NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- The first twittering robin of spring arrived the other day, and made me eager for baseball, warm evenings with familiar voices chirping over the airwaves. The mail brought me the spring catalogue of the Ecco Press, a classy little publishing house in Hopewell, N.J.
You do not read an Ecco catalogue; you peruse it. There was the latest collection of Joyce Carol Oates short stories, and not a moment too soon. There was Italo Calvino. There was Joseph Conrad. There was Dante. And there was Phil Rizzuto.
Yes, Phil Rizzuto. America's favorite daffy uncle. The one who has been babbling on Yankees games on WPIX-TV for four decades. The greatest shortstop not in the Hall of Fame. That Phil Rizzuto.
It is a modest little tome called "O Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto," edited by Tom Peyer and Hart Seely. And I am here to tell you, don't snicker until you have read a sample titled, "Field of Butterflies": Absolutely!
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.
Isn't that sweet? If you heard Rizzuto babble this, your first impulse would be, "Why don't they get somebody who can speak in sentences?" but in print it makes a weird kind of sense. This adds a frightening dimension to broadcasting. Must we now re-examine the inane rhymes and grandiose polysyllables of Walt "Clyde" Frazier? Must we listen to Dick Vitale for hidden depth?
Hart Seely, a reporter for The Syracuse Herald-Journal, used to insist in bars that Rizzuto was actually speaking in poetry. Nobody believed him except his buddy, Tom Peyer, who edits comic books. Pretty soon, they were submitting the latest Rizzuto-isms to The Village Voice, and then they were listening to old Rizzuto tapes, discovering certain Homeric and Miltonian tendencies in Yankees history.
"Rizzuto couldn't work the first game after Thurman Munson's funeral," Seely recalled. "But we had a tape of the pre-game show, it was a bad tape, all squeaky, and as I was writing it down, I thought to myself, 'Seely, you're losing it.' "
The tapes disclosed a poignant Prayer for the Captain, which ends:
Faith. You gotta have faith.
You know, they say time heals all wounds,
And I don't quite agree with that a hundred percent.
It gets you to cope with wounds.
You carry them the rest of your life.
There is also a haunting poem titled "The Man in the Moon," in which Rizzuto sees the image of Captain Munson in the full moon over Yankee Stadium. And there are poems from the Bucky Dent game, Roger Maris' 61st home run, George Brett's pine-tar-bat episode, in which Rizzuto seems, dare one say it, almost relevant.
"In those big games, he doesn't digress," Seely said. "But baseball on television, let's be honest, isn't all that complex. If he's talking about something else, movies or cannolis, I don't think it's all that bad."
The essential Phil Rizzuto is digression. WPIX-TV broadcasts only 40 games a year, and Rizzuto beats it over the bridge to Jersey after the sixth inning, but he crowds it all into 240 innings: birthday greetings, movie reviews, golf tips, war memories, frequent psychosomatic broodings, and fearsome predictions of rain, sleet, snow, thunder, lightning, tornados and waterspouts. It is amazing that this nervous little gent was ever able to stand at home plate and drop a perfect squeeze bunt with Henrich or Yogi bearing down on him.
"That's wacky," Rizzuto said when he was asked for permission to publish his poetry. But the authors are giving all the proceeds to charity, and so is he. "It's hard to get the poetry in it," Rizzuto insisted, "but if you give somebody a laugh in this day and age, it's worth it."
To get the in-jokes, you must understand that Rizzuto does not spend much time watching the field, that he relies on the visual and mental strength of younger former players like Bill White and Tom Seaver. White used to poke Rizzuto when the Scooter was about to get himself into trouble, "but that Seaver, what a huckleberry, he just lets me keep talking while he laughs at me."
Rizzuto leans on them the way George Burns always leaned on Gracie Allen. They become his punch line. Take the poem "These Heaters," about pressbox heaters in April:
They're no good.
Because at my height
It goes over my head
And hits the guys in back of me.
I mean . . .
They were not built,
These heaters were not built
For normal human beings.
They were built for people like Seaver.
After reading the selected poetry of the Scooter, I am firmly convinced that nothing, nothing, ever goes over his head. With newfound awe, I am ready for the sound of his voice.