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Goodbye, Scooter: Insults didn’t stop Rizzuto from living a wonderful life

My first opportunity to break out of the Fungoes box with SI.com came with the news of Phil Rizzuto’s death on August 14, 2007. Though I had already been writing the Wild Card entry in the Fungoes blog for SI for five months at that point, I still think of this as my first proper SI.com piece, not because of the quality of the content, but because it was the first time my work for the site appeared on the standard SI.com template (see image below for a reminder of what the site looked like back then) and was rewarded with a proper freelance fee (we were paid for Fungoes, of course, but a relative pittance). Looking back at it now, it’s not a particularly strong piece, but it established my ability to provide quality work quickly on deadline in reaction to breaking news and likely did more to create my subsequent opportunities at SI.com than the previous four and a half months of Fungoes pieces combined. The piece has since vanished from the interwebs along with most of my other SI pieces from that year, but I’m republishing it below exactly as it appeared on SI.com in August 2007, warts and all.

SI.com template, August 2007

By Cliff Corcoran, Special to SI.com

“Would you accept reincarnation if you knew you would come back as Phil Rizzuto of the Money Store?”

–The Book of Stupid Questions, 1988

Both then and now, I find the question, which was posed in one of those trendy party question books from the ’80s, impossibly offensive. Not only does it take an unprovoked shot at one of my all-time favorite people I’ve never met, it also betrays such a complete lack of understanding of who Phil Rizzuto was and of the life he led.

Perhaps it’s inappropriate to lead off this tribute to the memory of Rizzuto with such an insult, but Rizzuto lived his life in defiance of such insults, and lived a life any one of us would be fortunate to relive. Rizzuto was famously insulted by Casey Stengel when he tried out for Stengel’s Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-’30s (“go get a shoeshine box,” said Casey). A decade and a half later Rizzuto would be the starting shortstop on Stengel’s five consecutive World Series-winning Yankee teams, earning the 1950 AL MVP along the way.

Rizzuto was famously insulted by the Yankees organization in 1956 when George Weiss forced him into retirement by making Rizzuto select himself as the player to be removed from the roster to make room for Enos Slaughter. Weiss was slaughtered in the press for the move and the team’s broadcast sponsor insisted that Rizzuto be hired to broadcast the team’s games the following season. Rizzuto was still in the same job 39 years later when the team forced him to call a game rather than attend Mickey Mantle’s funeral. Rizzuto, enraged and embarrassed, quit mid-game, but public outcry brought him back for a 40th and final season.

My voice was one of those calling Rizzuto back. The Scooter may have had more to do with my becoming a baseball fan than anyone else. Though my family is filled with Yankees fans dating back to the days of Babe Ruth, I had no older sibling to turn me on to baseball and neither of my parents was particularly interested in professional sports when I was growing up. Instead it was Rizzuto, with his enthusiasm, good humor and wildly entertaining and unpredictable asides (which were a good match for the often tragicomic play of the mid-’80s Yankees), who sold me on the joys of the game and its history despite the poor quality of the team I was watching.

Even then I was aware of the slights Rizzuto had endured. In 1984 Pee-Wee Reese was selected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, leaving Rizzuto on the outside looking in at his former crosstown rival. A decade later Rizzuto was finally inducted as well, only to have Bill James devote a large portion of his book The Politics of Glory to bemoaning Rizzuto’s selection. Though James ends his book by stating clearly that Rizzuto was “certainly not the worst player to stand on that podium,” many glossed over that line and dubbed Rizzuto precisely that (including the charming fellow who sponsors Rizzuto’s page on basebaballreference.com). It’s true that Rizzuto was inducted ahead of many far more deserving players, many of whom continue to await their day in Cooperstown, and that his induction has as much to do with a well-stocked veterans committee, led by Ted Williams (who often said that Rizzuto was the difference between the Yankees and Red Sox in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s). It’s also true that Rizzuto is far from the worst player in the Hall. Just look at the list of old cronies Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry helped through the door via the Veterans Committee in the early 1970s. The fact remains that, whereas Terry and Frisch were lining up former teammates, Rizzuto was inducted because the greats of the game, Williams and Ty Cobb among them, thought he deserved to be listed as one of their equals.

Unlike Williams or Cobb, Rizzuto was a hard man not to like. Though he held a grudge against Stengel’s shoeshine box comment throughout his life, and retired from broadcasting over Mantle funeral incident, I’ve never seen nor heard an unflattering word about the man. Whether you marveled at his wizardry in the field as a fan, cursed his pesky presence in the batters box or on the bases, laughed with him or at him while listening to a Yankees broadcast, or only knew him as the (reportedly unwittingly) double-entendre-spouting play-by-play announcer in the middle of Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, he brought good spirit to and evoked admiration from all those whose lives were touched by his.

It wasn’t such a bad thing to be Phil Rizzuto, Hall of Famer, seven-time World Series champ, MVP, All-Star, a man who spent a half-century in baseball interrupted only by his naval service during World War II. It’s no wonder Rizzuto endured all of those slights with such good humor. Beyond his accomplishments on the field and in the booth, Rizzuto enjoyed more than 60 years of marriage to his beautiful bride Cora (who was a frequent character in his broadcast banter), and is survived by three children and two grandchildren. We should all be so lucky to live the life Phil Rizzuto lived, but we are already very fortunate that he lived it. Rest in peace, Scooter.

Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.

