There was one thing missing from most of last week’s reams of tribute to the late Phil Rizzuto: a second dimension. Everyone was pretty much in agreement that Rizzuto was a sweet, funny, lovable little guy who said enough nutty things to fill a shelf of books. The best of those books is Oh Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto (1993), a collection of Rizzuto’s actual Yankee broadcasts in verse form that first appeared in the Voice, edited by Tom Peyer and Hart Seely. Seely pretty much summed up the prevailing sentiment towards Rizzuto years ago in the Syracuse Post-Standard: “The man is the last baseball innocent. There are no more innocents in the game. Even the 19-year-old rookie comes up with his agent and lawyer and an attitude. But Rizzuto? He’s pure.”
Seely’s work in arranging Rizzuto’s words into verse is sheer genius, as is his arrangement of Donald Rumsfeld’s speeches (Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld). But in calling Rizzuto an “innocent” and “pure,” Seely—as with scores of other writers—is engaging in myth mongering. Phil Rizzuto was tough, feisty, sharp, and opinionated; he took shots, both verbal and physical, and gave back as good as he got. He held grudges. He was a hard-headed businessman. No one who shilled for the Money Store should ever be called “innocent”; no one hip enough to do cameo appearances on
Seinfeld or Arli$$ or lend his voice to a Meat Loaf video is “pure.” Acknowledging these facts makes Rizzuto no less admirable—on the contrary, it gives him depth and dimension.
He didn’t get a thing out of life by being cute and lovable; Rizzuto succeeded by ignoring other people’s evaluations of him. As a teenager—age 16 or 17, depending upon which version of the story you believe—he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The manager, Casey Stengel, told him that at five-foot-six, he was too small—not exactly an unfair judgment given that during the Depression, Rizzuto must have weighed a good 20 pounds less than the 150 to 160 pounds he was credited with as a Yankee. In later years, Rizzuto would say that Stengel had insulted him by suggesting he “get a shoeshine box.” Stengel never remembered saying any such thing, and in his autobiography called Phil “the best shortstop I ever saw.” In fact, no one else seems to remember Stengel saying such a thing either. Rizzuto himself did not tell the story until years after Casey’s death, which suggests that it may have reflected a lingering animosity not over what happened at his Dodger tryout, but over his abrupt release from the Yankees in 1956, at age 38.
Whatever happened, Rizzuto never forgave Stengel. In his 1994 memoir, The October Twelve, he wrote: “Let me come clean and tell you Mr. Stengel was not my cup of tea. If I were marooned on the proverbial South Sea island, Stengel would not be on a list of people I would want to help me build signal fires.”
Casey wasn’t the only one for whom Rizzuto nursed a hurt. Howard Cosell told him to forget about broadcasting: “You’ll never last. You look like George Burns and sound like Groucho Marx.” “Every time I start a new season behind the microphone,” Rizzuto once told me, “I think of that guy. Behind the mic, who knew or cared what I looked like? I mean, Cosell wasn’t exactly Cary Grant. And Groucho Marx? Both Cosell and I should have been so lucky.”
Which leads to the last and most prevailing myth about Rizzuto: that he was a bad broadcaster. The silliest accusation was that he was a “homer”—what great baseball announcer doesn’t want the home team to win? Phil Rizzuto understood, as Cosell never did, that the job of a baseball broadcaster was not to be an on-the-air journalist; fans watching the games on TV could see what was happening anyway, often better than Rizzuto himself. (“They’ll never get him!” he famously shouted on one play. “They got him. How do you like that? Holy cow! I changed my mind before he got there, so that doesn’t count as my error.”)
Who cared? The job of a baseball broadcaster is to make you feel as if he’s sitting there watching the game with you. Rizzuto could drive you nuts with his rambling, especially in his later years, but I never heard anyone say—as they often did with Howard Cosell—that they watched the game with the sound down.
And what of that so-called rambling? Didn’t some of it just hit the sweet spot? Here is my favorite verse in
Oh Holy Cow, from Rizzuto’s comments after Thurman Munson’s funeral, titled by Hart and Seely “The Man in the Moon”:
But we have the most beautiful full moon tonight.
And the crowd,
Enjoying whatever is going on right now.
They say it might sound corny,
But to me it’s some kind of a,
Like an omen.
Both the moon and Thurman Munson,
Both ascending up into heaven.
I just can’t get it out of my mind.
I just saw the full moon,
And it just reminded me of Thurman.
And that’s it.
To paraphrase Moliére’s Would-Be Gentleman, Phil Rizzuto was speaking in verse his whole life and didn’t know it. But his fans did.