If you’ve seen our Pinch Hitters series in the past, you know that we try to find a good blend of posts. Some opinions, some analysis and some personal stories. This one is the later.
Eric E. Kopp is a 25-year-old living in Elizabethtown, PA, but he was born in Port Jefferson, NY and he left the hospital wearing a Yankee outfit. When he married his wife Natalie, the voices of John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman introduced the couple at their reception. Eric works in higher education, is currently working toward his Ph.D and writes for Chasing800 during the season. When he attended Game 4 of the 2001 World Series, Eric’s father — also named Eric — predicted Tino Martinez’s game-tying home run.
For his post, Eric wrote about the small gestures that can leave a huge impression: In this case, the small gestures of one of the Yankees most popular former players.
My father and I are both too young to have seen the late Phil Rizzuto play for the Yankees. My dad knew and loved him as a broadcaster for decades, but I was only 9 years old when he left the Yankees television crew for good. The Hall of Famer was always a popular guest at Old Timers’ Days and postseason games, when he would throw out or flip (in Jeterian fashion) the first pitch. Despite our ages, my dad and I were both able to have memorable interactions with “The Scooter,” moments we’ll both remember for the rest of our lives.
On April 28, 1995, in conjunction with the 100th birthday of Babe Ruth, Hofstra University awarded Phil an honorary doctorate in humane letters. At the time, my father was serving as Chief Deputy Suffolk County Executive and was invited to speak about Phil. Dad was smart enough to arrive early with two proclamations celebrating “Phil Rizzuto Day” in Suffolk. One was for Phil to keep. The another was for Phil to autograph, which he did: “To Eric, Holy Cow! Phil Rizzuto.” The two men shared a gin and tonic, had some laughs, and took a few cherished photos before their bus ride to the ceremony.
At the conclusion of the presentation, Dad shared a return bus with Rizzuto. Phil sought him out, and simply asked my dad, “Where’d you get all those nice things to say about me?”
My story with Phil does not involve personal interaction, but a simple touching act of kindness on his behalf. In my early teenage years I became fascinated with autograph hunting. I tried tirelessly to get them at games, in hotels on road trips, and I found it exciting to submit autograph requests in the mail. I sent baseball cards to as many former Yankees as I could, including Phil. Many players obliged, some did not, and some sent back a blank card. But no one fulfilled my request quite like Phil Rizzuto.
I did not have the money for a vintage Phil Rizzuto baseball card, so I instead mailed him a glossy reprint of a 1952 card, not thinking about how difficult it would be for him to sign it.
When I received my self-addressed envelope back in the mail from Rizzuto’s home in New Jersey, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Poor Phil tried to sign the card clearly with a Sharpie but found it impossible. Still, he sent back the baseball card with a smudged Phil Rizzuto signature, but he also included something else: his Baseball Hall of Fame postcard, on which he inscribed: “Hi Eric, Holy Cow! #10. Sure is tough writing on cards!” No player, past or present, has ever touched me as much as Phil Rizzuto did with this act of kindness.
It has become a family tradition to attend Old Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium every year. The 2005 ceremony was the last time we saw Rizzuto, and I watched my father’s eyes well up as the frail Hall of Famer slowly walked out toward home plate when he was introduced for the final time in the Bronx. The Old Timers’ game that followed the ceremony was shortened by a rain storm, which forced us to take cover in the escalator area of the old stadium. Looking outside gave us a great view of the entrances to the Yankee Offices that the players would walk into.
We noticed a black Mercedes pulling up to the curb, and Rizzuto walking out, by himself, to the car. Dad and I shouted his name and waved our hats. He turned, smiled, and blew us a kiss. Rizzuto did not attend Old Timers Day in 2006, and passed away in August of 2007. I’m pretty certain that we were the last to ever see Phil leave Yankee Stadium.
The small kid from Brooklyn spent a total of 55 years with the franchise, and is one of the most beloved sports figures New York has ever seen. Phil’s impact on the Yankee organization is unmatched, as is the impact he had on my life.
Associated Press photo