Of Dealmakers and Moralists: A Conversation with Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti
Originally published in the Summer of 1989, the former Yale President and Renaissance scholar looked back on education and ahead to the pleasures and pitfalls of the American Game.
Baseball has inspired a century’s worth of poetry and prose, from Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” to Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding to scads of memoirs from former players and managers and books tracing the history of America’s pastime. But few people have written as eloquently and lyrically about the game and its place in our national consciousness than A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale, one-time head of the National League, and, for 154 days, commissioner of Major League Baseball. (And, yes, father of actor Paul Giamatti.) “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart,” Giamatti begins "The Green Fields of the Mind.” “You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
What is spring without baseball? What is summer? We’re finding out this year, as the coronavirus pandemic upends all parts of our daily lives, sports included. Which is why in a season without baseball it’s especially invigorating to read this interview with Giamatti, originally published in the Spring 1989 issue of the College Board Review shortly after he took over as MLB commissioner on April 1, 1989. It also hits a melancholic note in retrospect, especially in the way writer and Review editor Paul Barry opens the piece. Giamatti, a heavy smoker, suffered a heart attack and died on September 1, 1989. He was commissioner for 154 days, by far the shortest tenure of any of the previous six office holders. (The three who have followed have also served far longer.)
A not-insignificant part of this interview finds Giamatti looking back on his career in education, sizing up where things are, and the challenges students, teachers, and families face—some of which still resonates today. But for anyone missing sports, this conversation with Giamatti is a rare opportunity to hear one of the most erudite champions of baseball wax rhapsodic about the game that might break your heart but can be counted on, each spring, to make it whole.
Commissioner of Baseball Bart Giamatti looks on the field during the 1989 season.
Someone has forgotten the cigarettes for "Mr. G." From offices high above Park Avenue, a secretary hurriedly runs out to the store. Soon after, I see him steal out of a conference room, quietly close the door behind him, and give me the sign. I join him in his comer office, and he lights up with a visible sigh of relief. "We're talking about the balk rule in there," he says with a shade of feigned weariness. "It looks like it's going to go on for a while."
Some might say that the man before me is an unlikely candidate for the post he has just assumed. A Renaissance scholar turned university president turned baseball executive, he is a kind of rumpled Odysseus whose journey has taken some breathtaking turns. But by all accounts, his latest move has been particularly dazzling. At age 51, after serving two years as president of baseball's National League, Angelo Bartlett Giamatti has become the commissioner of baseball and custodian of the national pastime.
It is an appointment that has drawn loud and hearty applause from nearly all quarters. Even Pete Rose (before his recent troubles), the ever-popular Cincinnati Reds manager, has nice things to say about the new "commish." Last year Giamatti slapped Rose with a 30-day suspension and a stiff fine for an umpire-bumping incident that caused a near-riot. "I think he'd make a great commissioner," Rose told The New York Times Magazine. "He's an intellectual from Yale, but he's very intelligent." [Editor’s note: On August 24, 1989, Giamatti made Rose “permanently ineligible” from baseball for betting on games while playing for and managing the Cincinnati Reds.]
So how is it that the man who once explicated the labyrinthine imagery of "The Divine Comedy" now finds himself, in one of his more public guises, peering skeptically into pitchers' gloves, searching for "foreign substances" such as sandpaper? For longtime observers, there is no contradiction. Mr. Giamatti has merely traded the texts of his two ruling passions, the life of education and the life of sport. Although at any given time he will be preoccupied with one, history suggests that he will continue to cast a critical and appreciative eye on the other.
A. Bartlett Giamatti was born into the world of academe—his father was a professor of Italian Language and Literature at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. It was there that he also came to baseball, much as any American boy might, in his free time after school and in summer. Later, as a young professor at Yale, he made a name for himself as a leading Renaissance scholar, publishing two books, The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic (1966) and Play of Double Senses: Spenser's Faerie Queene (1975). He also found time to write about sport, winning an award in 1977 for an article on pitching ace Tom Seaver that was published in Harper's.
In 1978, in a dramatic move, the trustees of Yale named him president of the university, the second youngest person ever to fill that post. He served for eight years, gaining a reputation as a skillful administrator and manager, bolstering endowment, shoring up a deteriorating physical plant, ending a protracted, rancorous labor dispute, and tightening curricular requirements.
But above all it was his vision, and his extraordinary rhetorical gifts for articulating it, that established him as a university leader of the first rank. He tirelessly championed the cause of liberal education, its value and purposes ("It has to be practical, self-fashioning, but not necessarily for a job"). He spoke up for great teaching (“that capacity to inspire people without breathing swamp gas on them, to breathe spirit into them so that what they breathe out is theirs"). And somehow, in all of this, he even managed to take on the Moral Majority ("these peddlers of coercion").
