Phil Rizzuto, star New York Yankees shortstop from 1941-42 and 1946-56, passed away on Monday at the age of 89. The 1950 American League MVP and 1951 World Series MVP had been the oldest living Hall of Famer. NPR reports that he played for seven World Series champions, Wikipedia claims that he played for eight World Series champions and The New York Times states that the Yankees won nine World Series during his career. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Rizzuto participated in nine World Series during his career, with the Yankees winning seven of them; Rizzuto was also a member of the 1954 and 1956 Yankees teams that won World Series but Baseball-Reference.com indicates that he did not play in those World Series.
Rizzuto was listed at just 5-6, 160, which was small even during his era. In fact, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Casey Stengel famously told Rizzuto, "Go get a shoeshine box" when Rizzuto tried out for the team as a high schooler. The Dodgers had been Rizzuto's favorite team growing up, so you can imagine how devastating that rebuke must have been to him. Ironically, Stengel became the Yankees manager in 1949 and Rizzuto had some of the finest moments of his career while playing for Stengel. Other writers have already waxed eloquently about Rizzuto's skills as a bunter, a defensive player and someone who could be counted on to deliver clutch hits even though he did not have a great batting average--but the story about his encounter with Stengel is what struck me the most.
Stengel played 14 seasons in the big leagues, won a World Series championship as a member of the 1922 New York Giants and was starting a Hall of Fame managing career when he first crossed paths with Rizzuto. So when Stengel basically told young Rizzuto to go home, those words came from an expert who had spent his adult life in pro baseball, not just some random person. Think how easy it would have been for Rizzuto to just give up his baseball dreams, to figure that if Casey Stengel doesn't think that he can cut it then he probably should consider pursuing another line of work. Instead, Rizzuto believed in his abilities, continued to work hard and ended up being a key member of one of sport's greatest dynasties.
Just like Stengel was slow to recognize Rizzuto's potential, other experts did not immediately appreciate how great Rizzuto had been until long after his career was over. Rizzuto was rejected for the Hall of Fame 15 times by the writers and 11 more times by the Veterans Committee. It took a speech by the great Ted Williams, who played against Rizzuto as a member of the Boston Red Sox, to finally garner enough support for Rizzuto's belated Hall of Fame induction in 1994.
Phil Rizzuto's life story dramatically demonstrates the power of persistence. It is easy to quit; anyone can do it at any time. The only way to discover the full extent of what you are capable of achieving is to disregard the doubters and the disbelievers and to work tirelessly to prove them wrong. Young Phil Rizzuto may not have looked the part of a major league baseball player to Casey Stengel--but Rizzuto will forever be remembered as one of the greats of the game.