The limousine was idling in a nearby parking lot. If Phil Rizzuto had known the location, he would have scrammed.
Unfortunately for him, he was on unfamiliar turf, a college campus. Holy cow, what am I doing here? Up close, you could see panic in his eyes, the same fast-twitch impulses that had allowed him to dig out grounders deep in the hole, or steal a base, or beat traffic across the bridge.
He was a man made for sudden action, like the crazy things he would blurt into a live microphone. Yet on this afternoon in April 1995, he was in a dither. He was being given an honorary doctorate by Hofstra University, during an academic symposium on Babe Ruth. All he knew was that he had gone out to Long Island in a limo, and was supposed to deliver a talk on the ultimate meaning of the Babe.
He had, of course, prepared nothing. Rizzuto suddenly realized there was a hall filled with the intelligent eyes of strangers. The only person he recognized in the whole joint was me, one of the writers from the Stadium, a proud graduate of Hofstra, there to help.
“Phil, make believe I’m White,” I told him.
White was his broadcasting partner for all those years — Bill White, smart and assured but often stunned by Rizzuto’s inspired loopiness.
For a second, Rizzuto was confused. Of course I was white. Then he saw his opening, like a runner leaning off first base, studying the pitcher during a crucial game in early autumn. I was telling him to bounce things off me, the way he did against Seaver or Murcer and all those huckleberries.
He promptly relaxed and answered some of my softball questions and then other schmoozers took over and we all had a wonderful time chatting with New York’s favorite dotty uncle. Perhaps Babe Ruth was mentioned in passing. I don’t remember.
This wonderful act ended officially Monday night with Rizzuto’s death at age 89. Until recently, he had been a vibrant icon, seemingly oblivious but suddenly galvanizing into action, carrying the Yankee flame.
After Derek Jeter retrieved a wayward relay and tossed out the hapless Jeremy Giambi at home in the 2001 postseason — instantly one of the great clutch plays in Yankee history — Rizzuto commandeered it. Whenever he was introduced at a World Series game or opening day, Rizzuto would imitate Jeter’s acrobatic move, pure homage from an old master to a young master.
Like Joe DiMaggio, Rizzuto had his inner circle. Back in the old days, when photographers were allowed to lug their clunky cameras onto the field, Rizzuto had a deal with Ernie Sisto, a dapper little gent who took pictures for The New York Times. Whenever Rizzuto hitched his pants a certain way, Sisto was to slide forward and focus on home plate because a bunt was in the offing.
Otherwise, Rizzuto gave nothing away. Ted Williams often said that the Red Sox would have won more than one pennant in his time if the Sox had “that little so-and-so” at shortstop. Bear in mind that Johnny Pesky, the Sox’ shortstop in many of those seasons, was a beloved friend of Williams, but the Splinter was nothing if not blunt.
Rizzuto’s career was somewhat of a surprise. Casey Stengel turned him away after a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers, telling him to get a shoeshine box. Then there was a sportswriter with The Long Island Press — my dad, also named George — who recalled writing that the little guy from Richmond Hill High School would do well to head over to Jamaica racetrack and get himself a job as a jockey. I never mentioned that to Rizzuto, who became the most valuable player in 1950, played in nine World Series and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994.
I can’t imagine him as a jockey, given his morbid fear of most living things. And you have not seen terror unless you have witnessed Rizzuto during fierce lightning in the old cramped steel press box in Kansas City.
But he was a survivor, reinventing himself after the Yankees dared to dismiss him on Old-Timers’ Day in 1956, turning his smoldering pride into a domination of the booth. He was not the first former player to run loose at the mike — ol’ Dizzy Dean had slud into third ahead of Rizzuto — but Rizzuto made himself a local taste, like New York bagels and pizzas, impossible to duplicate in the hinterlands.
The Scooter was sui generis — a phrase the Hofstra academics would have been glad to explain had he stuck around back in 1995. Instead, he located the limousine and, poof, he was gone, over the bridge, just as he did again yesterday, leaving behind an echo: Holy cow, White, I wasn’t watching, you explain it.