Philip Francis Rizzuto

The argument for Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto’s membership in the Hall of Fame boils down to this: Yes, he had mediocre batting statistics and merely better-than-average fielding statistics, but he was the spark plug of five straight Yankees world championship teams and had he not lost three years to military service, he would have posted even more impressive results.

Phil Rizzuto

There is also a subtext: Rizzuto was widely remembered as an announcer for Yankees games, and recent generations of fans tend to confuse Phil Rizzuto the player (whom they hardly know except as a character in Yogi Berra’s stories) and Scooter the beloved Voice of the Yankees (“Holy Cow!”).

What can’t be argued is that Rizzuto was a fine shortstop; he justly earned his place on the Yankees each season. But the Hall of Fame is a different matter, and it is instructive that neither the baseball writers who saw him play (and with whom he shared the press box) nor the veterans he played against saw fit to enshrine Rizzuto — that is, until three of his Yankees teammates joined the veterans committee.

This is his Hall of Fame web site profile:

Phil Rizzuto overcame his diminutive size to anchor a Yankees dynasty, helping them win seven of nine World Series during his 13 seasons, not counting three years lost to World War II. The Scooter was a durable and deft shortstop, skilled bunter and enthusiastic base runner who compiled a .273 lifetime batting average. A five-time All-Star, Rizzuto was named the American League’s MVP in 1950 when he excelled with a .324 average, 200 hits and .439 slugging percentage. Upon retirement, he spent 40 years as a popular Yankees broadcaster.

Thankfully the actual plaque doesn’t combine his playing and broadcasting careers, but it is nevertheless noticeably short on meaningful milestones.

Let’s get one matter out of the way: Except for a brief bit of batting speculation, we can’t address the war years hiatus here, mainly because its effect is imponderable. Many players lost two or more productive baseball years to either World War II or the Korean War; Ted Williams is the most obvious example. But many dynamics were at play during the World War II years: The level of talent in the major leagues dropped considerably, night baseball became more common, money for salaries tightened, travel was curtailed, food was rationed, et cetera.

Claiming that a certain player would have been in more All-Star games or won more MVP awards during the war years is fruitless. But, giving Scooter the doubt, let’s concentrate on season statistics and career averages over his entire 13 seasons.

Although anecdotal evidence forms much of the Scooter legend, it is as useful for judging Hall of Fame quality as is the Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance poem. Even for a lousy player, it’s easy to pull out a few spectacular plays from more than 2,000 ball games. And Rizzuto was far from lousy.

But first a brief digression into his offensive stats, since they don’t even begin to approach Hall of Fame numbers for a shortstop or anyone else.

If we want to project offensive numbers for the lost war years, it appears that Rizzuto might have eventually reached 2,000 hits and 700 runs batted in. He might have figured in MVP balloting three more times, but probably would have barely finished in the top 20 each time. His career batting average might have improved by a point or two. But none of those things happened, and even if they had he would still have fallen well short of Hall of Fame batting numbers.

True, he was a proficient artist of the sacrifice — but that only figures given his weak batting numbers. Several well-known shortstops posted impressive sacrifice numbers in the 1940s and ’50s.

Defense has always been held up as Rizzuto’s strongest suite.

Fielding stats are notoriously vague and subject to interpretation, but there are a few that bear comparison with other contemporary American League players.

Rizzuto’s fielding percentage was .968 versus .959 for all shortstops of his era combined. However, a more persuasive stat, known as the range factor, figures the average number of putouts plus assists per game; Rizzuto had 4.79 versus 4.62 for the league. So Scooter is better than average, as we suspected. But is he Hall of Fame material? A career range factor of 5 is considered by some fans to be an indicator of superior (but not necessarily great) shortstop skills.

Lou Boudreau of the Cleveland Indians, and a Hall of Famer since 1970, played in roughly the same era, 1938-1952, and played shortstop in about the same number of games. Boudreau has the better career fielding percentage, and almost exactly proportionately fewer double plays and putouts. Most importantly, Boudreau’s career range factor is 5.13. And Boudreau was a career .295 hitter with an on-base percentage of .380 (versus a paltry .351 for Rizzuto).

The fact the Boudreau was an eight-time All-Star and figured in 10 consecutive MVP ballots is further evidence that his superiority was appreciated at the time. Unlike Rizzuto, he combined skills on offense and defense.

Still, the Yankees were willing to tolerate Rizzuto’s lack of firepower because they possessed a stable of powerful hitters. What they got in return was a dependable, solid, above-average shortstop who could anchor the infield.

Consider the opposition: The shortstop of that era’s perennial also-ran, the hapless Philadelphia Athletics, was Eddie Joost. His range factor was 5.09, also much better than Scooter’s. He also averaged .71 double plays per game, just about what Scooter had, yet Joost has never been even seriously considered for the Hall of Fame.

In Rizzuto’s MVP year, 1950, Detroit finished in second place with Johnny Lipon at shortstop. Lipon participated in 126 double plays; Rizzuto had 123 but played in eight more games. Lipon’s range factor was 5.14 with a fielding percentage of .958; Rizzuto had 4.86 and .982. Still, it was Scooter’s year despite the mixed results. Never underestimate the aura of playing on a championship team, especially one in New York.

(Before we credit Rizzuto with all of the success of the 1950 Yankees, think about some of the other players: Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Billy Martin, Allie Reynolds and Whitey Ford. Rizzuto and DiMaggio basically equally shared most of the team offensive records that year.)

The later years were not so kind to Scooter.

In 1954, Chico Carrasquel (hardly a household name) of the White Sox posted a .975 fielding percentage while participating in 102 double plays and 280 putouts. Rizzuto only played in 126 games, and posted 84 double plays and 184 putouts on his way to a fielding percentage of .968.

When we look at the National League, Pee Wee Reese is the obvious champion Major League Baseball shortstop: Reese had almost exactly 2.00 putouts per game compared to Rizzuto’s 1.95 putouts per game; 2.92 assists per game for Reese compared to 2.83 for Rizzuto. Reese had 2,170 hits and 885 runs batted in, and was also a fine practitioner of the sacrifice. He was a 10-time All-Star. (Rizzuto made it five times; even Buster Stephens of the lowly St. Louis Browns had eight All-Star appearances and figured in MVP voting nine times.)

What conclusion can we draw? Being better than average, or even a lot better than average, shouldn’t be enough for the Hall of Fame. Greatness is needed, and although Phil Rizzuto possessed many enviable skills, baseball-playing greatness wasn’t one of them.

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