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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: Anticipating Barry Bonds’ all-time home run record

The following was published on SI.com on May 18, 2007 as part of the site’s short-lived Fungoes blog for which I wrote the Friday “Wild Card” entries. It is one of several of my older articles that was lost in the site’s redesign in June 2014. I’m republishing it here, unaltered, from my original submission, prior to any editing by SI.com’s editors.

Last Tuesday, Barry Bonds hit a solo home run off Tom Glavine for the only Giants’ run in a 4-1 loss to the Mets. That home run put him exactly ten behind Hank Aaron’s career home run record of 755. Since then, Bonds has gone just 2 for 16 (a single and a double), but walked nine times. Still, it’s now all but inevitable that Bonds, who entered the season 21 homers shy of Aaron, will break Aaron’s record this season.

The thought of the surly, unlikable Bonds, who allegedly used illicit means to get into this position, breaking the record the gentlemanly, heroic Aaron claimed in the face of intense racial hatred conjures up a wide variety of unpleasant reactions in nearly every baseball fan. Most fans, consciously or not, still think of Roger Maris’s 61 home runs, not Bonds’s 73, as the single-season record. I don’t have the time, space, or energy to get into the legitimacy of Bonds’s accomplishments right now, but it seems as though the closer Bonds comes to Hank’s 755, the more the mind races for ways to defang, if not outright undermine his accomplishment.

This all got me thinking about the nature of sports records in general. When Maris was bearing down on Babe Ruth’s single-season mark of 60 home runs in 1961, there was a similar recoiling by baseball purists who hadn’t anticipated Ruth’s homer marks ever being broken, and certainly not by a flash-in-the-pan such as Maris. As Maris neared the record, then-Commissioner Ford Frick, who was once Ruth’s ghostwriter, famously declared that Maris, who was chasing Ruth in the first year of expansion for which the season had been extended from 154 games to 162, would have to break Ruth’s record by the Yankees’ 154th game or suffer the cruel indignity of having his mark listed separately as the “162-game record” (no, Virginia, there never was an asterisk, now go tell Billy Crystal). Maris had just 58 homers after 154 games and thus his record, which is now considered the “pure” record, was listed separately until Fricks’ distinction was abandoned in 1991.

History (and Crystal) vilified Frick for that decision, but here’s the thing: statistically speaking, Frick was right. Ruth hit 60 home runs in a 154-game season and Maris hit just 58 in a 154-game season, then, given an extra eight games, hit three more. If the point of the single-season home run record was to honor the player who could hit the most home runs in a limited number of opportunities, Frick’s method was the right one. Of course, if that was the point, the record would belong to Bill Lefebvre, who, as a rookie pitcher for the Red Sox in 1938, hit a home run in his only plate appearance of the season. Need a larger sample? What about outfielder Ed Sanicki, who hit three home runs in 15 plate appearances for the Phillies in 1949? Or Ted Williams, who hit 13 homers in 110 plate appearances (8.46 PA/HR) after returning from Korea in 1953. Heck, if Frick was so interested in honoring home run frequency, he should have shifted the record from Ruth’s 60 in 1927 (11.52 PA/HR) to Ruth’s 59 in 1920 (10.42 PA/HR).

Of course, that’s not the point of the single-season home run record. The point isn’t how often, it’s how many. Cumulative records such as the single-season and career home run records are more primal than rate-based records such as batting average or ERA. Quick, who holds the single-season batting average record? Come on, this was the single statistic that was used to compare hitters for nearly all of the twentieth century. When a hitter leads the league in batting average, he’s not called the “batting average leader,” he’s the winner of the batting crown, he leads the league in hitting. Being a .300 hitter is supposed to say something fundamental about a player’s ability, if not their character. Got an answer yet? Is it Hugh Duffy’s .440 in 1894 or Nap Lajoie’s “modern” record of .427 in 1901? What’s the minimum number of plate-appearances required for this record anyway?

See what I mean? That’s not “most,” that’s math. The home run record is most, and the man who hit the most home runs in a single season as of October 1961 was Roger Maris. It didn’t matter that he had more chances than Ruth, the fact was no man had ever hit 61 home runs in a single season of any length, it had never been done. That’s what a record is, something that’s never been done. When Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998, that had never been done, and if say you weren’t as awed by McGwire’s total as he was by himself, you’re probably lying.

Barry Bonds broke McGwire’s single-season record in 2001 and, though by then the baseball world had become jaded by allegations of steroid use and by the onslaught of 60-plus home run seasons (Bonds’ was the fifth in four years and Sammy Sosa would make it six that same year), no one had ever hit 73 home runs in a single baseball season before Bonds did it that year, and no one has done it since. That’s the definition of a record.

