|Ode to a Terrific Baseball Player||| Print |||Send|
Written by Justin Zeth (Contact & Archive) on August 16, 2007
I could write about the fact that he was a bad choice for the Hall of Fame. But who wants to write that article in the wake of a man's death? I don't. I've written that before and will let what I wrote stand, but this isn't a time to disparage the man. I will get back to this topic, sort of, in a moment.
I could write about where he'd rank, all-time, among shortstops. That's not a terribly interesting article, though. He's part of the Tony Fernandez-Dave Concepcion-Bert Campaneris group. I don't want to analyze who was better, Phil Rizzuto or Dave Concepcion, and you don't want to read that analysis. Who cares? These guys were all great shortstops. Not quite Hall of Fame worthy, but what kind of insult is that? To be worthy of the Hall of Fame is insanely difficult. To even be good enough at baseball to be part of the discussion, as Phil Rizzuto was, is something 99.99998% of humanity will never achieve.
Yeah, he was lucky to play for the Yankees. But you know what? I'll never play one inning for the New York Yankees, no matter whether I'm the luckiest man who ever walked God's good earth, and neither will you, because we're not even within 5% as good at baseball as it requires to have our names listed on the team roster of the Pittsburgh Pirates for a single solitary hour, let alone the New York Yankees (the Pirates' major-league affiliate). Phil Rizzuto was one hell of a baseball player.
I didn't watch Phil Rizzuto play. He played his last game a couple decades before I was born. I've certainly read volumes full of material penned by people who did watch Rizzuto play. Most of it is highly positive. Sure, writers of the time ridiculously overvalued bunting, to the point that love for bunting still persists in the media sixty years later, and Rizzuto wasn't much of a hitter except in 1950 and 1951. But even after all these years, the statistics tell us the writers were right about one thing: Phil Rizzuto was magic with the glove. Not Ozzie Smith magic, but only one rung below him.
I don't have the detailed information (specifically, VORP or WARP3 totals) to do a Shannon Stewart list on Rizzuto, but such a study would come out pretty favorably for him. Rizzuto rang up an eye-popping 12.3 WARP3 in 1950, when he really was the best player in baseball. That was one of the all-time fluke seasons—if it had happened today, we'd all be wondering whether he uses the cream or the clear—but Rizzuto also rang up seasons of 8.4, 9.2, 9.1 and 8.1 earlier in his career. That rivals the best years of a Tony Fernandez or a Bert Campaneris.
I've written in the past that Rizzuto wasn't a Hall of Famer, specifically pointing out his low 78.1 WARP3 total. But I ignored one extremely important factor: World War II. And for that reason, I was flat-out wrong. I wasn't wrong in the sense that Rizzuto wasn't a Hall of Famer, but I was wrong to stick him in the Campaneris-Jay Bell class of shortstops.
Here's Rizzuto's WARP3 totals his first seven years in the majors:
Rizzuto was a weak hitter, so he was prone to having a Merk Belanger season now and again, which is why you see the 4.0 and 3.5 in there. But there's more to it than that. Let me now clarify the picture by including the years:
1950 12.3 (!)
Rizzuto was one of the five best shortstops in the game from the moment he entered the major leagues as a 23-year-old in 1941. Then we have three missing years, right smack in his prime, and not because he was injured or in prison or anything. This isn't like wondering what J.D. Drew would have done if he hadn't been injured so much. Rizzuto was, like many players of the era, serving in the army for three full years, and he deserves full credit for those years.
How much credit? Well, given what he did in the two years previous, I think a heavy bit of it, don't you? Let's add those years in, and we'll even assume that one of those three years would have been a Mark Belanger year:
1950 12.3 (!)
And then he finishes up with two good-not-great seasons (7.8 and 7.5 WARP3). Being fairly conservative, we've added 22.9 to his WARP3 total, which would bring his career total to 101. That puts him squarely with Tony Fernandez and Dave Concepcion in terms of career value. Phil Rizzuto was a great baseball player, and deserves to be remembered as such. His being in so many World Series is mostly an accident of history, but he was one of the better players on those Yankees teams—only DiMaggio/Mantle and Berra were consistently better—and was certainly a contributor, not somebody being dragged along for the ride.
I didn't, and still don't, support his presence in the Hall of Fame. I do, however, want to ridicule something that was written a few weeks ago:
“[Omar Vizquel's] election to the Hall of Fame—and for the record, I think he eventually will be elected—won't be quite as bad a mistake as Phil Rizzuto's, but it will be a mistake.”
I'd love to have some of whatever this loon was smoking. Wait... that was me.
I wasn't smoking anything, but I was lazy and overlooked the war years. Rizzuto's selection may have been a mistake, but he's not the worst shortstop in the Hall—at the least, he was better than Joe Tinker, Dave Bancroft and Rabbit Maranville, and everybody was better than Travis Jackson. Rizzuto was a much better player than Omar Vizquel.
Put another way, if you immediately inducted into the Hall of Fame every shortstop who was better than Phil Rizzuto and removing every shortstop who was worse, you'd be accomplishing the following:
Tony Fernandez (maybe)
So, Phil Rizzuto is either the worst shortstop who belongs in the Hall of Fame, or the best shortstop who doesn't.
Well, folks, that's one impressive baseball career. To be the worst shortstop in the Hall of Fame is an amazing achievement. Instead of comparing him to Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken—how the hell do you compare to Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken?—compare him to Jay Bell and Bert Campaneris and Omar Vizquel. Then compare him to Vern Stephens and Marty Marion and Granny Hamner and Freddie Patek and Roy Smalley. Compare him to Walt Weiss and Mike Bordick and Greg Gagne and Jeff Blauser and Shawon Dunston and John Valentin. Compare him to Adam Everett and Edgar Renteria and Carlos Guillen and Rich Aurilia and David Eckstein and Orlando Cabrera. You know what all of those guys have in common? They're all really good baseball players. Not one of them is in Phil Rizzuto's league.
When you're done, then compare Rizzuto to Garry Templeton. Compare him to Bill Russell. Compare him to Don Kessinger and Bucky Dent and Craig Reynolds and Chris Speier. Compare him to Jody Reed and Kurt Stillwell and Dickie Thon and Spike Owen and Dale Sveum and Rafael Belliard and Steve Jeltz. Compare him to Bill Hall and Julio Lugo and Jason Bartlett and Felipe Lopez and Jack Wilson and Juan Uribe and Royce Clayton and Neifi Perez.
You know how hard it is to play shortstop in the major leagues? I'm fairly athletic, still in my 20s and one of the first few players chosen in any pickup game. I couldn't play shortstop in low-A ball without embarrassing myself. To even reach the major leagues is an athletic achievement most of us can only dream of. To play it at the level Phil Rizzuto played it—to do it for over fifteen years—to be the fifteenth (or so) best shortstop who ever played baseball—is a monumental achievement, and to do it with the personality, attitude, class, and love for the game with which Rizzuto did it is worthy of accolades from shore to shore. No, I don't have much patience for people who claim the Yankees won because of Phil Rizzuto's love for the game. But he deserves every bit of our admiration.