Commissioner is a calling in a structure that has a secular religious quality. You're given extraordinary powers a/id faith, but you should only use them when it's really warranted.
Little Bart Giamatti got his first baseball glove in Rome in 1947, a gift from a visiting American, and it isn't hard to imagine how the little paesano soon arrived on democracy's shores, clutching the fielder's mitt to his breast. Or how, four decades later, that plucky immigrant lad would rise to become the commander of America's national pastime.
But truth is often blander than fiction, and it wasn't quite that way. The reason little Bart was in Rome was that his father, Valentine Giamatti, distinguished professor of Italian language and literature at Mount Holyoke College, was abroad on sabbatical. Professor Giamatti negotiated for the glove with a U.S. Army sergeant in the occupation force and gave it to his son. The elder Giamatti, a native of New Haven, was himself a Yale man and had married a daughter of Bartlett Walton. In many respects, in his own ethnic league, Bartlett Giamatti recalls Harry Golden's remark about Barry Goldwater in 1964: "Wouldn't you know—at last we get a Jew to run for president, and he turns out to be Episcopalian."
Young Bart talked as much about Dante as about Johnny Pesky at the family dinner table and then went to Andover and Yale. He was pledged to Scroll & Key, one of Old Eli's most secret societies; he graduated magna cum laude in 1960 and remained in New Haven to receive his doctorate, in '64. Except for a brief interlude on the faculty at Princeton, he would abide in the bosom of Yale from '56 until he resigned as the school's president in June of '86 to return to teaching, only to have the National League beckon him.
His selection in 1978 as the 19th president of America's third-oldest college was an unexpected—some would even say, whimsical—choice. Indeed, when his name, which he pronounces Ja-MOD-ee, first bubbled up for consideration, the irreverent Giamatti himself tossed off the wisecrack: "All I ever wanted to be president of was the American League." Among offhand remarks in the world of sports, perhaps only Muhammad Ali's "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong" was to carry more lasting consequence. With Giamatti's quip, baseball executives discovered the scholar-fan, and in the years that followed they remained charmed by the bearded college president who seemed to pose in his Red Sox cap more often than anyone save Jean Yawkey.
While Giamatti says that his official arrival in baseball was greeted by no less than "radical skepticism," his appointment at Yale may have been a more puzzling, even exotic, choice. However much he was an insider in New Haven, Giamatti was called to lead a university that had been fiscally wounded by a recession brought on by an OPEC embargo and was hemorrhaging endowment funds, running a large deficit and facing cutbacks both substantive and symbolic. Beyond that, on the horizon was the threat of a strike by clerical workers. Whatever the 40-year-old president's evident merits, he had no experience in either finance or labor negotiations.
Any analysis of Giamatti's presidency at Yale must begin by stating that he didn't govern as was generally predicted, which should give caution to those now issuing scouting reports on the new commissioner. He's credited with picking subordinates who complemented him, especially those who possessed more of a business background—just as his first major decision as commissioner-elect was to hire baseball's first deputy commissioner, Fay Vincent, a good friend and a lawyer (Yale Law School), who has been running Columbia Pictures for the last decade. At the same time, Giamatti astonished Yale associates with the grasp he displayed of numbers, and the proof of that is in the pudding: During his eight-year tenure, endowment and alumni giving both doubled.
Also, the admissions office had the wisdom to accept the application of Ronald Maurice Darling for the Class of '82.
Giamatti did sustain some criticism for getting too wrapped up in detail and for being unable to either emotionally or physically detach himself from the job. "He even felt he had to respond to all the mail," says Georges May, a professor of French who served as Giamatti's provost for two years, "and that in itself is suicidal."
One day, for example, a letter came in from a seventh-grader, Kempton Dunn of New Canaan, Conn., who wanted to know why Yale's president thought it was important to study the dead language of Latin. Giamatti took pains to write a lengthy reply, which concluded: "We study Latin because without it we cannot know our history and our heritage. And without that knowledge, we cannot know ourselves. Nosce teipsum [know thyself], brave Dunn."