Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Monday, January 17, 2011

Holy Cow! And Pass the Cannolis!

     Phil Rizzuto was a really fine baseball radio broadcaster. Wow! I can't believe I actually just wrote that but goddamn if it at least for a long spell wasn't true.

     Somewhere between the time he hung up his spikes and began applying the aural oils to the 1010 WINS-AM airwaves canvas and the time he downed one too many cannolis, the Scooter displayed some serious chops as a voice of the Yankees.

     When I took my first steps into baseball Never Ever Land as a wee lad in the early and mid-1960s and began watching the Bronx Bombers on WPIX channel 11, it was Rizzuto, the timeless Red Barber and Phil's former teammate Jerry Coleman sharing the broadcasting duties. Of course, I had little if any idea who any of these guys were, that Phil and Jerry were former Yanks or that Barber the veritable Norman Rockwell of the genre. It was all about Mantle and Maris with a dash of Kubek, Richardson, and Ford thrown in for me.

     In my mind's ear, before all the Scooter shtick kicked into high gear and took on the proportions of something resembling Commedia dell'arte more than baseball, I can conjure him as an observant and insightful if excitable homer. Scooter was only a season and a half into his broadcasting career when the Yanks visited Boston during August's Dog Days in 1958 and if the game preserved from the 16th of the month is any indication, Rizzuto was an absolute natural.

Access to a download or stream of the game can be found here (selection #9):

     Rizzuto was teamed with Mel Allen in his first years as a broadcaster. And when a game was televised they carved up duties as is the case here where we are given healthy doses of the Scooter in the early and late innings with Allen squeezing in a couple of the middle frames. And while Mel frankly sounds like he's phoning it is, the Scooter shows himself to be something far more than a wanna be Sorcerer's Apprentice.

     In those early days of his broadcasting career Rizzuto is spry, informative and chatty. He had yet to weave the signature Philisms into his narrative that would endear to Yankee fans in the coming decades. No one gets called a "hucklberry." He never exclaims "Unbelievable!" or, more famously, "Holy Cow!" He never mentions his wife Cora, riffs about stromboli or bitches about the traffic on the GWB. About the closest we get to the Rizzuto we came to know and love (or hate) is when he notes a cooler than expected breeze blowing into the booth with some degree of irritation. Really, what comes off here is a washed-up, forty-year old shortstop making his bones in front of a mic atop Fenway Park on an unseasonably cool summer day.
     I imagine Phil as a rather glib soul and one who listened to a lot of baseball on the radio. That would explain his apparent ease at the mic and descriptive cadences on display on this surviving reel. Certainly his experiences as a ballplayer are bound to come through so when Yankee third baseman fouls one off the top of his foot, Scooter empathizes as only one who has been in those very same cleats can. More saliently, he presents an ongoing stream of narrative (if not quite yet surreal conscious) or mostly baseball focused commentary with scant breaths of dead air. No long pauses between pitches on this day.

     One wonders where Scooter gathered the tricks of the trade. He is already so fully formed. I like to think that he must have done a fair amount of listening to games on the radio at least as a teenager when the Yanks commenced to allow broadcast of their home games in 1938. I'm a little unclear as to how often games were aired. Watch any of those old baseball movies like Pride of the Yankees or The Winning Team and one gets the distinct impression that baseball on the radio was relatively commonplace. Re-creations of games in which an announcer embellished on ticker feeds emanating from the ball grounds were somewhat de rigueur but actual broadcasts were rather novel until the late 1930s. The ownerships of all three New York clubs, in fact, appear to have banned radio baseball for the most of the '30s fearing that "giving the games away for free" across the AM ether would cut into gate receipts. While this was ultimately refuted — hearing games on the radio, it turned out, actually inspired folks into forking over their hard-earned money for a ducat — it still begs the question as to how Rizzuto was able to develop such impressive chops with such rapidity.