I remember watching the 1988 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles when I was a kid and seeing Ben Johnson run 100 meters in 9.79 seconds. No man had ever been recorded traversing that distance in so short a time in the entirety of human history. Three days later, it was revealed that Johnson had tested positive for the steroid Stanozolol. Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in light of his positive test, which I understood, but he was also stripped of his world record, which I didn’t. I understood that he had cheated, but the simple fact was that no man had ever been clocked running 100 meters in less time. How could the Olympic Committee pretend that had never happened? It’s one thing to disqualify a boxer from a fight, or a player or team from a game, but a sheer physical accomplishment like that could never be disqualified in my mind.

So sometime in the next month or two, Barry Bonds will hit his 756th career home run, and there will be much pulling of hair, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, and crunching of numbers, but the simple fact will be that no man has ever hit 756 regular season home runs in the major leagues, ever, and that, despite the taint and dishonor that Bonds may bring along with him to that summit, is a record.

 

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Slash-Stat Triple Crown Winners

Here are the 46 instances of a hitter leading his league in all three slash stats (batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage), a concept I dubbed the “Slash-Stat Triple Crown” in a post for SI.com’s Fungoes blog in September 2007. Italics indicate the hitter led the majors in that category.

Year
Player
POS
Team
Lg.
AVG
OBP
SLG
2013
Miguel Cabrera
3B
Tigers
AL
.348
.442
.636
2009
Joe Mauer
C
Twins
AL
.365
.444
.587
2004
Barry Bonds
LF
Giants
NL
.362
.609
.812
2002
Barry Bonds
LF
Giants
NL
.370
.582
.799
2000
Todd Helton
1B
Rockies
NL
.372
.463
.698
1999
Larry Walker
RF
Rockies
NL
.379
.458
.710
1980
George Brett
3B
Royals
AL
.390
.454
.664
1979
Fred Lynn
CF
Red Sox
AL
.333
.423
.637
1967
Carl Yastrzemski
LF
Red Sox
AL
.326
.418
.622
1966
Frank Robinson
RF
Orioles
AL
.316
.410
.637
1957
Ted Williams
LF
Red Sox
AL
.388
.526
.731
1948
Stan Musial
RF
Cardinals
NL
.376
.450
.702
1948
Ted Williams
LF
Red Sox
AL
.369
.497
.615
1947
Ted Williams
LF
Red Sox
AL
.343
.499
.634
1943
Stan Musial
RF
Cardinals
NL
.357
.425
.562
1942
Ted Williams
LF
Red Sox
AL
.356
.499
.648
1941
Ted Williams
LF
Red Sox
AL
.406
.553
.735
1938
Jimmie Fox
1B
Red Sox
AL
.349
.462
.704
1935
Arky Vaughan
SS
Pirates
NL
.385
.491
.607
1934
Lou Gehrig
1B
Yankees
AL
.363
.465
.706
1933
Chuck Klein
RF
Phillies
NL
.368
.422
.602
1928
Rogers Hornsby
2B
Cardinals
NL
.387
.498
.632
1925
Rogers Hornsby
2B
Cardinals
NL
.403
.489
.756
1924
Babe Ruth
RF
Yankees
AL
.378
.513
.739
1924
Rogers Hornsby
2B
Cardinals
NL
.424
.507
.696
1923
Rogers Hornsby
2B
Cardinals
NL
.384
.459
.627
1922
Rogers Hornsby
2B
Cardinals
NL
.401
.459
.722
1921
Rogers Hornsby
2B
Cardinals
NL
.397
.458
.639
1920
Rogers Hornsby
2B
Cardinals
NL
.370
.431
.559
1917
Ty Cobb
CF
Tigers
AL
.383
.444
.570
1916
Tris Speaker
CF
Red Sox
AL
.386
.470
.502
1914
Ty Cobb
CF
Tigers
AL
.368
.466
.513
1910
Sherry Magee
LF
Phillies
NL
.331
.445
.507
1909
Ty Cobb
CF
Tigers
AL
.377
.431
.517
1909
Honus Wagner
SS
Pirates
NL
.339
.420
.489
1908
Honus Wagner
SS
Pirates
NL
.354
.415
.542
1907
Honus Wagner
SS
Pirates
NL
.350
.408
.513
1906
George Stone
LF
Browns
AL
.358
.417
.501
1904
Honus Wagner
SS
Pirates
NL
.349
.423
.520
1904
Nap Lajoie
2B
Cleveland Naps
AL
.376
.413
.546
1901
Nap Lajoie
2B
Athletics
AL
.426
.463
.643
1891
Dan Brouthers
1B
Boston Reds
AA
.350
.471
.512
1882
Tip O’Neill
LF
St. Louis Browns
AA
.435
.490
.691
1883
Dan Brouthers
1B
Buffalo Bisons
NL
.374
.397
.572
1882
Dan Brouthers
1B
Buffalo Bisons
NL
.368
.403
.547
1882
Pete Browning
2B
Louisville Eclipse
AA
.378
.430
.510
1880
Piano Legs Gore
CF
White Stockings
NL
.360
.399
.463
 
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Posted by on September 25, 2012 in Lists, Supplemental Materials

 

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