by Phil Rizzuto
Edited by Tom Peyer and Hart Seeley
First Edition: The Ecco Press 1993
Reviewed by John Deming
It is true that, by their nature, organized sports serve as a constant assertion that there is a very real difference between winning and losing. It is true that there are those who take this lesson too seriously. But sports, especially professional sports, can also provide what the arts can provide: the absence of confusion, the presence of order. Each game represents, to borrow a line from John Ashbery, “the perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose”: the game will be played to its conclusion. Somebody will win. At season’s end, somebody will win it all.
It is transitory order, but order all the same. Over a period of three or four hours, the sports fan lives a whole life: there is success, there is failure, there is the always mutating ratio of ability to effort to luck – and in the end, there is a clear determination as to whether you, the follower, are damned or redeemed. The first pitch in a baseball game, then, is the enactment of form against time; something has to happen by the end. Oceanic swells of calm and chaos ensue, and a viewer feels, to quote a B.H. Fairchild poem, “the wide wings of the present tense.” Sports broadcasters – with their excruciating know-it-allism, insularity and bugaboo lexicon – are charged with stitching order throughout the affair, and negotiating a truce between the game and the outside world.
Enter Phil Rizzuto, nickname Scooter, who played shortstop for the New York Yankees from 1941 to 1956. He won seven World Series titles in his tenure, and never played for any other team. He became a broadcaster fairly quickly upon leaving the Yankees, and kept it up for four decades. He was quaint, quirky and likeable. His catch phrase was “holy cow”; players who disappointed him were “huckleberries.” He unabashedly rooted for the home team, and invented the scoring notation “WW” for “wasn’t watching.” Rizzuto was a character who misread Teleprompters, who reportedly left games early when he heard thunder because he had a tremendous phobia about lightning.
All the while, it seems he lived in the game as equally as he lived in the abstractions he perceived around it and around him. Holy Cow!: the Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto demonstrates a broadcaster who speaks from the very center of the present tense. The “verses,” if you’ll call them that, are comments that Rizzuto made to fellow broadcasters during games. They are “found” poems, in this sense, and are broken into lines and titled by editors Tom Peyer and Hart Seeley. Here is “Doom Balloon” in its entirety:
Another balloon coming our way,
Must be a downdraft
THAT SON OF GUN’S COMING RIGHT—
Rizzuto uttered these words on August 14, 1992 at Chicago with Alex Hernandez pitching to Charlie Hayes in the third inning, two outs, bases empty, White Sox leading 1-0. I know this because each verse is fitted at the end with a game-time scenario indicating what was happening while it was spoken. Reading one of these game-time scenarios is something like looking at a photo from your third grade best friend’s birthday party – it mattered then. But each also has the potential to equalize past and present with the sudden reminder that every game will vanish as such. The balloon is coincidental, but it also an invasion. Somewhere beyond the confines of the game, there is menace – there is doom, there is the absolute certainty of death and suffering. But now, there is the game, which means the perpetuation of possibility.
So, clearly Rizzuto’s is a baseball-centered universe. The game is constant, like light. Rizzuto focuses on literal events as they take place, but also uses the game’s continuity as a platform for distraction. Baseball is a game of tempered and immediate rhythm; the stasis it provides is a given, so Rizzuto is free to think aloud – to associate stored bits of thought and experience, and allow them to float above the game itself, much in the way that characters in a novel begin to float above an entire ocean as one reads on the beach.
It is as though the occurrence of thought during a game is in the same arena, and is a serviceable a matter to discuss as an event in the game itself, because each takes place within the same dimension. No topic is off limits, because it blossomed from the static unfolding of the game; “Very Frustrated” is about fast food:
I tell ya,
I tried that new McLean burger.
my cholesterol is very high.
That his McLean burger couldn’t possibly have been good, let alone very good, is beside the point. The atmosphere permits the confession about his cholesterol; the thought could’ve been internalized, but is externalized, because – why not. In the verse “Concord,” the Yankees are “at Boston” in September 1991. Rizzuto riffs on local culture, specifically Henry David Thoreau’s old town, Concord, MA:
Everything is named Walden up there.
Great great poet.
Another one . . .
I gotta think of the other one up the –
Another great poet that they . . .
It really is beautiful country.
I could very easily move up there.
Thoreau, the author of Walden, was a terrific essayist and mediocre poet. But the point is that Rizzuto shows no need to internalize any thought. Everything is relevant; the game has ripened time, made it lateral and encouraged the swift blossom of association. It doesn’t matter that a moment later, Rizzuto realizes that the other “great poet” he had been thinking of is actually from Greenwich, CT, not Concord: “But I don’t have enough money / To move up to Greenwich. / So I might move up to Concord.” Phil, we all know you aren’t moving anywhere.
Sometimes, he doesn’t know why he’s saying what he’s saying; in “Hall and Nokes,” – a reference to Yankees Mel Hall and Matt Nokes – he says the names paired sound “like a good rock group.” He’s reminded that there is a group with that kind of name, and that the group is called “Hall and Oates.” He replies, “Oh yeah? / That’s one I missed. / I’ll have to go out and buy some of their records tonight.” Why?
Sometimes he loses track of what he’s saying. He begins “Go Ahead, Seaver” with a story: “You know, / Some kid wrote me a letter.” He gets distracted; the verse finishes, “I was gonna tell you something, / But I forgot what it was. / Go ahead.” The initial thought evaporates, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s not his thought right now.
In truth, much of this book reads like sports broadcasting; to that end, the line breaks often dramatize what amount to fairly benign observations. But plenty of these verses proffer the same ball field tranquility that rallies millions around the game. By tranquility, I mean a resetting of value that exists between the first pitch and final out. I realize that many sports fans are far from “tranquil” in their actions during games, and that a game can at times become a bizarre forum for misplaced anger in the way that, for Rizzuto, it becomes a bizarre forum for misplaced wonder.
But maybe that anger has more to do with the misplaced concept that the world will be worse – unfair, even – if the team loses. It is true that in sports, winning is essential and provides a necessary premise for the game to exist at all (it had to be for something, right?). I attended 11 New York Yankees games this year; if I weren’t working further uptown today, I would have gone down to the ticker tape parade up Broadway. But what’s nice about the game-time scenarios at the bottom of each Rizzuto verse – and about the verses themselves – is that they emphasize process: the communal process of the game, not its necessary end. The presence of one’s life being lived, not constant terror at things that might go wrong as you press towards an inevitable, and likely painful, death, as well as those of everyone you care about. The game itself is ecstasy; winning is merely a waking dream. Things fall apart, and this year, like the last, and the one before that, will end, Rizzuto laments in a verse named for a line by Yeats, “Mere Anarchy in Loosed Upon the World”:
I tell ya.
And pretty soon
It’ll be hockey
And then basketball.
And then baseball
Be going on.
And it’ll be
Everyone manufactures methods for measuring time. The easiest way to dismiss sports, or any measure of devotion to them, is to regard that the sense of “order” I’ve described is wholly imagined. That if one does not play for the New York Yankees, hinging any measure of one’s mood on them barely short of stupid, and that the whole thing is a charade: the players, even the owners, are seldom natives of that town. But the important thing to consider is not that the sense of order a ballgame provides is diminished by the fact that it is manufactured; it’s that any measure of order exists because of our ability to manufacture it.