Pop Mannion and his brother Jim grew up Dodger fans. Their sister, my Aunt Dorothy, married a Yankee fan and converted.
This didn’t cause discord in the family. Uncle Bill is a great guy and baseball arguments at family gatherings have always been cheerful, friendly, and without rancor or hard feelings. That’s because partisans on both sides recognize that the subject isn’t really Yankees vs Dodgers or National League vs the Junior Circuit. The subject is baseball and the argument isn’t really an argument. It’s just an energetic way to talk baseball. Still, Uncle Bill sticks to his religion and he can be zealous when pushing his core beliefs. For a long time, one of those core beliefs was that his favorite Yankee of all time, Phil Rizzuto, should be in the Hall of Fame.
Phil Rizzuto, the Scooter, played shortstop for the great Yankee teams of the 40s and 50s, teams that included the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle. Scooter was good in the field---"My best pitch is anything the batter grounds, lines, or pops in the direction of Rizzuto.”- Yankee pitcher Vic Raschi.---but while he wasn’t an easy out, he wasn’t all that fearsome at the plate either. Lifetime .273 hitter, 38 home runs, 562 runs batted in. But, as Uncle Bill would point out, shortstops in those days weren’t expected to be sluggers. Rizzuto’s counterpart over in Brooklyn, Pee Wee Reese didn’t put up numbers all that more imposing---a .269 average and 126 HRs, although he drove in over 300 more runs, 885 RBI. But it’s usually when a player has over a thousand RBI that he begins to enter Hall of Fame territory, and this applies even to shortstops, in any era. Reese’s and Rizzuto’s careers overlapped Luke Appling’s and Ernie Banks’. Appling was never a home run threat, but he drove in 1116 runs and hit .310 lifetime---he hit over .300 sixteen years in a row. Banks’ lifetime average was only one point higher than Rizzuto’s, but he hit 516 home runs and drove in 1636 runs.
The true period of weak hitting shortstops was the 1960s and 70s and a case can be made that if Rizzuto and Reese hadn’t played for storied ball clubs during those teams’ glory years no one would have thought of either as Hall of Fame candidates and that case’s name might be Zoilo Versalles and I’ll get to him in a minute.
You might think that it would have rankled when the Old Timers’ Committee voted Reese into the Hall in 1984, but Uncle Bill cheered. He felt Pee Wee’s inclusion bolstered his argument for Scooter’s. He objected when anyone suggested, as was generally suspected, that Reese had gotten in based more on a gesture than his play in the field. During Jackie Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers, when Brooklyn was playing out of town before a particularly hostile crowd and Robinson was taking even more racist abuse than usual, Reese, a southerner, walked over to Robinson and put his hand on his shoulder. Uncle Bill, while admiring the gesture, would have none of that. As far as he was concerned, Reese was in the Hall entirely on his merits as a great shortstop, just as Rizzuto deserved to be.
Now, there were never any hard and fast rules about what sort of prospective sons- or daughters-in-law would be welcomed into the Mannion clan. Between them Pop Mannion and his brother and sister married off five sons and six daughters, and while, purely by chance, I’m sure, all three of Uncle Bill and Aunt Dorothy’s sons-in-law (and as of last summer their grandson-in-law) are Yankee fans, all that was expected of anyone marrying into the family was that they be able to tolerate long and raucous discussions of politics and sports. And it’s not a liberals only need apply situation either. My sister Linda’s husband Les is a Texas Ranger fan and a Republican and we love him all the more for it. Spices up the conversation. If they enjoyed joining in, as the blonde does, all for the good, but it’s not a requirement. I do have to say, though, that being able to hold one’s own with Uncle Bill was considered a major plus all around. Which brings me to Zoilo Versalles.
At the wedding of my other sister, Laura, and her husband Lenny, Lenny found himself cornered by Pop Mannion, Uncle Jim, and Uncle Bill, and Uncle Bill started the test.
“Len,” Uncle Bill asked him, “Don’t you think Scooter belongs in the Hall of Fame?”
Len, God love him, didn’t.
Uncle Bill launched into his arguments. Point by point, Len refuted him. Then Uncle Bill reached for his trump card.
“Scooter was MVP!”
Len said, “So was Zoilo Versalles.”
Who he? you ask.
Zoilo Versalles played shortstop for several teams between 1959 and 1971, but he spent the bulk of his career with the Minnesota Twins. He hit .242 lifetime with 95 home runs and 471 runs batted in, but in 1965, a year the Twins went to the World Series (and lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers) he hit .273 and led the league in doubles (45) and triples (12) while also hitting 19 home runs. I’m not sure why the sportswriters thought Versalles was more valuable to the Twins’ pennant drive than Tony Olivia or Harmon Killebrew, but there it is. The point is that having been named MVP in 1950 didn’t nail it down for Rizzuto. It only gave him something in common with a shortstop no one was ever going to mistake for the second coming of Honus Wagner. But the trick was that no one but the most obsessive Twins fan or a relative or, and this is key, longtime Dodgers fans who still can’t believe Los Angeles’ management thought Versalles would make a good replacement for Maury Wills is likely to have Versalles’ name on the tip of his tongue.
“But Scooter was MVP!” Uncle Bill said.
“So was Zoilo Versalles,” Len replied coolly.
Uncle Bill’s eyes goggled and he staggered backwards a step or two.
Uncle Jim, the Dodger fan, turned to his brother, Pop Mannion, the other Dodger fan, and, nodding approvingly at Len, said to Pop, “He’s in.”
Scooter’s in now, too. The Old Timers voted him in in 1994.
For Uncle Bill and Len. Photo of the Scooter during his playing days courtesy of the New York Times. Photo of Rizzuto’s plaque in the Hall of Fame by yours truly, taken Saturday on our visit to Cooperstown.
A book that should be in the personal library of every Yankee fan and every baseball fan: O Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto edited by Tom Peyer and Hart Seely.