Who would have thought that Phil Rizzuto and Tom Seaver would end up being joined at the hip? When Seaver, 75, died on Sep. 2, coincidentally, I had been reading Roger Angell’s piece about the 1969 New York Mets, a piece in which Seaver was prominently figured. (The venerable Angell turns 100 on Sep. 19 and his works are a must read, even for non-baseball fans.)
Rizzuto’s playing days were long over, when Seaver surfaced as one of baseball’s greatest pitchers. Rizzuto, at this point, was broadcasting New York Yankees games. Because there was no interleague play, the Yankees and Mets might have well as been separated by the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Whitestone Bridge. There was very little connection between the clubs, other than the annual Mayor’s Trophy game and the Yankees’ obsession with being replaced by the Mets, as the number one team in town.
Fast forward to 1985. It’s Phil Rizzuto Day. The venerable broadcaster is being honored at Yankee Stadium, saluted by the Yankees and fans as a popular former player and even more popular broadcaster. Who should be pitching that day for the Chicago White Sox against the Yankees? Tom Seaver, going for his 300th career victory, no less. Seaver won the game, and Rizzuto was upstaged.
That might be the end of the story, except the popular Yankees television broadcast tandem of Rizzuto and Bill White was dismantled, when White became the president of the National League. Enter Seaver, who had broadcast experience on both NBC and ABC, even teaming with the estimable Vin Scully, as different a broadcaster from Rizzuto as night from day. Seaver would join Rizzuto, George Grande and Bobby Murcer in the booth, but make no mistake, all eyes and ears were on Rizzuto and Seaver.
How would Rizzuto and Seaver mesh? As it turns out, spectacularly, thanks in large part to Rizzuto’s lack of ego in an ego-driven business. With his birthdays, cannoli reviews, excitable play-by-play delivery and zany commentary, Rizzuto turned out to be the perfect broadcast mate for “Seaver,” as Rizzuto often referred to him. They turned out to be an entertaining listen, which was necessary, because the on-field product was horrible. Rizzuto and Seaver turned out to be the only reason you would want to tune in on WPIX-11 to watch a ballgame. The broadcast team was a hit to the audience, which had to gall the Mets. Here was their “franchise”, across town broadcasting New York Yankees games!
From 1989-93, Rizzuto and Seaver worked Yankees games together. In 1994, Rizzuto was finally elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, joining Seaver in Cooperstown. Seaver would leave the booth, after the 1993 season, join the Mets broadcasting crew for a few seasons, starting in 1999, commuting from his California vineyard. Rizzuto retired after 1996, as the Yankees took over the city, with their dynasty.
But there isn’t a person, anywhere, who could have predicted in 1969 that Phil Rizzuto and Tom Seaver would prove to be a popular, broadcasting duo.