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Rizzuto Scored With Audience

Aug 19, 2007  •  Post A Comment

ESPN Radio’s Mike Greenberg said last week, “For a boy who grows up with a love of sports, nothing can be any more personal and special than his relationship with the man who tells him the stories of sports — the broadcaster.”
Mr. Greenberg reflected the emotions thousands of baseball fans experienced last week upon the passing of Phil Rizzuto, the former New York Yankee whose career behind the microphone on Yankees radio and television games far outlasted his playing career.
“I never met the man,” Mr. Greenberg said, “but when I heard he passed away, I felt as if I’d lost a dear member of my own family.”
The Scooter, as Mr. Rizzuto was known, was an inveterate storyteller. He didn’t just call the balls and strikes, he made the game an experience.
“When you heard Rizzuto, you felt as if you were sitting in a room with your favorite uncle,” said Tennessee sportscaster Dave McCulley, who grew up a Yankee fan. “Even if the Yankees were down eight runs, the Scooter made you feel it still wasn’t over.”
Mr. Rizzuto was the 1950 American League’s Most Valuable Player and an All-Star shortstop on seven world championship teams. He went into the broadcast booth in 1955 and was nearly 80 when he called his last home run in 1996.
He was an authoritative pitchman for products ranging from Vitalis to Old Gold cigarettes to the Money Store.
Yet Mr. Rizzuto was part of television history in a field other than sports. The night of Feb. 2, 1950, on CBS, he was the first to perform an act that would become one of the most coveted roles on live television: Mr. Rizzuto was the first mystery guest on “What’s My Line?”
The maiden voyage of the long-running game show featuring panelists attempting to guess occupations — in this case, a hat check girl at the Stork Club and a manufacturer of pork sausage — still survives in the library of cable’s GSN.
The production that night was horrendous. Cameras were out of position as often as they were out of focus. The first panel consisted of a politician, a poet, a satirist and the only survivor beyond opening night, New York Journal-American columnist Dorothy Kilgallen.
Erstwhile newscaster John Charles Daly, who moderated the show, and most of his inquisitors smoked so much on camera, the stage was in a perpetual fog. For more than 18 minutes, the show — sans any music or genuine production values — was plainly dull TV.
Finally, Mr. Daly made the call he would repeat more than 870 times: “Mystery challenger, will you enter and sign in, please?” On a small, awkwardly positioned artist’s easel, a 5-foot-6 figure signed “Phil Rizzuto.” Such would begin a television tradition of nearly 18 years. The giants in show business and sports would follow Mr. Rizzuto’s lead. John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball and Sen. John F. Kennedy were among the mystery guests on “What’s My Line?”
Ironically, just three months later, Mr. Rizzuto’s Brooklyn Dodgers counterpart Jackie Robinson repeated his baseball cultural history when he became the first African American to appear on a television game show, also as a “What’s My Line?” mystery guest.
In the 1970s, Mr. Rizzuto and several of his fellow Yankee legends were among the greats who frequented the Dick Enberg-hosted “Sports Challenge.” “Jeopardy!” announcer Johnny Gilbert, who did the voiceovers for “Challenge,” remembered the tapings in a December 2006 interview with TVgameshows.net.
“We would tape five, sometimes six shows a day,” Mr. Gilbert said. “You might have the New York Yankees playing against the Los Angeles Lakers. A lot of these athletes had never met each other. It was nothing to see Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Mantle or Billy Martin wait around after their shows to meet Wilt Chamberlain or Johnny Unitas. It was a sports fan’s dream to be backstage.”
Still, the relationship between Mr. Rizzuto and his audience centered on the simple act of storytelling. Whether on New York television or radio, the game was his stage. He talked to his legions of fans as if to each person.
In St. Louis and later Chicago, fans built the same relationship with Harry Caray. In Pittsburgh, Bob Prince became a member of the family. In the pioneering days of network television, Saturdays and Sundays with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese were appointment television days. Ole Diz would sing “The Wabash Cannonball” and we would sing with him.
In New York, Mr. Rizzuto would tell us about his boyhood days in Queens while calling “strike two.” We didn’t turn the channel.
With his diminutive figure, Mr. Rizzuto spent much of his life hearing people telling him he was too small to be accomplished. Perhaps Mr. Greenberg had the signature perspective Wednesday on his “Mike and Mike in the Morning” broadcast when he said, “He only stood 5-foot-6, but Phil Rizzuto was a giant in my eyes. In my father’s generation, he was a giant of a player. To me, he was a giant of a broadcaster. The lights may have gone out on the Scooter … but my memories of him still shine.”

Steve Beverly is professor of broadcasting at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and webmaster and originator of TVgameshows.net.

7 Comments

  1. Did Phil graduate from Richmond Hill High School Queens in 1940s? Was RHHS worse then: than the Solomon Islands and Okinawa and Saipan: ask me I ?taught? there with no books, no syllabus no curriculum but with a druggie in my room: bad news, worse than shrappnel, bombings – dog fights, the rest. Mobbing is a sinular word to even suggest it covers that horror zone temporal.

  2. Sorry, but what is kimerikas?
    Jane.

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