Baseball has lost some good people during the middle of the summer, including a pinstriped icon and a onetime Yankee from the late 1960s. With details of those deaths, along with some other baseball losses, here is the latest edition of Pastime Passings.
Phil Rizzuto: (Died on August 13 in West Orange, New Jersey; age 89; pneumonia and effects of Alzheimer’s disease): Considered one of the lynchpins to Yankee success throughout the 1940s and fifties, Rizzuto helped New York to seven World Series wins—in 1941, ’47, and ’49, and from 1950 to 1953. Regarded as a slick fielding shortstop and a top-flight bunter, the five-time All-Star provided both stability to the middle infield and to the top of the Yankee batting order. In 1950, Rizzuto batted .324 and drew 92 walks to earn American League MVP honors. After his playing days, "The Scooter" became a Yankee institution as a broadcaster. Anchoring WPIX, cable, and radio broadcasts for 40 years, the colorful and charismatic Rizzuto emerged as the centerpiece to television and radio coverage of the Yankees, replete with trademark catch phrases like "Huckleberry" and "Holy Cow!" In 1994, Rizzuto earned baseball’s ultimate honor—after being passed over 26 times—when he was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Commentary: Phil Rizzuto broke almost all of the rules of broadcasting. He often failed to follow the play, botched home run calls, interspersed his broadcasts with "Happy Birthdays" and personal notes, and sometimes even failed to take note that a no-hitter was in progress. Yet, none of that mattered. "The Scooter" was so personable, so charming, so completely entertaining that most Yankee fans loved listening to him, regardless of whether the Yankees were winning, tied, or being blown out.
There were also times that Rizzuto could be say, shall we say, somewhat risqué on the air. For example, during the 1969 season, the Yankees made one of their first trips into Seattle’s Sicks Stadium to play the expansion Pilots. (Rizzuto, by the way, hated Sicks Stadium, in part because it required climbing a ladder to reach the broadcast booth.) While on the air, Rizzuto made mention of the fact that his Seattle hotel room had only rounded walls. "There will be no cornering of Cora tonight," Rizzuto exclaimed, referring to his longtime wife. Perhaps the Scooter thought no one was listening since it was so late on the East Coast.
Steve Lombardi of waswatching.com recalls another one of Rizzuto’s less than politically correct moments. Late in the 1975 season, Rizzuto was announcing a game on the radio with longtime broadcast partner Bill White. Noting that the fans at Yankee Stadium had started to cheer loudly, Rizzuto announced that Bobby Bonds was coming into the game as a pinch-hitter. White then corrected him, saying that the pinch-hitter was actually Rich Coggins, who like Bonds was African-American, but wore No. 26, as opposed to Bonds’ No. 25. Rizzuto then tried to defend his error. "Well, you know, they all look alike to me," said Rizzuto, drawing loud laughs from White, also an African American. Only someone as well liked as Rizzuto could get away with such a statement on live radio.
Because of The Scooter, Yankee broadcasts in the seventies and eighties transcended sports; they became a mix of situation comedy, talk show, and baseball. Thanks, Rizzuto.
Died on August 13 in Beeville, Texas; age 92): A journeyman right-hander who made his major league debut at the age of 28, Miller pitched for the Washington Senators, St. Louis Browns and Chicago Cubs over four seasons. He earned the nickname "Ox" for pitching and winning all four games of back-to-back doubleheaders for Lincoln of the Western League in 1939.
Frank Mancuso:(Died on August 4 in Pasadena, Texas; age 89): A defensive-minded catcher, Mancuso batted .241 with five home runs and 98 RBIs during a career that spanned from 1944 to 1946. A veteran of World War II, Mancuso saw his career curtailed by an injury suffered as a paratrooper. Mancuso was the younger brother of All-Star Gus Mancuso, also a major league catcher.
Bill Robinson:(Died on July 29 in Las Vegas, Nevada; age 64; cause of death as yet undetermined): Robinson was best known for his contributions to the 1979 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. As the team’s principal left fielder, Robinson hit 24 home runs and stole 13 bases, giving the pennant-winning Bucs a dose of power and speed. Robinson’s best season actually came in 1977, when he reached career highs with a .304 batting average, 26 home runs, and 104 RBIs. Over the course of a 16-year career that included stops with the Yankees, Atlanta Braves, and Philadelphia Phillies, Robinson hit 166 home runs with 641 RBIs. After his playing days, he became a coach with the New York Mets and Florida Marlins, earning World Series rings in 1986 and 2003.
Commentary: I was saddened to hear of the death of Robinson near the end of July. Robinson was working as a minor league batting instructor for the Dodgers at the time and had even been mentioned recently as a candidate to succeed the fired Eddie Murray in Los Angeles. Two things always come to mind when I think about Robinson. First, he was that rare example of a player who performed better in his thirties than he did in his twenties. After struggling to find himself as an outfielder-third baseman with both the Braves and Yankees, Robinson became a productive left fielder for the mid-1970s Phillies and the 1979 world champion Pirates. While most players reach their peak physically during their twenties, some need more time to adjust to the mental stress of playing at the highest level of professional baseball. That adjustment took several years for Robinson, who didn’t start to succeed until his age 30 season with the Phillies (1973). Second, I’ll remember Robinson being prominently mentioned as a candidate to become the first black manager of the Mets, but never receiving that opportunity. Though a highly regarded hitting coach during the Mets’ successful run in the late eighties, Robinson found himself out of work and took a job serving as an analyst for Baseball Tonight in the early 1990s. I don’t know if Robinson was the victim of racism, or whether he simply interviewed poorly, but it seems that he had the smarts and toughness to be a good major league manager. Sadly, that chance never came.
Mike Coolbaugh (Died on July 22; age 35; result of being struck by a batted ball): The 35-year-old Coolbaugh, who was an especially popular player during his long minor league career, had only recently been added to the Tulsa Drillers’ coaching staff on an interim basis. Coolbaugh had replaced Orlando Merced, who resigned as Tulsa’s batting coach on July 3. Originally drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1990, Coolbaugh played briefly in the major leagues as an infielder with the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers.
Commentary: The death of Coolbaugh, who died shortly after being hit by a foul line drive, will surely escalate the push for baseline coaches to wear helmets on the field. It’s unfortunate that it may take such a horrid tragedy to create baseball legislation that is long overdue. Simply put, there is really no good reason for first and third-base coaches not to wear helmets. Retired players, whose reflexes have slowed and who are not equipped with gloves, cannot always be expected to elude line drives that are coming from fewer than 100 feet away. Let’s hope that baseball will institute a helmet rule for 2008, thereby lessening the chance that we’ll ever see such an on-field tragedy again.
Rollie Stiles (Died on July 22; age 100): Stiles was believed to be the oldest living major league player at the time of his death. A veteran of the old St. Louis Browns, Stiles pitched in the major leagues from 1930 to 1933 and counted Babe Ruth among the batters he faced. For his career, Stiles finished with a record of 9-14 and an ERA of 5.92.
Orlando McFarlane:(Died on July 18 in Ponce, Puerto Rico; age 69; throat cancer): A journeyman catcher, McFarlane played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Detroit Tigers, and California Angels during the 1960s. McFarlane hit .240 during a career that spanned from 1962 to 1968.
Bruce Markusen is the author of eight books on baseball, including The Team That Changed Baseball. He also writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com and can be reached at email@example.com.