- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2007

It was easy to dislike Phil Rizzuto if you were a baseball fan outside of the Bronx and environs.

In the 1940s and 1950s, this pesky shrimp — he was perhaps 5-feet-6 and 150 pounds — kept harassing your team with slashing line drives, beautifully placed bunts and superb play at shortstop.

Later, during four decades as a Yankees broadcaster, he could get on your nerves just as easily. The grating Noo Yawk accent. The irritating yowls of “Holy cow!” The shameless boosterism of a club that more often than not would beat your brains out.

Yet by the time Rizzuto died Monday of pneumonia at 89, he had earned and deserved the affection of nearly everybody. The guy was around for so long that he became a symbol of baseball’s so-called good old days when it was unquestionably the national pastime and the Yankees unquestionably were masters of all they surveyed.

There is something eternally appealing about a little man who succeeds against all odds. When Brooklyn native Rizzuto tried out for the Dodgers as a teenager in 1935, manager Casey Stengel (obviously, in his pre-genius days) told him to “go get a shoeshine box.” Fourteen years later when he became skipper of the Yankees, Casey discovered his shoeshine boy as a linchpin on teams that would win five consecutive pennants.

“I didn’t need to get a shoeshine box,” Rizzuto remarked years later. “The Yankees’ clubhouse boy shined my shoes.”

That irreverent, feisty nature also figured in Phil’s popularity. In New York, you didn’t wait hat in hand for someone to notice you — you went out and took what you wanted. As long as you could get the job done, nobody minded.

Although Rizzuto was the American League’s MVP in 1950 when he batted .324, his biggest brush with fame came a year later. With the Giants leading the Yankees two games to one in the first World Series between the crosstown rivals since 1937, hard-nosed Eddie Stanky kicked the ball out of Rizzuto’s hand as he tried to make a tag at second base. This was a bad mistake for the Giants. Stanky’s aggressiveness so angered the Yankees that they won the next three games and the Series.

Typically, Rizzuto explained the incident in partly serious, partly humorous terms. “I was nonchalanting it,” he said sheepishly. “I was looking at the TV cameras.”

Despite his talents on the field, Rizzuto was constantly being disrespected. When he began to slow down as a player, the Yankees abruptly released him in 1956 — on Old-Timers Day at the Stadium, no less. When he joined Mel Allen and Red Barber behind the mic a year later, all kinds of people said he had no future in broadcasting. And he wasn’t elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee until 1994, years after he should have been.

Over 13 seasons, with three years out for military service in World War II, Rizzuto batted .273 with just 38 home runs and 563 RBI. As he put it, “My stats don’t shout. They kind of whisper.”

So what? They couldn’t keep The Scooter down. (The nickname was administered by a fellow minor league infielder who told the diminutive kid from Flatbush, “You ain’t runnin’, you’re scootin’.”)

Gradually and properly, though, people began to acknowledge the little man’s persistence and pluck. In later years, Derek Jeter — a distant successor as the Yankees’ star shortstop — became his good friend and admirer.

“The thing with him that I found so amazing was how small he was,” Jeter told the New York Post this week. “It just goes to show you don’t have to be big size-wise in order to be successful. I think he exemplifies what it is to be a Yankee.”

Other observers appreciated Rizzuto almost from the outset. In a 1952 article in Life magazine, crusty Hall of Famer Ty Cobb identified Little Phil as one of only two current ballplayers he respected. (The other was Stan Musial.)

Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, who lobbied long and hard for Rizzuto’s admission to Cooperstown, once said, “If we’d had him in Boston, we would have won all those pennants instead of New York.”

No team can win without players like Phil Rizzuto, guys who are not superstars but who can be depended upon to get the job done every day.

As far as his broadcasting career was concerned, that, too, was an uphill climb. The eminent Howard Cosell once demeaned Phil’s work, saying, “You sound like a cross between George Burns and Groucho Marx.”

Considering how Cosell himself sounded, there was only one suitable response:

Holy cow!

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