An Orioles' fan in principio et nunc et semper, I reached the age of reason during the hegemony of the New York Yankees in the 1950s: a decade in which the Bronx Bombers took the American League guidon year in and year out, with the exceptions of 1954 (which gave rise to Hadley Arkes' immortal mnemonic: “I can always remember when St. Augustine was born; it was 1,600 years before the Indians won their last pennant”) and 1959. This annual experience of powerlessness in my formative years might in a more violent era have inclined me to anarcho-syndicalism. But amidst the placid Eisenhower prosperity, it led only to an intense loathing of the pinstriped fiends that brought me close to meltdown in 1960: the year that a bunch of Baltimore rookies (the “Baby Birds and their Incubator Infield,” as the Sun put it) led the American League on Labor Day—only to drop four straight in the House That Ruth Built later in September, as Mantle, Maris, Moose Skowron, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, Yogi, and all the rest ground inexorably toward yet another World Series appearance.
This kind of thing tends to singe one's soul. And thus it took a long time before I could admit any Yankee fan into the company of my friends. (The ecumenism of my meridian years, considered empirically, required less of a conversion than might be imagined. One runs into all sorts of people as one edges ever farther from the homestead; merely to find a Yankee fan in the Baltimore of my youth was as improbable as finding a Republican.) Still, I cannot shake the preternatural intuition that to root for the Yankees is unseemly, unrighteous, even vaguely obscene: something like rooting for the Italians during the Abyssinian War. Steinbrenner's pontificate, the pure type of the degeneration of baseball from epic to circus, has not made me any more forbearing: even to so coarsened a sensibility as that of your typical Yankee fan, the descent from DiMaggio to Reggie must surely be regarded as a frightening example of moral and cultural decline. And so my ancient animosity endures.
But I am weakening.
And it's all the Scooter's fault.
For the catechumens: Phil Rizzuto—“The Scooter”—was the Yankee shortstop from 1941 to 1956, the Bronx's answer to Brooklyn legend Pee Wee Reese. (Whether Rizzuto belongs with Reese in the Hall of Fame is a subject only slightly less controverted than the filioque.) In the early 1960s, the Scooter began doing Yankee broadcasts on radio and television. But what in the world was Phil—for whom the elementary rules of English grammar and syntax are as foreign as the semiotics of Ugaritic—saying?
Turns out he was saying poetry.
At least that's what two geniuses, Hart Seely and Tom Peyer, discovered when they took some tapes of Rizzuto's broadcasts and transcribed them as free verse. Moreover, O Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto proves what many of us had long suspected: that no man could spend fifteen years in the majors—at least in the days before Barry Bonds' earring and $7 million annual contract—without developing a certain depth of moral insight, of the sort associated with absorbing losses and playing in pain.
Thus the Scooter's off-the-cuff “Prayer for the Captain” (as Seely and Peyer style it), ad-libbed during the pregame show on August 3, 1979, shortly after Yankee catcher Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash:
There's a little prayer I always say
Whenever I think of my family or when I'm flying,
When I'm afraid, and I am afraid of flying.
It's just a little one. You can say it no matter what,
Whether you're Catholic or Jewish or Protestant or whatever.
And I've probably said it a thousand times
Since I heard the news on Thurman Munson.
It's not trying to be maudlin or anything.
His Eminence, Cardinal Cooke, is going to come out
And say a little prayer for Thurman Munson.
But this is just a little one I say time and time again,
It's just: Angel of God, Thurman's guardian dear,
To whom his love commits him here there or everywhere,
Ever this night and day be at his side,
To light and guard, to rule and guide.
For some reason it makes me feel like I'm talking to Thurman,
Or whoever's name you put in there,
Whether it be my wife or any of my children, my parents or anything.
It's just something to keep you really from going bananas.
Because if you let this,
If you keep thinking about what happened, and you can't understand it,
That's what really drives you to despair.
Faith. You gotta have faith.
You know, they say time heals all wounds,
And I don't agree with that a hundred percent.
It gets you to cope with wounds.
You carry them the rest of your life.
Then there is Rizzuto's paean to the paschal joys of a fresh start, declaimed into the microphone during the first inning of Opening Day, 1991:
If you don't get a little,
A few butterflies,
No matter what you do,
On the first day of anything,
You're not human.
The season, like life, unfolds, and paths diverge in the woods. But the Scooter, an Italo-American Frost, knows that no options means no humanity; thus Rizzuto, before the last game of the 1976 playoff between the Yankees and the Royals:
All right this is it,
The whole season coming down
To just one ball game,
And every mistake will be magnified,
And every great play will be magnified,
And it's a tough night for the players,
I'll tell ya.
I know last night,
Being in the same situation many times
With the great Yankee teams of the past,
You stay awake,
And you dream,
And you think of what might be,
If you are the hero or the goat.
Rizzuto as poet occasionally probes the outer limits of postmodernism, as in the closing line of “DiMaggio's Bat”.
The wood . . .
You couldn't chip that bat.
That's the way DiMaggio's wood was on the bats.
He would ask for that type of wood.
Being an old fisherman
He knew about the trees.
But then he returns, easily and without seeming to press the matter, to the casuistry of the confessional that he learned as a boy:
And he hits one in the hole
They're gonna have to hurry.
They'll never get him!
They got him.
How do you like that.
I changed my mind before he got there.
So that doesn't count as an error.
The author of “Prayer for the Captain” is, clearly, no Panglossian optimist. And yet for someone who, if he hasn't seen it all, has seen a lot of it, Phil Rizzuto has somehow retained the kind of childlike wonder at creation that characterized the spirituality of his countryman, Francis of Assisi. Thus “Squirrels”:
In the backyard we got a lot of trees.
In our home I've watched them leap
From limb to limb.
Did you ever get one in your attic?
They're not too cute
When they get in your attic.
I'll tell you that.
I would not harm a squirrel.
I don't want to get those animal lovers . . .
I got them in my attic.
No, I got,
But I got a squirrel cage
And trapped them in the cage
Then took them out in the woods
Over by Yogi's house
And dropped them off.
This is, by all accounts, baseball's season of discontent. Storm clouds of foreboding hang over the national pastime: idiotic and arrogant owners, greedy and arrogant players, no leadership, lunatic economics, flagging fan interest. The owner/player confrontations may even conspire to produce a 1994 in which no major league baseball is played: an iniquity beyond the combined talents of Hitler and Tojo. But amidst all this tsouris, there is the game: this lyrical game, this intensely human game, this clock-free preview of time-beyond-time. And there are the stories, passed from friend to friend and generation to generation. And there is the ongoing interface of the game and life: because there are people like the Scooter who have the soul to know that neither life nor the game is just a game.
Me, writing something nice about a Yankee great.
George Weigel is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and the author of The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism (Oxford). O Holy Cow! is available from the Ecco Press. Phil Rizzuto is donating his royalties to a variety of children's charities.