Giamatti, A(ngelo) Bartlett ("Bart")
GIAMATTI, A(ngelo) Bartlett ("Bart")
(b. 4 April 1938 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 1 September 1989 in Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts), president of Yale University, president of baseball's National League, and commissioner of Major League Baseball for five months before suffering a fatal heart attack; he is recognized by many as the game's poet laureate and the ultimate protector of its integrity.
One of the three children of Mount Holyoke College literature and Italian language professor Valentine Giamatti and Mary Claybaugh Walton Giamatti, Giamatti grew up in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where he learned to love Dante, the art of conversation, and the Boston Red Sox. Val Giamatti was the most influential person in his son's life, teaching him the joys of literature, scholarship, and baseball. Unfortunately, he also smoked four packs of cigarettes a day—and his son would grow up to do the same.
As a boy, Giamatti possessed no real baseball playing skills. He felt such a deep passion for the game, however, that his high school coach made a place for him on the squad as the team's manager. This allowed him to demonstrate his organizational skills as a baseball administrator for the first time.
After graduating from Andover, Giamatti entered Yale College in 1956. He became an academic and social star, the close friend of classmate Dick Cavett (who later became a television celebrity), and the recipient of a student's highest honor, being chosen to give the class oration at his 1960 graduation. In that speech, which set the tone for the rest of his life, Giamatti encouraged his peers to be "creative and humane men in society. Let us not seek always a sedative, in one form or another, for what ails us, but let us seek a cure."
Giamatti received his doctorate in comparative literature from Yale in 1964, choosing for his dissertation thesis the role of the garden in Renaissance literature. (Years later he would proclaim the baseball field America's most important "garden.") He began his teaching career at Princeton University, returning to Yale in 1966. His theatrical presentation style, passion for learning, and ability to draw parallels from Renaissance literature to contemporary American life soon electrified the campus. A former student observed that Giamatti "read Dante's original Italian as a maestro reads music—with love."
Before reaching his fortieth birthday, Giamatti was named the nineteenth president of Yale University. Never bashful about his idealism, on his first day in office he issued a memo to the entire Yale community, stating that "henceforth, as a matter of university policy, evil is abolished and paradise is restored. I trust all of us will do whatever possible to achieve this policy objective." But he also told his colleagues, "All I ever wanted to be president of was the American League."
During his eight years at Yale's helm, Giamatti imposed a balanced budget on the university, made significant inroads in restoring the campus's physical plant, proved himself a major-league fund-raiser, and began to raise his national baseball profile. His passion for the Boston Red Sox asserted itself even in his contract negotiations, when he demanded that the university install cable television into his residence so he could watch more ball games. Walking around the campus, he wore his Red Sox cap and jacket. Most important, he started publishing articles about the national pastime.
First came his classic essay "The Green Fields of the Mind," a paean to baseball published in the Yale Alumni Magazine shortly after Giamatti was named president. Next came a prize-winning article in Harper's Magazine, where Giamatti expressed his outrage that the New York Mets had traded star pitcher Tom Seaver to Cincinnati. Finally, when major league players went on strike in 1981, he wrote a New York Times editorial blasting everyone involved: "The people of America care about baseball, not about your squalid little squabbles." By 1983 Giamatti was on the short list of candidates for commissioner. Pressured by high-powered Yale alumni, however, he withdrew his name from consideration, and Peter Ueberroth, after his highly acclaimed leadership of the 1984 Olympics, was chosen instead.
When baseball's leaders offered Giamatti the presidency of the National League in 1986, however, he said yes. At the press conference announcing his acceptance of the job, Giamatti justified his decision in the context of his academic background, saying, "Men of letters have always gravitated to sports. I've always found baseball the most satisfying and nourishing pursuit outside literature."
From his first day as league president to his final days as commissioner, Giamatti believed that he had only one real constituency—the fan—and one goal—to make sure the integrity of the game remained pure. When the Cincinnati skipper Pete Rose pushed the umpire Dave Pallone in a game, Rose was suspended for thirty days and fined $10,000. When Billy Hatcher of the Astros got caught with a corked bat, and the Dodgers' Jay Howell and the Phillies' Kevin Gross put pine tar on and sandpaper in their respective gloves, Giamatti imposed the stiffest penalties ever assessed for such acts of cheating.
Ueberroth stepped down three years later, and Giamatti became the game's seventh commissioner. His brief tenure was most notable for his handling of the scandal surrounding allegations that Reds manager Rose had bet on baseball. The dispute, which went to court, was a sensation in the media. Finally, on 24 August 1989 a settlement was reached. Although the agreement failed to specify that the Cincinnati legend had definitively wagered on the game, it did provide that Rose be banished from baseball for life. He would, however, eventually be able to petition for reinstatement. In announcing the agreement, Commissioner Giamatti displayed his passion for integrity, saying, "The matter of Mr. Rose is now closed. It will be debated and discussed. Let no one think that it did not hurt baseball. That hurt will pass, however, as the great glory of the game asserts itself and a resilient institution goes forward. Let it also be clear that no individual is superior to the game."
Exactly one week later, while preparing for a Labor Day weekend at his Martha's Vineyard home, Giamatti suffered a massive heart attack and died at the age of fifty-one. He is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut, and is survived by his wife, Toni, and their three children.
Immediately following his death, tributes rang out. The most memorable observation published throughout the media came from Roger Angell of the New Yorker. In researching an exhaustive article about Giamatti in 1988, the journalist came across his subject's own words from a book Exile and Change in Renaissance Literature written years ago by the then Yale professor to describe a fifteenth-century Italian poet named Matteo Boiardo. Angell determined that in summarizing the essence of Boiardo, Giamatti had probably been trying to make a statement about his own personal quest. The similarities between the poet and the baseball executive following in his footsteps five centuries later captivated Angell, and, in the aftermath of his sudden death, now rang true for the late commissioner's millions of admirers. In this context, Roger Angell closed his article and defined the final legacy of A. Bartlett Giamatti:
Boiardo's deepest desire [is] to conserve something of purpose in a world of confusion. He knows that chivalry is an outmoded system, but he wants to keep something of its value, its respect for grace and noble behavior, even while he relinquishes its forms and structures. Boiardo wants to check the urge to dissolution … that time seems inevitably to embody. He does not want to turn back the clock and regain the old world, but he does want to recapture the sense of control of oneself, if nothing else, that marked life under the old system. He wants to be able to praise something other than the giddy headlong rush.
The most complete biography of Giamatti is James Reston, Jr., Collision at Home Plate: The Lives of Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti (1991). Probably the best compilation of the late commissioner's quotations on the game can be found in Anthony Valerio, Bart: A Life of A. Bartlett Giamatti, by Him and About Him (1991). The two leading articles about Giamatti are Roger Angell, "The Sporting Scene: Celebration," New Yorker (22 Aug. 1988), and Frank Deford, "A Gentleman and a Scholar," Sports Illustrated (17 Apr. 1989).