Phil Rizzuto was a Yankee LegendTM, and once someone is a legend, it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. There are those who will argue that if Rizzuto wasn't a Yankee LegendTM -- if he had played for some other team or not been on the radio forever -- he wouldn't have been (finally, mercifully) elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994.
Well, that's probably true. In his "New Historical Baseball Abstract," Bill James wrote that when Rizzuto was forced into retirement in 1956, "Many articles were written then, summarizing Rizzuto's fine career. None of them, that I have seen, suggested that he might be a Hall of Famer."
That's probably a bit misleading; in 1962, Rizzuto's first year of eligibility, he received more Hall of Fame votes than many, many future Hall of Famers (including contemporary shortstops Lou Boudreau and Arky Vaughan). But Rizzuto never really built much on that early support until 1976, when he was listed on 38 percent of the ballots, at which point his candidacy was passed along to the Veterans Committee. And in 1994, that august body finally ended the years of controversy by electing him.
This generally is seen as yet another flawed result, and it's clear that the process was terribly flawed. You get a bunch of old men in a room and let them start horse-trading, and the results won't be pretty. You look at Rizzuto's career, and you see a player who wasn't much of a hitter, either qualitatively (.355 career slugging percentage) or quantitatively (1,588 career hits).
That's objectively true ... but leaves out the salient arguments for Rizzuto's greatness. Actually, there's really just one argument, from which everything else flows: World War II. As a rookie in 1941, Rizzuto batted .307. In 1942, he batted .287. He was 25 and just about to enter the prime of his career. At which point he, like almost every other great baseball player in America, went into the service. Rizzuto didn't see any combat during the war, but that doesn't mean it didn't wipe out a good chunk of his career. He spent three full seasons in the Navy. And while he did play a lot of baseball and didn't see much combat, he did pick up a nasty case of malaria while serving in the Pacific.
Rizzuto returned to the Yankees in 1946, but he simply wasn't the same hitter he'd been before the war. Even leaving that aside, though, it's fair to assume that those three lost seasons cost Rizzuto somewhere between 450 and 500 hits, which would put him comfortably over 2,000 for his career. That's not bad, quantitatively. As for the quality, Rizzuto probably was a better hitter, relative to his league, than Ozzie Smith.
Of course, Smith's not in the Hall of Fame for his hitting. But Rizzuto was an outstanding shortstop, too. According to James, Rizzuto "deserved the American League Gold Glove" -- if one had existed -- "in 1941, 1942, 1946 and 1950 ... ." Well, if he was the best defensive shortstop in 1942 and 1946, we can assume he'd have been the best defensive shortstop from 1943 through 1945, right? If he'd been around? So now we're talking about a seven-time Gold Glover with more than 2,000 hits and a (well-earned) MVP Award in 1950.
As a player, Rizzuto wasn't as good as Ozzie Smith. He wasn't as good as his supposed equal, Pee Wee Reese. And it's hard to take him seriously as a broadcaster, considering his penchant for rambling on about Italian food while runners were circling the bases. As a Hall of Famer, though? The Scooter's no joke.