The Faithful Departed: Phil Rizzuto (1917-2007)

Saturdays with Scooter

20070814rizzuto.jpg The phone rang at WFAN’s studio. I answered it with my usual, “FAN Sports -Mike Hayes.”

The voice on the other end said, “Um yes is Mr Catallano there?”

“Sorry there’s nobody here by that name. What company are you trying to reach?”

“Wait lemme see…oh Holy Cow, I loused that number up completely.”

It was then that I recognized the voice. “Scooter?”

Yeah who’s this?

Mr. Rizzuto it’s Mike Hayes, we’ve met a few times at the Stadium. You called WFAN Radio not whoever you tried to reach.

“Oh Holy Cow Mike, I’m sorry. I’m trying to kill time at the airport and it’s too early to drink so I thought I’d (heh-heh-heh) return some phone calls and I can’t even get THAT right!”

We parted soon after that until the next week at the same time when the phone rang again at FAN.

(RING) “FAN Sports – Mike Hayes”

“Oh Holy Cow, I did it again, Mike!”

This was classic Phil Rizzuto. A star shortstop for the Yankees in their heyday years of the 40s and 50s, Rizzuto became more familiar as the resident absent-minded professor in the Yankee Broadcast booth. He’d talk about everything but the game going on some days peppering the broadcast with stories of great canolli and Happy Birthday messages. He’d fumble calls with long drives turning into popups to the shortstop. He was one of us—a person who realized there was nothing like going to the ballgame and wasting the day away. Somehow he’d leave games early to beat the traffic on the George Washington Bridge and got away with it. Everyone who gave him grief was a “Huckleberry” including Fran Healy, his longtime radio partner who once recalled to me a story that Rizzuto hit the men’s room between innings and then stopped to talk to everyone he met on the way back. When he returned Healy, left alone in the booth snipped, “Welcome back from the men’s room, Scooter.”

RIZZUTO: “Healy, you huckleberry, you’re not supposed to tell people that. Tell them I went to see Bill Veeck (then the Chicago White Sox president). Besides, Healy, I’ve been drinking coffee all day. You know what happens when you drink coffee all day?”

HEALY: “What’s that, Scooter?”

RIZZUTO: “You go see Bill Veeck.”

Bill White, Rizzuto’s long time TV partner and the first black baseball announcer remembered his first broadcast when Scooter was supposed to introduce him on air but instead left the booth to go ask Joe DiMaggio a question. Whitey Ford instead was left to do the job. Thanks to Rizzuto the first words uttered by the first black baseball broadcaster turned out to be “Thank you, Whitey” followed by 20 seconds of uncomfortable silence.

As ballplayers got continually surly and less familiar with him, Scooter called it quits. “I’m more of a pain in the neck to them now than a Hall of Famer who might know a thing or two,” he told me in the locker room one day.

Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1994, Rizzuto was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1950 with a .324 average and was the runner up the previous year. Ted Williams used to say that Rizzuto was the reason that the Yankees won all those pennants.

To me he was just a nice man who called me every Saturday morning—mistakenly, at work. I never tired of those wrong numbers knowing that I was lucky to just be able to spend one minute every Saturday with a man who understood that digressions and ramblings were a great part of not just the game of baseball but also the game of life. He reveled in his mistakes, laughing at himself and enjoying each precious moment…right down to the last scoop of canolli cream.