Peers recall Rizzuto's greatness
Hall of Famers reflect on former Yankees shortstop's talent
It took 36 years after his playing career ended before Phil Rizzuto made it to Cooperstown, but there was no doubt in the minds of many of his fellow Hall of Famers that he belonged in that exclusive company a lot sooner.
The Scooter's passing Tuesday after a long illness was met with equal measure of sadness and respect for the late Yankees shortstop who was part of one of the most glorious eras in baseball history and continued his popularity with Yankees fans for four more decades in the broadcast booth.
Perhaps no Yankees player was closer to Rizzuto than Yogi Berra. They played together on Yankees teams that won five straight World Series (1949-53) and, away from the field, in countless rounds of golf. Both settled in New Jersey, where they and their wives, Cora Rizzuto and Carmen Berra, remained close over the years.
"This is a sad day for Carmen and me," said Berra, who visited Rizzuto weekly at a nursing home. "Phil was a gem, one of the greatest people I ever knew -- a dear friend and great teammate. He was a heck of a player, too. When I first came up to the Yankees, he was like a big, actually small, brother to me. He's meant an awful lot to baseball and the Yankees and has left us with a lot of wonderful memories."
"I am terribly saddened by the death of Phil Rizzuto," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Phil was a unique figure who exemplified the joy of our game to millions of fans. He was an integral part of the New York Yankees throughout the 1940s and 1950s before bringing his distinctive personality and his infectious enthusiasm to the broadcast booth. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I express my deepest sympathy to his wife, Cora, his family and his legion of fans everywhere."
"I have great respect for his playing career and his broadcasting career, which I enjoyed when I played in New York," Dave Winfield said. "This is sad news, and he'll be missed by us all."
Even by former opponents.
"He was the guts of those great Yankee ballclubs," said Duke Snider, the former Brooklyn Dodgers slugger who played against Rizzuto in four World Series. "He did things that Pee Wee [Reese] did for our club. He was a leader. You need those kinds of guys on your clubs to be successful. He was never a problem. We were friendly enemies."
"He was a fun guy and a classy guy and deserved to be in the Hall of Fame," said former Boston Red Sox second baseman Bobby Doerr, 89, who succeeds Rizzuto as the oldest living Hall of Fame player. They were rivals when the Yankees and Red Sox battled for American League pennants in the late 1940s and early '50s, but Doerr recalled a time when they were teammates.
"The only time I got to play alongside him was in the 1951 All-Star Game," Doerr said. "I remember there was a line drive hit right at him with a man on second base, and one of the hardest things to do as a second baseman is get over to the bag quickly to try and get the double play.
"Well, as soon as Phil caught it, he flicked it toward the bag and the ball seemed to stay in mid-air, almost as if it was on a string. It was waiting for me when I got there. We made the double play, and I'll always remember that because I never saw a shortstop be able to do that. Joe DiMaggio thought of Scooter as the glue on all those nine Yankee championship teams because he played behind him and got to see things that no one else could -- just how good Phil was."
Bob Feller, who is seven months younger than Doerr, said of Rizzuto, "He was a major Hall of Famer. He could do it all. He was a good leadoff man, knew all about the fundamentals and was a very good baserunner and bunter. He did not have a lot of power, but he was always on base. He covered shortstop as good as anyone. He was a Yankee through and through and was a good human being."
"When you think of all the great Yankees, like DiMaggio, Yogi, Reggie [Jackson] and Mickey [Mantle], you think of Scooter, too," said Hall vice chairman Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman who also who also proved great talent was not limited by size.
Cal Ripken, on the other hand, helped open the door for taller players excelling as middle infielders and paid homage to one of the little giants at the shortstop position.
"Phil Rizzuto embodied so many great things about baseball," Ripken said. "His enthusiasm for and love of the game was always evident whether you were speaking to him or listening to one of his broadcasts. Kelly and I send our deepest condolences to the Rizzuto family. He typified all that is great about our national pastime."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.