Philip Francis “Phil” Rizzuto died on August 13, 2007, at the age of 90, he was an American Major League Baseball shortstop.
Born on September 25, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a streetcar motorman, there has been confusion about his year of birth, stemming from Rizzuto’s “shaving a year off” the date at the beginning of his pro career, on the advice of teammates.
Throughout his career, his birth year was reported as 1918 in both The Sporting News Baseball Register and the American League Red Book; later reference sources revised the year to 1917, indicating his age at the time of his death to be 89.
After being named the Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News in 1940 while playing with the Kansas City Blues, he played his first major league game on April 14, 1941.
Taking over for the well-liked Frank Crosetti, whose batting average had dropped to .194 after several strong seasons, Rizzuto quickly fit into the Yankees lineup to form an outstanding middle infield with second baseman Joe Gordon.
In his syndicated column on October 1, Grantland Rice compared the pair favorably to the middle infield of the crosstown Brooklyn Dodgers: “Billy Herman and Pee Wee Reese around the highly important keystone spot don’t measure up, over a season anyway, with Joe Gordon and Phil Rizzuto, a pair of light-footed, quick-handed operatives who can turn seeming base hits into double plays often enough to save many a close scrap.”
From September 18, 1949 through June 7, 1950, he played 58 games at shortstop without an error, breaking the AL record of 46 set by Eddie Joost in 1947-48; the record stood until Ed Brinkman played error-free for 72 games in 1972.
Rizzuto recorded 123 double plays in 1950, three more than Crosetti’s total from 1938; it remains the Yankee record.
Rizzuto’s 1950 fielding percentage of .9817 led the league, and came within less than a point of Lou Boudreau’s league record of .9824, set in 1947. Rizzuto’s mark was a franchise record until 1976, when Yankees shortstop Fred Stanley posted a mark of .983.
Decades later, Rizzuto still spoke resentfully of the incident in which pugnacious New York Giants second baseman Eddie Stanky sparked a rally by kicking the ball out of Rizzuto’s glove on a tag play.
Ty Cobb named Rizzuto and Stan Musial as “two of the few modern ball players who could hold their own among old timers.” Yankees manager Casey Stengel had famously dismissed Rizzuto during that Brooklyn Dodgers tryout in 1935 when Stengel was managing that team, advising him to “go get a shoeshine box.”
But Stengel ended up managing Rizzuto during five consecutive championship seasons, and would later say, “He is the greatest shortstop I have ever seen in my entire baseball career, and I have watched some beauties.”
During his heyday, Yankees pitcher Vic Raschi noted, “My best pitch is anything the batter grounds, lines or pops in the direction of Rizzuto.”
Rizzuto played an integral role on the dynastic Yankees before and after World War II.
He was a masterly bunter and defensive specialist for teams that steamrolled to 10 American League pennants and nine World Series championships.
He was one of 12 Yankees on teams that swept to five consecutive World Series triumphs, from 1949 to 1953.