A childhood fan cheers Rizzuto

August 01, 1994|By PHIL JACKMAN

New York City media, take a bow. Take several. It took a while, but mainly because of your unstinting efforts during the past 33 years, Phil Rizzuto took his place in baseball's Hall of Fame yesterday.

At long last, it's time to stop arguing if the 13-year career of "The Scooter" warrants his inclusion among the game's greats (plus a lot of goods) in Cooperstown. Certainly no campaign has been as lengthy and arduous considering the attendant publicized as this one.

Having watched "Little Phil," as announcer Mel Allen used to yammer, through his heyday as sparkplug for the always-victorious Yankees and subsequent broadcasting career and goodwill ambassador of the game, an observer is moved to applaud the selection.

Accompanying this action, however, is a need to delve into the facts and feelings, myths and misrepresentations that have been such a big part of the campaign that has raged since LBJ and Barry Goldwater, then Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey jousted for the presidency in the '60s.

Eligible for the Hall in 1962, five years after his playing career ended in 1956, there was no hue and cry when Rizzuto spent the first several years gathering anywhere between 45 and 92 votes from the qualified voters of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. That was back in the days when an unspoken "wait your turn" was in vogue among the people casting ballots.

A short time later, Pee Wee Reese hung 'em up as the Dodgers were fleeing Brooklyn for the West Coast and it became an annual battle in the Big Apple, which of these prized shortstops was going to make it up the New York Thruway to Cooperstown first.

Passed over during their 15 years of BBWA voting, the rivals and other mid-infielders and third baseman George Kell were passed on to the Old-Timers Committee for annual perusal. Kell made it in 1983, Reese a year later, Bobby Doerr in 1986 and Red Schoendienst in 1989.

The day after Reese was voted in, New York's media didn't glory in "The Little Colonel" making it because, after all, the Dodgers had fled town (in broad daylight as opposed to some professional franchises).

Instead, there were cartoons of a bunch of old codgers (the Old-Timers Committee) stumbling around aimlessly, and headlines like, "Where's Scooter?"

No doubt that's the first mistake the influential sportswriters and sportscasters in Gotham made, suggesting there was "virtually no difference" between the careers of Rizzuto and Reese, they ** were pretty much the same guy.

The Old-Timers knew better. Phil had a better career batting average by a couple of points (.275) and had turned in a brilliant season in 1950 when he won the MVP Award. But the numbers, so much a part of the game for decades now, favored Pee Wee from here to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

Reese gathered 600 more hits, 500 more RBIs and 400 more runs, a somewhat forgotten stat among leadoff men. As Bill James points out in his book "The Politics of Glory," how baseball's Hall of Fame really works, "We think of [Reese and Rizzuto] together because they were joined in time and space."

Besides playing the same position, they played in the same city for two outstanding teams at just about the same time and they batted leadoff. Beyond that, there were only "vague similarities" between them as ballplayers, according to the author.

James doesn't make a case against Rizzuto, ultimately coming to the conclusion that "he won't be the worst player there [Cooperstown]." He does debunk what he calls "the lowest common denominator" argument, though. This one reads, if so-and-so is in then certainly whatchamacallit deserves it. This is usually accompanied by a comparison of the weakness of the enshrined against the strengths of the guy on the outside looking in.

Other approaches on behalf of Rizzuto were tried, but, as James expertly details in his book, each is easily shot down. Only six shortstops have been voted in, howled a respected columnist, suggesting more should be added. At the time, only five catchers, five first baseman and six second basemen were on the rolls, which "proved" there was disproportion.

Maybe the delay in Rizzuto making it 10 years after Reese had nothing to do with the media hitching the former's wagon to the latter, but it certainly didn't help when the electorate took a closer look.

Then again, perhaps a move to have a couple of hundred kids added to the voter list would have been a good way to go. I recall the first time I saw No. 10 play for the Yankees. Most eyes were on No. 5, the inimitable Joe DiMaggio, but every kid loved "Scooter." He was our size, 5-6 and 150 pounds, and the bottom third of his number went inside his pants in the back.

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