A BRIEF REIGN
Ill can he rule the great, that cannot reach the small.
The Faerie Queene
Those words, from one of A. Bartlett Giamatti's favorite works of literature, say a great deal about the promise he held as baseball's commissioner. Giamatti was able to reach the small, the fan, of the game precisely because he was, first and foremost, a fan. He was not the owners' commissioner, he was not the accountants' commissioner, he was baseball's commissioner, and the responsibility he felt to his position came from his abiding love of the game.
Last Friday afternoon the 51-year-old Giamatti died of a heart attack at his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. His death came only nine days after he had announced a lifetime suspension for Pete Rose and only five months after he had assumed the office of commissioner. Giamatti had brought baseball through a difficult period and, in the process, strengthened its integrity.
Those in the game who knew him will miss him, not only because of his personality and intellect, but also because of the possibilities of his stewardship. Said Baltimore Oriole president Larry Lucchino, "To quote Edward Bennett Williams, 'He got to the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end.' He would have been a great commissioner." St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, who had a close relationship with Giamatti, said, "For being book smart, he had an awful lot of street smarts. He would have been an outstanding commissioner."
The night before he died, Giamatti called Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, a close friend. "We just talked baseball for an hour," Selig told SI's Peter Gammons. "At one point the name Al Zarilla came up in the conversation, and Bart said, 'You know, Zeke Zarilla is what being a baseball fan is all about.' " Zarilla was an outfielder and folk hero in Boston in the 1950s.
Giamatti grew up a passionate Red Sox fan in South Hadley, Mass., and even as an English professor at Yale, and later as the president of Yale, he wore that ardor on his sleeve. In June 1986 he was elected president of the National League, but that October he found his beloved Red Sox in the World Series against the New York Mets. As Gammons recalls, "I rode down with him in the elevator after Game 6, and he was livid. Here was the National League president swearing at [ Boston manager] John McNamara and saying, 'How could he leave Buckner in the game?' "
Giamatti never let his allegiance color his decisions. In his two years as NL president and half a year as commissioner, he sought to improve the game on almost every level. He cracked down on players who doctored baseballs. He punished Rose for bumping an umpire, and then barred him for life for his gambling activities. Even Giamatti's ill-advised attempt to revise the balk rule came out of a sense of higher purpose.
Yet he always had the fan in mind. He once wrote: "If you cannot park and be sure you or your car will be safe; or if you are ignored by ushers or unable to find a decent or thug-free rest room; or if you cannot watch a contest free from the constant assault of obscene language or a mindlessly insistent scoreboard, seemingly run by people who dare not let the contest speak for itself; or if your child cannot watch without passively ingesting marijuana clouds; or if there are fights in the stands and on the field or arena of play that subtly and insidiously fuel and feed off each other—then you begin to wonder why you came."
Deputy commissioner Fay Vincent was appointed interim commissioner on Saturday and appears the likely successor to Giamatti. The next commissioner must face the end of the collective bargaining agreement with the players and a possible strike or lockout next spring. It is a challenge to which Giamatti appeared equal.
Whoever the next commissioner is, he might keep in mind these words from Dante, another of Giamatti's favorites: "All men whom the higher Nature has imbued with a love of truth should feel impelled to work for the benefit of future generations, whom they will thereby enrich just as they themselves have been enriched by the labours of their ancestors."