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Richmond Hill park renamed to honor Phil Rizzuto

The Richmond Hill park where a young Phil Rizzuto started out on his dream to play Major League Baseball was renamed in honor of the New York Yankees Hall of Fame shortstop Friday.

More than a dozen of Rizzuto's family members, including his widow Cora Rizzuto, attended the renaming as Smokey Oval Park was changed to Phil "Scooter" Rizzuto Park.

Rizzuto — who was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Glendale and played baseball at Richmond Hill High School — died last year in his sleep at a New Jersey assisted-living facility. He was 89.

"It's very touching because this is where he started it as a young boy," said Cora Rizzuto after she kissed her hand and placed it on the park plaque bearing her husband's name. "This park gave him incentive to go forward" to become a professional baseball player.

The park, where Rizzuto participated in Little League, had been known as Smokey Oval since it opened in 1938, but was officially given that name in 1987.

Richmond Hill's Sikh community told state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) that they objected to the name because their religion prohibits smoking, according to the elected official, who helped usher in the renaming along with Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski.

"Phil Rizzuto was a great baseball player," the assemblyman said. "The life and examples he set is so worthy of this honor."

One of the Sikhs who pushed for the name change, Raghbir Singh, said the renaming gives hope to youth in Richmond Hill.

"You never know who will be a star from this area," he said. "This area should be proud of him."

Rizzuto, known as "Scooter" for the way he ran bases, was voted the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1950, the sport's highest individual honor for a season. He was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994 and played his entire 13-year career with the Yankees.

His career, which started in 1942, was interrupted in the 1944 and 1945 seasons when he served in the Navy during World War II.

Paul Esatto, Rizzuto's nephew, said his uncle was intent on becoming a baseball star from his youth and wrote a note to himself in his elementary school yearbook.

"Dear Phil, See you in the Major Leagues. Signed, Phil," the note said.

"I heard all he did from 3 years old was carry a bat," said Rizzuto's niece, Mary Greco. "That's why he was so determined."

As a television and radio broadcaster for the team after he retired in 1956, Rizzuto was known for his signature catchphrase "Holy cow!" after a standout play.

Rizzuto also made a name for himself outside of baseball and broadcasting, serving as a spokesman for The Money Store and recording a play-by-play for musician Meat Loaf's single "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights."

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.

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