Innocence Stolen

I was working and living in southern California and had arrived on the job freshly when I flipped on my radio and heard the news. Disbelief, then a kind of numbness, then anger, then grief. For those who were murdered. For the act of war committed upon my country, and my native city. An entire coast away I could do nothing but mourn. When I arrived home and saw the video of the attacks, I could watch but once. I didn’t need and couldn’t bear to watch more.  

A river away, a beloved Yankee elder could do something more through his own grief. I noted that among other things when said Yankee, Phil Rizzuto, died in August 2007. Written 15 August 2007, for a sports Webzine that no longer exists, I republish it now with an amendment or two in honour of those who were murdered; the loved ones who mourned; the nation that mourned, raged, and endured; and, the crustily gentle man who did his own small but profound part to help the loved ones the murdered left behind.

Phil Rizzuto saw the atrocity from his New Jersey home . . .

Can you think of a better reason among innumerable ones to despise the now-late Osama bin Laden?

“I can’t bear to look out there anymore,” said Phil Rizzuto to New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden, for the latter’s Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, from the kitchen of the New Jersey home that formerly afforded a splendid view of the World Trade Center until 9/11. “They’re gone and I feel as empty as my view.”

After a couple of conversations plumbing Rizzuto’s Yankee career and memories, the former shortstop and broadcaster released to the sky a pair of silver birthday balloons and lamented “the unintentional symbolism of the balloons and the towers,” Madden observed.

“I’m an old man,” said the Brooklyn native (his father was a streetcar motorman) who grew up rooting for the Dodgers and flunked a tryout with them because then-manager Casey Stengel dismissed his diminutive size (”Get yourself a shoeshine box, kid”), “and I’ve seen a lot. But this . . . this has really got to me. I thought I lost my innocence when I went into the Navy. I never thought I’d lose it again.”

This sit-down for coffee, cookies, and book conversation occurred just days after Rizzuto turned 84. At one point, after his wife, Cora, reminded him gently to straighten himself up—Rizzuto by then walked with a slight hunch—he spoke of his change of plan on the day the planes hijacked into murder weapons hit the towers.

"I thought I lost my innocence . . . I never thought I could lose it twice."

“We were supposed to go on a cruise up to Canada for my birthday, but we canceled out. No way either of us wanted to go anywhere. Then my daughter, Penny, who works for the Albany County crisis intervention team, called me. She had just spent two days down on Pier 94 counseling all the victims’ families. ‘You’ve got to go down there, Dad,’ she said, and after talking it over for a couple of minutes, Cora and I decided to go. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do when we got there, but the families were so happy to see us, it was unbelievable. We wound up spending four and a half hours there. As always, Cora knew right away what to say. I just told my Yankee stories and they seemed so happy to have someone take their minds off their grief and the awful business of waiting for a death certificate or a body part.

“It was rewarding but so heartbreaking at the same time. I don’t think I’ll ever get out of my mind the image of all those teddy bears, lining the walls the whole length of the pier. They’d been sent by schoolkids in Oklahoma City, with individual notes on every one of them.”

And now Rizzuto’s gone, at 89, after a few years living in a New Jersey assisted-living facility and yet cheering up his neighbours with his Yankee stories. “I’ve lost my beautiful prince,” his wife, Cora, was quoted as saying, through one of the couple’s three daughters. Yankee fans, and even non-Yankee fans enraptured by his crustily genial persona on radio and television, probably feel likewise.

The legend is that when Bill Veeck (then owner of the St. Louis Browns) ran into objection over his plan to send the midget Eddie Gaedel to the plate, his prompt justification was, “What about Phil Rizzuto? He’s only 5′6″!”

Over a decade after Rizzuto struck out with the Dodgers, there he was, freshly returned from the war to pick up where he left off as the Yankees’ shortstop. And just a couple of years later, there was Stengel, freshly minted as the Yankees’ manager, about to shepherd the team to five straight World Series rings (can we think in terms of a truly unbreakable record?), with the shoeshine boxer as his regular shortstop.

