Remembering Baseball Broadcaster Phil Rizzuto The Yankee shortstop and beloved broadcaster died Tuesday at age 89. Rizzuto was the oldest living Hall of Famer, and was fondly known for exclaiming "Holy Cow!" during his decades of radio and TV broadcasts.
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Remembering Baseball Broadcaster Phil Rizzuto

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Remembering Baseball Broadcaster Phil Rizzuto

Remembering Baseball Broadcaster Phil Rizzuto

Remembering Baseball Broadcaster Phil Rizzuto

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The Yankee shortstop and beloved broadcaster died Tuesday at age 89. Rizzuto was the oldest living Hall of Famer, and was fondly known for exclaiming "Holy Cow!" during his decades of radio and TV broadcasts.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Phil Rizzuto had the great fortune to work with immortals. As a ball player, he was a scrappy, skinny slap hitter who batted leadoff for New York Yankee juggernauts of the 1940s and '50s, teams that boasted all-time greats like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.

Amid all those sluggers, The Scooter played well enough to win a Most Valuable Player award one season, and Ted Williams, maybe the greatest of them all, paid him the ultimate compliment. If Rizzuto had been in Boston, he said, we'd have won all those pennants instead of New York.

When the Yanks let him go in 1956, he moved up to the broadcast booth at Yankee Stadium where, again, he found himself in a line up of all-time greats. He split innings with Mel Allen and Red Barber, iconic play-by-play announcers whose mastery and elegance allowed an enthusiast like Rizzuto time to develop the eccentricities that so endeared him to the fans - his fear of lightning, his favorite restaurant, your Aunt Minnie's birthday and the signature phrase that he's remembered for.

(Soundbite of a baseball game)

Mr. PHIL RIZZUTO: Fast ball, it hits the right. This could be it. Way back there. Holy cow…

CONAN: And that, by the way, was his call of Roger Maris' 61st homerun. Over the decades, Phil Rizzuto's angular approach, his habit of interrupting himself in a stream of consciousness commentary, led two writers to compile transcripts of his broadcasts as poetry. It's a book called "O Holy Cow." And here's one of those poems read by another fan, the great George - the late George Plimpton of the Paris Review.

Mr. GEORGE PLIMPTON (Journalist, The Paris Review): Billy Martin standing with his arms folded out there. Boy, he was quickly off that bench. Well, look who has returned. He made a U-turn on the bridge. Bill White is back. And they are about to make a decision, and this could be a momentous decision. I can't tell by the way they are talking who's going to win this argument. He's out.

CONAN: Late in life, Rizzuto was elected to the Hall of Fame on a wave of nostalgia and the endorsement of Ted Williams. At times, Rizzuto, himself, would concede that he didn't deserve it. He might have waited to made his way to Cooper's town in the broadcaster's wing, but truth be told, he, too, often found himself nattering on about cannolies to pay attention to the game. More and more of the boxes on his scorecard were marked with his famous WW - wasn't watching.

Historians will debate his qualifications as a player, too. The statistics alone don't support his case. But the author of a hundred suicide squeezed buns and thousands of double plays will be remembered as the sparkplug of a dynasty, as one of the most colorful and popular broadcasters of his time, and finally, yes, as an immortal.

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Yankee Great Phil Rizzuto Dead at 89

By the mid-1950s, Phil Rizzuto was nearing the end of his playing days, but the broadcast booth (and later the Hall of Fame) still beckoned. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By the mid-1950s, Phil Rizzuto was nearing the end of his playing days, but the broadcast booth (and later the Hall of Fame) still beckoned.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In April 1999, Rizzuto (flanked to his left by Yogi Berra and to the right by Whitey Ford) admired the Yankee Stadium monument for former teammate Joe DiMaggio. Ray Stubblebine/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ray Stubblebine/AFP/Getty Images

In April 1999, Rizzuto (flanked to his left by Yogi Berra and to the right by Whitey Ford) admired the Yankee Stadium monument for former teammate Joe DiMaggio.

Ray Stubblebine/AFP/Getty Images

Even at age 87, Rizzuto was able to step lively as he took the field before an oldtimers' game at Yankee Stadium. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images hide caption

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Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Even at age 87, Rizzuto was able to step lively as he took the field before an oldtimers' game at Yankee Stadium.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Phil Rizzuto, a Hall of Fame shortstop during the New York Yankees' dynasty days of the 1940s and '50s and a beloved broadcaster in the years that followed, died Tuesday at 89.

Rizzuto had been in declining health for several years and was living at a nursing home in West Orange, N.J.

Known as "The Scooter," Rizzuto was the oldest living Hall of Famer. During his 13 years on the team the Yankees won seven World Series titles. He played in five All-Star games.

