In 1936, at the age of 19, Phil Rizzuto showed up at Ebbets Field for a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was not to be. Skipper, Casey Stengel, took one look at him and said, “Yer too small. Go home. Get a shoebox.” Rizzuto later said, “I was small. So small, the clubhouse guy thought I was trying to break into the clubhouse to get autographs.” So Phil went across town to tryout with the New York Giants and again was turned away by Manager, Bill Terry, for the same reason. Undaunted, Rizzuto was eventually signed by the New York Yankees in 1937, as an amateur free agent.
The little guy, Phil Rizzuto, became a Hall-of-Fame player. The one play that Rizzuto would become known for was the “squeeze play,” basically nonexistent in today’s game. Very few knew about this play, except for his Yankees teammates. Rizzuto developed a unique sign for the “squeeze bunt.” Anytime Rizzuto would come to bat with a man on third in a tight game, he had the authority to give the runner the sign for the squeeze bunt. Here it is. If the first pitch to Rizzuto was called a strike, while turning to the umpire to argue the location of the pitch, he would grab his bat at both ends at the same time, to put on the sign for the squeeze. When he turned around to get back in the batter’s box, he would look at the runner on third; and if the runner tipped his cap, Rizzuto would know the squeeze was on for the next pitch.
A wonderful example of this play occurred in 1951 against the Cleveland Indians, during a pennant race. It was the bottom of the ninth inning with the score tied at one. Joe DiMaggio was on third base with Rizzuto at-bat. The first pitch to Phil was called a strike, and he turned toward the umpire to argue. He grabbed his bat at both ends, signaling the squeeze sign. With a nod of his cap, DiMaggio acknowledged the sign, but broke from third base a bit early on the next pitch. The Cleveland pitcher Bob Lemon threw high and inside, forcing Rizzuto to raise his bat head-high in order to put the ball in play. The pitch was bunted and “Joltin Joe” scored the winning run. Casey Stengel called it, “The greatest play I ever saw.”
Although the Yankees had great success under Stengel, Rizzuto was never much of a fan of Casey. “Scooter” was quoted as saying, “No, I’m not big on him. In the National League, he was considered a clown. He inherited a great Yankees team. He was funny and good for baseball, but he didn’t get along with the veterans. He wanted young players that he could control.” Casey would never discuss his early wrong call on Rizzuto. Phil recalls, “When Casey became manager of the Yankees in 1949, I reminded him of that conversation, but he pretended he didn’t remember. By 1949, I didn’t need a shoebox, anyway. The clubhouse boy at the Stadium shined my Yankees spikes every day.”