What surely recommended Giamatti to baseball's owners and executives were his administrative talents, his remarkable aplomb in dealing with the press, and his knowledge and love of the game. His ability to memorably communicate the latter was certainly not lost on the owners, who are clearly interested in winning new fans to the game. Further, in times of labor disputes and increasing unruliness and disorder at the ballparks, Giamatti's reputation as a tough negotiator and careful conservator of institutional traditions couldn't hurt.
But what motivated this man, who is so steeped in the academic culture, to run away with the circus, as it must have seemed to many of his colleagues? Giamatti explained it this way to New Yorker writer Roger Angell: "I'd worked up a line that went 'I'm almost fifty years old and I've just fallen in love and run away with a beautiful redhead with flashing eyes whose name is baseball.' My wife, who's a blonde, said to me, 'Why did she have to be a redhead?'"
It had been eight years since I first interviewed Giamatti early in his Yale presidency. I returned to talk with him on the occasion of the publication of his new book of essays, A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University (Norton). I wanted to hear his parting shots on the world of higher learning and what it was like moving from the ivy-covered halls to baseball's front office. But most of all, in the words of Mr. Angell, I wanted the opportunity once again of "listening to a lifetime .400 talker strut his stuff."
As you begin your tenure as baseball's commissioner, how would you describe the state of the American game? And I don't necessarily mean the balance sheets.
I think in many ways it's very, very healthy. I think its popularity has been increasing. I think it has that deep hold on the American soul and psyche that it's had for a long time. Its history lengthens. Its controversies become more and more piquant. It's clearly got labor problems and needs to resolve them. It's clearly got other social issues that afflict the larger society, such as matters of race or racism, and problems of substance abuse, whether alcohol or drugs. And others. We want to find better ways to make the park's environment agreeable and welcoming. But the fact that there are problems shouldn't surprise anybody. Overall, baseball's in good shape.
How do you think the new job will match up with your expectations?
My expectations are probably much more realistic now than they would have been if I hadn't been League President for two years. The commissioner has an overall responsibility for the integrity of the game and the power to decide ultimately what's in the game's best interest. But the fact is it's also an administrative job. And the two jobs tend to be more similar than they are dissimilar, despite either the methodology or the actual trappings. So it's clearly something that I'm looking forward to, it has a lot of issues in front of it, but it isn't a mystery in terms of how to go about it.
If being National League President is a prelude, what would you say is the most unexpected aspect of the job?
What strikes somebody from the outside coming into either the league presidency or, I suppose, in the commissioner's job, would be the intensity and the ubiquity of the press. Otherwise, while the context is very different from what I've done before, the actual issues—whether legal, financial, human, or labor-related —are not terribly different.
But the fact is that one is in a constantly, microscopically examined situation. And rightly so, because the game depends upon people writing about it, showing it, and talking about it. And those people who are in charge in one way or another—regardless of where you find them—are much more in touch on a daily basis with the press than any other position I've been in. There are very few jobs where that's going to be quite the case as it is here.
I'm sure people who sit in positions like yours can define their jobs to some extent, the way university presidents do.
It's not that different. The National League is a nonprofit 501 C association owned by its member and constituent clubs. It therefore has in it all the presenting symptoms of nonprofit administration.
That's an interesting point, because I don't think it's one that is very visible to the public.
No, it's not, but it's very familiar to me. You have multiple competing and dispersed constituencies. You have a lot more responsibility than actual authority. By and large, you work by suasion rather than by fiat, although there are occasions when in fact you can work by fiat. And you are essentially a facilitator of the competitive capacities of people who then you are obliged to maintain in a good order. It's not so different in some ways.
National League President Bart Giamatti meets with MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth in a circa 1986 photo.
As has happened with major league baseball, some of the public's grand illusions about colleges and universities have been peeling away in recent years, and somehow it all seems to be over money. If you talk to people about baseball, one of the first things they will remark on are the astronomical players' salaries. If you talk to them about colleges, there is great concern over the high cost of a college education. Do you see similarities?
Not really, because it seems to me that they are very different situations. I mean, college and university prices, as defined by tuition and room and board, go up slower than the general economy when it goes up, and they come down slower than the general economy when it comes down. So colleges and universities went up the inflationary curve of the late 1970s later than the rest of the economy, and they are coming down later. They tend to run about a point, to a point and a half ahead of most measures of inflation. Everybody thinks that inflation is 4 percent. Internally, colleges and universities are running about 5 to 6 percent. The price and the cost are not particularly well related. It's going to cost the university or college nearly 100 percent more than the price will ever be. It's hard to quantify, but that's the common conviction of most people.