"I guess heaven must have needed a shortstop," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. "He epitomized the Yankee spirit — gritty and hard charging — and he wore the pinstripes proudly."

Rizzuto was a flashy, diminutive player who could always be counted on for a perfect bunt, a nice slide or a diving catch in a lineup better known for sluggers such as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

A 5-foot-6-inch leadoff man, Rizzuto was an especially superb bunter, used to good advantage by Yankee teams that won 11 pennants and played in a total of nine World Series between 1941 and 1956.

Rizzuto tried out with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants when he was 16, but because of his size was dismissed by Dodgers manager Casey Stengel, who told him to "Go get a shoeshine box." He went on to become one of Stengel's most dependable players.

A Rizzuto bunt, a steal and a DiMaggio hit made up the scoring trademark of the Yankees' golden era, and he played errorless ball in 21 consecutive World Series games. DiMaggio said the shortstop "held the team together."

"Phil was a gem, one of the greatest people I ever knew — a dear friend and great teammate," said Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who frequently visited Rizzuto in his later years. "When I first came up to the Yankees, he was like a big — actually, small — brother to me. He's meant an awful lot to baseball and the Yankees and has left us with a lot of wonderful memories."

Rizzuto came to the Yankees in 1941 and batted .307 as a rookie, and his career was interrupted by a stint in the Navy during World War II. He returned in 1946 and four years later became the American League MVP. He batted .324 that season with a slugging percentage of .439 and 200 hits, second most in the league. He also went 58 games without an error, making 288 straight plays.

He led all AL shortstops in double plays three times and had a career batting average of .273 with at least a .930 fielding percentage. He played in five All-Star games.

After the Yankees released him in 1956, Rizzuto began a second career as a broadcaster, one for which he became at least equally well known.

In his decades on the radio and TV, Rizzuto's favorite phrase was "Holy cow!" It became so common, the team presented him with a cow wearing a halo when they held a day in his honor in 1985. The cow knocked Rizzuto over and, of course, he shouted, "Holy cow!"

"That thing really hurt," he said. "That big thing stepped right on my shoe and pushed me backwards, like a karate move."

Yankee fans also loved his unusual commentary. In an age of broadcasters who spout statistics and repeat the obvious, Rizzuto delighted in talking about things like his fear of lightning, the style of an umpire's shoes or even the prospect of outfielder Dave Winfield as a candidate for president.

He liked to acknowledge birthdays and anniversaries, read notes from fans, praised the baked delicacies at his favorite restaurant and send messages to old cronies. And if he missed a play, he would scribble "ww" in his scorecard box score. That, he said, meant "wasn't watching."

Despite his qualifications, Rizzuto was passed over for the Hall of Fame 15 times by the writers and 11 times by the old-timers committee. Finally, a persuasive speech by Ted Williams pushed Rizzuto into Cooperstown in 1994.

Williams, a member of the committee, argued that Rizzuto was the man who made the difference between the Yankees and his Red Sox. He was fond of saying, "If we'd had Rizzuto in Boston, we'd have won all those pennants instead of New York."

As in his playing days, Rizzuto was overshadowed by the headliners, teammates like DiMaggio, Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra. All of them reached the Hall of Fame before he did.

"I never thought I deserved to be in the Hall of Fame," Rizzuto would say. "The Hall of Fame is for the big guys, pitchers with 100 mph fastballs and hitters who sock homers and drive in a lot of runs. That's the way it always has been and the way it should be."

Old-timers still talk about his suicide squeeze in the ninth inning during the 1951 pennant race to score DiMaggio, beating Cleveland 2-1 and putting the Yankees in first place for the rest of the season.

Rizzuto remembers Aug. 25, 1956, as a day he thought was the "end of the world," the day Stengel released him to make room for clutch-hitting Enos Slaughter in the pennant drive.

It was Old-Timers Day, and I was out taking pictures, as I did every year," Rizzuto remembered. "The bat boy came over and told me that Casey Stengel and George Weiss wanted to see me in Stengel's office. It was the last day to add a player to the roster and have him eligible for the World Series. We were trading for Enos Slaughter because Stengel said we needed another outfielder, so we had to send someone down to make room on the roster.

"They asked me to read through the list of players and to check each player's eligibility, to see who we could let go," he said. "I sat there thinking that I was a veteran and they wanted my opinion. As we read through the list I pointed out a few players who I thought could be sent down, a pitcher we had hardly used and a catcher who had been in only nine games. But each time they said, 'No, we might need him.' We started to go through the list a second time, and then half way through it dawned on me."

"The Scooter" was done.

Rizzuto is survived by his wife, the former Cora Anne Esselborn, whom he married in 1943; daughters Cindy Rizzuto, Patricia Rizzuto and Penny Rizzuto Yetto; son Phil Rizzuto Jr.; and two granddaughters.

From Associated Press reports.