'clock then and they used to call it '5 o'clock lightning,' because we always seemed to strike late in the game to get as many runs as we needed."
About the managers of his Yankees: "Bucky Harris was good. Stengel wouldn't let us get complacent. Joe McCarthy was a psychologist. Before our World Series against the Cardinals, when they had that great outfield of Terry Moore, Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial, McCarthy told us, 'Don't read the St. Louis papers, none of you guys. They'll make you think you're playing against nine Ty Cobbs on motorcycles.' "
A special memory: "That year we nosed out Cleveland for the pennant, DiMag is on third with the winning run in the ninth, and I give him the suicide squeeze bunt sign, covering the top of my bat with my hand. DiMag couldn't believe it. On the Yankees, you never squeezed DiMag home. He was above that kind of thing.
"But Joe was willing and flashed me the okay, and I think it was the best bunt of my life. Bob Lemon, the Cleveland pitcher, didn't bother to field it, and DiMaggio came flying home like the great athlete he was."
Rizzuto's scampering at shortstop suggested he might have played other sports in school. "Are you kidding?" he said. "Football, basketball, track, breaking windows, everything." Biggest disappointment, he said, was the day the school's football coach named him the extra- point kicker, and they couldn't score a touchdown.