Monday, August 15, 2016

Running for Larsen, No. 10, Phil Rizzuto (60 Years Ago, August 16, 1956)

In his last game as a Yankee, and perhaps in his big league career, on Friday, August 12 of this year, Alex Rodriguez probably did not know that in another four days it would be the sixtieth anniversary of Phil Rizzuto's last game as both a Yankee and a major league ballplayer. A-Rod was treated with a farewell ceremony before the game at Yankee Stadium, being in the starting line-up, and knowing it would be his final farewell appearanceat least in pinstripes. For the Scooter, there was no farewell ceremony; he was not in the starting line-up; and he did not know it would be the final game of his career. Indeed, all Phil Rizzuto knew for certain was that he was still a New York Yankee when the game ended, although now a seldom-used reserve for Casey Stengel.

Running for Larsen, No. 10, Phil Rizzuto
(60 Years Ago, August 16, 1956)

Boston right-hander Willard Nixon took a 2-0 lead and a 1-hitter into the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium on August 16, 1956. Yankee hopes got a rise when shortstop Milt Bolling booted Gil McDougald's grounder and pinch hitter Mickey McDermotta pitcher who frequently masqueraded as a pinch hitter for Stengel because he could hitsingled to put runners on first and second leading off the ninth. For McDermott, it was the 16th time his manager had sent him up to pinch hit and his fourth hit in 13 official at bats (he also walked twice and had a sacrifice bunt). Billy Hunter was sent in to run for McDermott, representing the tying run.

Yankee starter Don Larsen, himself a pretty good hitter for a pitcher, came to bat, presumably to bunt both runners over, and wound up reaching base himself on a fielding error by second baseman Billy Goodman. The bases were loaded with nobody out and Hank Bauer, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle were the next three Yankees due up. 

Perhaps Yankee Stadium was graced by the voice of the home team's long-time public address announcer Bob Sheppard, then in only the 6th of his eventual 57 years on the job, intoning . . . "Running for Larsen, Number 10, Phil Rizzuto." (I admit to presuming, since I don't know.)

Rizzuto, representing the could-be winning run, would be running on 38-year-old legs that would be 39 in a little over a month. Once the cornerstone shortstop of Casey Stengel's five pennants and five World Series championships in his first five years as Yankee manager from 1949 to 1953, which included the Scooter finishing second in the 1949 voting for AL Most Valuable Player, winning the Award in 1950, and finishing sixth in the 1953 MVP voting, Phil Rizzuto was now at the end of Casey Stengel's bench.

Hardly able to keep his average above .200 in the summer of '54, Rizzuto was often removed for a pinch hitter if he came to bat and the Yankees had a scoring opportunity. He was benched in favor of Willy Miranda as the starting shortstop in mid-August that year, although Stengel often sent him in as a late-inning defensive replacement. Billy Hunter had the shortstop job in 1955, but the Scooter won his job back in early August and started all seven games in the World Series. McDougald was Stengel's choice to play shortstop in 1956, and this time there was no winning back the job for the baseball-elderly Phil Rizzuto.

If Rizzuto was not exactly the 25th man in the dugout, it was only because the Yankees were obligated to keep 19-year-old infielder Tommy Carroll on their major league roster because he signed as a "bonus baby," and because Stengel chose to keep third-string catcher Charlie Silvera on the team. Carroll would appear in 36 games for the 1956 Yankees and get into the starting line-up just once, when Stengel started him at third base in the last game of the season. Silvera spent virtually the entire season warming up pitchers in the bullpen, appeared in just seven games all year, and also got just one starthis in the Yankees' 139th game on the schedule on September 12. 

When Stengel called on him to pinch run for Larsen with the bases loaded and nobody out in the bottom of the 9th inning on August 16, 1956, it was only the 31st time Rizzuto had gotten into a game so far in the season. He had started just 15 games, including seven straight from June 24 to July 1, during which he had 5 hits in 19 at bats. The last game he started was on August 2 in Cleveland, where he went hitless in three at bats against Herb Score, who shutout the Yankees on 4 hits. Rizzuto had not played in any game since.

Faced with a bases loaded, no out jam, Red Sox pitcher Nixon fanned Bauer and got Martin to hit into a force out at second base, a run scoring on the play, but Mantle flied out to end the game. Forced at second by Martin for the second out of the inning was Phil Rizzuto. As he jogged back to the dugout, the Scooter could not imagine that that would be his last act as a major league player. 

There is no record of any appreciative applause by the Yankee Stadium fans for a terrific career by a player who had been instrumental in the Yankees winning nine American League pennants and seven World Series going back to his rookie year in 1941. Nobody knew it would be his last game.

For the 75-39 Yankees, whose lead was now 9½ games over Cleveland as a result of that loss, it was 114 games down and just 40 to go in the 1956 season. Phil Rizzuto surely figured he'd still be in pinstripes for those 40 games, even if hardly used, and would get into his tenth World Series with the Yankees, or at least get to watch from a prime seat in the dugout.

In fact, he had little over a week left as a New York Yankee.

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