Inside looking out: My night with the Scooter
The conversation comes up at times and the question is asked. What famous people have you met coincidentally in your lifetime? I exclude autograph signings and scheduled events where you have a planned purpose to meet someone known by name with much of the public.
My short list holds three people of fame. In the early ’90s, I was having breakfast in a Hilton Hotel in New Jersey when Johnny Cochran, O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, came marching into the room to eat with an entourage of about eight people. We nodded our heads to each other as he passed me, and as much as I wanted to ask him if he really thought Simpson was innocent of murder, I respected his privacy.
Two years ago, I was having dinner at a restaurant in Bethlehem when I looked across the tables at a huge African-American man who was sitting with four others. I thought that might be Larry Holmes, the former heavyweight boxing world champion.
“Oh, he’s Larry Holmes for sure,” said my waitress. “He comes in here almost every week for dinner.”
So I shook his hand and asked him to take a cellphone picture with me. He was more than accommodating, Wearing his world champion gold and diamond ring on his left hand and holding a net worth of about $18 million in his pocket, the Easton Assassin took time to teach me how to throw a jab, which was his signature punch.
The third and by far my best experience with a famous person was in July 1985 after I had spent a Sunday afternoon at a neighbor’s pool party.
“Hey Rich,” said Wayne, the party host as we watched a Yankee game on his poolside TV. “Why don’t you come back here later and cook up a few steaks for Phil Rizzuto and Bill White?”
Of course I thought he was pulling my leg until I heard Rizzuto, who was announcing the game with White, say on TV, “I hope this game doesn’t go into extra innings. We have a date at Wayne’s house for dinner tonight.” Wayne then told me that he grew up in Hillside, New Jersey, and his next-door neighbor was none other than the Yankee Hall of Fame shortstop.
Two hours after the game was over, I looked up the street and I saw a Mercedes-Benz with “SCOOTER” on the license plate pull up next to Wayne’s house.
I grilled the steaks and ate dinner with Phil; his wife, Cora; and the former St. Louis Cardinal Bill White, who later became the president of the National League.
The Scooter, Rizzuto’s nickname he earned as a fast base runner when he played baseball in the ’40s and ’50s, was affectionately known for talking about his favorite Italian foods and homemade cannolis while announcing Yankee baseball games.
He spun story after story that night. He was a regular guy with me and wanted to know about my life, too. I felt so comfortable with him and Bill White that I had forgotten to ask for autographs and pictures. He spoke often about his close friend, Mickey Mantle, my boyhood idol, but the best tale he told was about Yankee announcer Mel Allen.
The two were calling a Yankee game in Detroit one night when Rizzuto, who was fearful of an approaching late-night thunderstorm, told Allen that he was going to fly back to New Jersey after the seventh inning. Allen agreed to finish the game’s final two innings.
Scooter returned home and flipped on the TV to find out the final score of the game, but what he found was the game was still being played. It lasted 22 innings before the Yankees won. Allen announced the last 15 innings by himself and never let Rizzuto forget it.
When I think back about my night with these two baseball icons, I realize how special it was for me because I felt I had them just to myself. It’s a bit silly that when in the company of notable people, we tend to feel more self-important. Yet, fame and money didn’t separate the Scooter from his loyal fans. He had lived his entire life in Hillside, a hardworking, blue-collar neighborhood.
Ironically, this experience reminds me of Elvis Presley, who in his last interview before he died, was asked if there was anything else that he still wanted with all his fame and fortune. His answer was a shocking revelation.
“I want to walk down any street in America and not be Elvis Presley.”
Some stars, like Phil Rizzuto, Bill White and Larry Holmes were able to remain happily rooted in the mainstream public, but Presley, and more recently Robin Williams, always kept their stage faces on and maintained a certain distance from their adoring fans. Life can be lonely at the top.
Perhaps a line from a poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer can help us understand why Presley and Williams’ lives ended tragically.
“I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”
The Scooter lived a happy public life, and I am grateful to have shared one of his moments.
Rich Strack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.