     I envision the Scooter catching bits and pieces if not complete games on the radio while boning his bat in the clubhouse, hanging out in hotel rooms on road trips or cruising in the family car on a grocery shopping excursion. Based in New York as a player in the '40s and '50s, he would have heard the likes of all the eras best: Red Barber, Connie Desmond, a young Vin Scully, and Russ Hodges to name the most prominent local voices. Where, how and whenever, Phil Rizzuto absorbed the techniques as if by some cosmic osmosis. Or, maybe like Robert Johnson "King of the Delta Blues" who in the lore of the genre is said to have sold his very soul to Beelzebub hisself at a lonely crossroads at midnight under the glow of a full Mississippi moon in exchange for his prowess on a cut rate Stella, Rizzuto made a similar pact with the dark side.

     If the Scooter did sell his soul, I would think that it came twenty years hence when he began shilling for the Money Store, some kind of semi-legal loan sharking outfit, this being around the time Yankee broadcasts (especially on the tube) listed into the seriously surreal.

     Though marked by special moments, the Bostons 7-4 win over the New Yorks on August 16, 1958 was nothing special. The Bosox nickle and dime their way to an ultimately insurmountable seven-zip lead through five as they slowly get the timing of Yank starting pitcher Don Larsen's no wind-up deliver down and make just about everybody forget that this was the same guy who tossed a World Series perfecto not two years before. Mickey Mantle gets crossed up on a pop-up with second baseman Gil McDougald in short center opening the doors to a two-out rally, Ted Williams (always a presence) plays a Yogi Berra double off "The Wall" (the term "Green Monster" — or "Mawnstah" — was a later designation), Jimmy Piersall reveals himself to be a deft and daft base runner, and Marv Throneberry (yes, the original Mets' "Marvelous" one) plays first for the Yanks and drops a ball as if on cue. Mantle's late game two-run bomb deep into Fenway's right centerfield bleachers is, without question, the day's keepsake call.

     One of the great joys of these vintage recordings is the between-inning spots that color the era or otherwise give glimpses into mid-20th century American life. And Rizzuto serves up a whopper here plugging the next day's Negro League double dip between the storied Kansas City Monarchs and the Detroit Clowns (featuring the athleticism and no doubt a few antics of Reece "Goose" Tatum and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton's from basketball's Harlem Globetrotters) at Yankee Stadium. Really, this was the last gasp for the Negro Leagues when it had been reduced to a minor low rent barnstorming spectacle a decade and small change past the integration of the so-called "major league" rendition of the sport which diminished the demand to witness the exploits and antics of all-black squads in games that meant something. Ironically (as the best as I can figure), there was but one African-American even suited for play that day: back-up Yankee backstop Elston Howard. Both teams, it is well known, were among the very last clubs to put roster a black.

     Another notable aspect to the recording is its coming on the tenth anniversary Babe Ruth's death, marked by a moment of silence in a pregame ceremony involving the two teams the with whom the Bambino was most closely associated and whose ghost (and curse) lingered over the teams' bitter (if generally one-sided) rivalry until finally lifted when the Bosox upended the Yanks in that memorable '04 ALCS. Coincidentally it was also two years to the day of the Scooter's final game and while he does not mention that, he invokes Ruth and covers his stats (batting and pitching) with the kind of awe anyone might still hold in considering the Babe's amazing numerical legacy.

     Yeah, the Scooter could really call a game... at least back in '58. But, in time, he became a poet without even knowin' it. Consider this late entry from his final avant-garde phase:

The legs are so important.
In golf, they're very,
People don't realize
How important legs are in golf,
Or in baseball,
And football, definitely.
O, in track.
Is there anything, what?
Is there anything where the legs
Are not the most important?

A link to the game's box score:


  1. I must've given out as a gift over a dozen copies of Tom Peyer and Hart Seely's book "O Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto (Ecco Press, 1993). Eight years before that slender gem was published, I attended a Bombers/Chisox tilt at Yankee Stadium. It was August 4, 1985, which also happened to be Phil Rizzuto Day at the Big Ball Orchard. Along with all the gifts and visiting dignitaries, they also brought onto the infield grass a real live cow wearing a halo! And wouldn't you know, that big, sweet beast backed into Rizzuto and knocked him right over. Wow! One other memorable thing occurred that day: Tom Seaver, starting for the Pale Hose, won his 300th game.

  2. You're right - the legs are pretty important. I like your blog! There's a lot here...very informative and fun!