A decade later, the plucky but fading shortstop was strong-armed by Yankee general manager George Weiss into naming himself as the player to be cut in order to make room for veteran Enos Slaughter, whom the Yankees were buying a second time, this time from the Kansas City Athletics, for stretch drive help.

Weiss, who was never the most popular executive in baseball, among his employees or his peers, was roasted duly in the press. Rizzuto managed somehow to hold his tongue, no matter how furious he was, especially at Weiss’s patronising promise of a full World Series share if the Yankees won.

“I walked out of there in tears,” he told Madden, “and as I’m heading out the door I see [former Yankee first baseman George] Stirnweiss, who was there for the Old-Timers’ Game. He put his arm around me and said, ‘Go back in there, get your money, grab your clothes, and I’ll take you home.’ He took me up to Grossinger’s in the Catskills, which was the smartest thing anyboyd could have done forme. No one could reach me and, if they had, I’d have surely said something out of line, ripping Weiss and Casey. Then, a week later, all the sympathy calls and letters started coming in, followed by the offer from WPIX to do a couple of innings on the air with Mel and Red.”

The Yankees’ broadcast sponsor, it is said, insisted Rizzuto be brought onto the team. Team leader Mel Allen was said not to have been too thrilled; team second Red Barber may have blanched until he realised one thing about Rizzuto—the chatty now-former shortstop was willing to listen and to learn.

“Barber hated jocks who became announcers,” said Larry King, to Brooklyn Dodgers historiographer Peter Golenbock (in Bums). “He liked Phil Rizzuto because Rizzuto was smart enough to go over to him and say, ‘You’re a great announcer. Please teach me anything you can’.”

Rizzuto himself became a teacher of sorts. Derek Jeter credits Rizzuto with just about everything from playing counsel to simple friendship.

But Rizzuto didn’t need to be taught about loyalty. Forty years after he was cashiered from the playing roster by Weiss, he quit the broadcast team when he was denied the day off to make Mickey Mantle’s funeral. It took a public outcry to get him to reconsider, which he did for one more season.

Rizzuto probably should have gone into the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. He was a terrific defencive shortstop (”My best pitch,” said Yankee pitcher Vic Raschi once, “is anything the batter grounds, lines, or pops in the direction of Rizzuto”), with a reputation as a tenacious leadoff hitter and bunter (in 1950 he earned the American League’s MVP by playing way over his own head); he was an excellent team player; four times he led his league in sacrifice hits.

But as Bill James (in The Politics of Glory, later republished as Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?) observed, he certainly wasn’t the worst player to receive the honour. The Veterans Committee that finally selected him for enshrinement (Ted Williams and Yogi Berra were two of the prime pushers) was far more honourable than the Committee that seemed dedicated mostly to getting as many of Frankie Frisch’s and Bill Terry’s old buddies from the Cardinals and the New York Giants into the Hall.

As a broadcaster, Rizzuto was . . . well, you’ve heard of the crazy aunt in the attic? Rizzuto was the crazy uncle you didn’t want anywhere except right smack in the middle of the living room when the game was on. The uncle whose whacky asides would leave you laughing or reaching for a refill while he suddenly remembered, “Hey, there’s a drive into the gap and look at him aiming for second without flinching!”

And he was just as likely to remember it wrong as right, but he was also just as likely to correct himself or accept a teammate’s correction. (”Holy Cow, you were right, White!”) Rizzuto was probably the only announcer in New York (Bob Prince probably had the franchise in Pittsburgh) who could get away with making mistakes because he was almost quicker to accept correction and to make you laugh about it.

“Long before John Sterling regularly amended Yankees home runs into fly-ball outs,” observed New York Post sports media critic Phil Mushnick, “Rizzuto conditioned listeners to wait for his second opinion”

“No local baseball voice ever connected with fans the way he did,” wrote Bob Raissman, the sports media critic of the Daily News. “When Rizzuto was at the mike, you were allowed to cheer. And the Scooter was the head Yankees cheerleader. This was infuriating to us homer-haters, but even we understood. Rizzuto was an innocent.”

He was until a certain September morning.

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