 

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Deleted Scenes: My SI.com debut

The first thing I ever did for SI.com was write the Friday entry for “Fungoes,” the site’s first attempt at a baseball blog. After Ben Reiter, Albert Chen, Alex Belth and Jon Weisman tackled the six divisions over the first four days of the week, I would write a “Wild Card” entry on any topic of my (and my editor’s) chosing on Friday. My very first Fungoes entry, on April 6, 2007, concerned the Diamondbacks’ brand new uniforms and color scheme. With Arizona having replaced that uniform set on Thursday night, this seemed like as good a time as any to add this to the pieces I’ve salvaged from my personal archives. As with the other articles that were lost in the site’s redesign in June 2014, this is the version I submitted, presented here unaltered and prior to any editing by SI.com’s editors. The many embedded links (blantantly imitating the style of Paul Lukas’s Uni-Watch, but with his blessing) are from the original, as well, so my apologies for the many that now lead to dead ends and since-deleted pages.

If Jerry Seinfeld’s right that we baseball fans really just root for laundry, then it only seems appropriate that, after all of the words spilled on new faces in new places (or rather, old faces in new laundry), we spill a few on the laundry itself. This year, the Diamondbacks and Reds have entirely new looks. New designs were sorely needed in both cases, though both could have done better than what they ultimately came up with. The Reds became victims of the dreaded black drop shadow in 1999 and, though they are one of the few teams with some historical claim to black as a team color, the Reds always looked better when they either stuck exclusively to red and white, or used navy instead of black. Their new duds do greatly reduce the amount of black in their color scheme, but that blasted drop shadow is still there.

The Diamondbacks were the clear choice for worst uniform in the majors from the moment they entered the league in 1998 (so much for Buck Showalter’s reputation as a traditionalist, even a dirt path to the pitchers mound couldn’t make up for the Snakes’ seemingly endless combinations of purple, teal, gold, and black). They’ve finally toned things down, but now they just look like the Astros. Despite the lack of creativity in the D-backs’ new design (see also the Washington Nationals), their wholesale color scheme change is actually rather historic.

Many teams have added or deleted third or even fourth colors (such as the Mets, Royals, Rangers, and Reds flirtation with black drop shadows in recent years). Some have completely inverted the significance of their main two colors (see the Angels and Rangers, who went from predominantly blue with red highlights to the reverse, and, in the case of the Rangers, back again). Others have made gradual changes to their color schemes, such as the Padres switching from yellow and brown, to yellow, orange, and brown, to just orange and brown, to orange and blue, to blue and “sand” over the course of a quarter century. Still others have made what amount to changes in tint, the most extreme being the Astros, whose colors had always been based in orange and navy, but who switched to rust and black in 2000. Similarly the White Sox have always used some combination of navy, black and red, though at different times they’ve reduced their color scheme to just one of the three, the most striking recent examples being their early ‘70s duds, the home versions of which looked exactly like their current home unis but whereas the current versions are entirely black and white, the 1971 to 1975 versions were entirely red and white.

What the Diamondbacks have done, however, is to change their entire color scheme in the course of a single winter, something that has only happened twice before in modern major league history. The first time was in 1948 when the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had always worn some combination of blue and red, adopted the colors of the Pittsburgh city flag, the black and gold since worn by the city’s other two major sports franchises, the NFL’s Steelers and NHL’s Penguins. The second came in the wake of Charlie O. Finley’s 1961 purchase of the Kansas City Athletics. The Athletics too had worn only shades of blue with occasional use of red throughout their history in Philadelphia and Kansas City, but in their third year under Finley they took the field in colors Finely dubbed “kelly green,” “Fort Knox gold,” and “wedding gown white.” Mickey Mantle said the A’s, “should have come out of the dugout on tippy-toes, holding hands and singing.” The Mick’s homophobia aside, that sort of strong reaction was exactly what Finely was going for. His A’s didn’t just use their green and gold on stripes and text, they wore bright yellow vests and pants with green hats, green undersleeves, and green stirrups. Remember, this was back when uniforms were wool and the last active player to sport a moustache during the regular season was Frenchy Bordagaray in 1936. (Actually, there was a third instance, but the Brooklyn Dodgers flirtation with green lasted just one season before they returned to their traditional Dodger blue, whereas the other two changes persist to this day, even despite such horrors as this).

What exactly the Diamonbacks are trying to accomplish with their new colors is more difficult to discern. The team’s official press release stated that the new colors were “chosen to better represent the personality and beauty of Arizona.” I get that. The connection between their new shade of red and the rocks in Sedona is obvious. But when the Pirates and A’s made their palette changes, they distinguished themselves in the process. No other major league team before or since has worn Finley’s green and gold or Pittsburgh’s yellow and black. The Diamondbacks, however, look almost exactly like the Astros, who have been wearing “brick red” and black since 2000, supposedly in tribute to the importance of railroads in Houston’s history (which only makes sense for a team first named after a gun and then for the city’s connection to the space program). Then again, anything that will prevent things like this from happening has got to be considered an improvement. It’s just troubling that something so historic could seem so uninspired.

  • Game of the Week: Braves 3, Phillies 2, 11 innings. A seven-inning pitchers duel between veteran Tim Hudson and wunderkind Cole Hamels erased by a Braves comeback on a game-tying, ninth-inning two-run home run by Brian McCann and an eleventh-inning game winner by Scott Thorman.
  • Player of the Week: Miguel Cabrera – 7 for 10 with 5 walks, 2 doubles, 2 homers, 6 RBIs and 5 runs scored. Cabrera made just three outs in fifteen plate appearances over three games against the Nationals.
  • Performance of the Week: Felix Hernandez vs. Oakland, Tuesday April 3 – 8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 12 K
 
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Posted by on December 4, 2015 in Deleted Scenes

 

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