So that's a whole world of issues that has been magnificently obscured on the one hand by former U.S. Secretary of Education Bennett raising the issues but not clarifying them, and on the other hand, by no one in the colleges and universities very clearly standing up and telling the American public and the Secretary what was going on.
But salaries in the entertainment industry, which includes professional sports, are functioning in a different kind of marketplace. While the common perception will be that American institutions seem to be costing more, or money is more at issue, or that they are less stable as institutions, and so forth, that's a whole different question.
In your new book the picture you paint of American colleges and universities is a somewhat unsettling one. If I could sum it up, I would put your argument this way: There has been a failure of leadership with respect to asserting vigorously and publicly the fundamental purposes and values of institutions of higher learning. Is that a fair summation?
That's a fair summation, yes.
Donna Shalala, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says that university presidents have become timid and weak, fearing to tread on the toes of their various constituencies. Do you agree with that?
Oh, I think there's a lot of truth in that, sure. Because presidents have been trained and have been explicitly charged with the "management" of their constituencies, as opposed to the leadership of the institution. And while you may say that's merely a semantic difference, the fact is that semantic differences are all the world. They tell you how people perceive what they're doing and how they go about doing it.
Because of the corporate and governmental models, and the privileged position that corporate management has as a mythology in this country, university presidents have been either told to act as if they were managers or they have been hired as managers and told to be college or university presidents. Management that is conceived of as neutralizing constituencies so they all don't scream at you at once is not really the act of leadership that these institutions historically and currently require. Obviously, you have to manage these institutions, but that shouldn't come as a big surprise to anybody. However, to define the job totally in those terms is to have forgotten that colleges and universities are not-for-profit corporations. They are not really governments, democracies, either. They are hierarchies whose model is something much older, and that is ecclesiastical, and whose ways were never meant to be as efficient as the marketplace, the way the capitalist marketplace can make things happen through competition.
Colleges and universities are not supposed to be as strenuously even-handed as Congress says it wants to be. They have to pick and choose. They are not supposed to be all things to all people. They are supposed to be as good as they can be at what they want to be. We have forgotten that core model.
I think the fundamental act of leadership in the university—which is a community that doesn't grow up except by patient accumulation and voluntary association—is rhetorical. After all, these are communities composed of people who read and write for a living. Therefore, historically, using the bully pulpit to articulate the institution's goals has been a primary act of leadership, not to require unanimity of assent, but to do quite the opposite. To set a direction and then spark the lively and yeasty debate that's supposed to be the nature of the place. That gets forgotten. And so college presidents get pummeled as a result. They construe themselves as another special interest, and they don't really know how to do that very well.
So university presidents have not been seizing the bully pulpit with respect to the important issues of the day?
Heavens, no! Not just the global issues. I'm not sure that anybody would have cared what I thought about nuclear arms, not having ever owned one or been around one. But there are many issues that are part of the natural purview of the educational mission of their institutions and about which university presidents ought to have a view. If they don't, then I'm not sure why they want the job.
I remember vividly the occasion of our first interview. We spoke shortly after you gave a speech denouncing the Moral Majority. Certainly, you saw that as an instance where higher education and the public interest intersected.
I was astonished at the reaction to that speech because it didn't seem to me that I was saying anything very remarkably different than what I had been saying before that. I was trying to define for our freshmen the nature of a liberal education, and it seemed to me I'd better explain what I don't think it is. The reaction, both journalistic and otherwise, didn't tell me whether it was a good speech or a bad speech or that I was right or wrong. It told me that there was an enormous hunger to have somebody talk about this issue. And I was quite taken aback by that. I began to wonder why, and out of that came a whole set of thoughts.
You also write about some of the lost connections between universities and their surrounding institutions. What are some examples?
Since the Second World War American institutions have been undergoing a great natural redefinition and reconfiguration. Patterns of American life and values and our view of the world have been radically altered by that cataclysmic experience. The family, as a result of the war, underwent tremendous change. Our nation's core institutions underwent tremendous changes. Courts, houses of worship, the values of the business community, all have changed dramatically. Our public-school systems—as a result of Brown v. Board of Education, if nothing else—have undergone tremendous change.
These are the institutions with which American higher education must interact. If they change, thoughtfully or thoughtlessly, and colleges and universities don't, then colleges and universities find themselves out of phase. Let's take an example.
The family is much less concerned than it used to be with its traditional structure. At the very moment that 75 percent of working mothers in this country with children under 13 are going to be working outside the home, the colleges decide they no longer wish to have a role in loco parentis. It's when the family perhaps would have begun to think that that was an appropriate role. Whether it is or not isn't my point.
The American public school, under tremendous assault, and asked to do myriad tasks by society—from teaching students how to drive, teaching them about their sexuality, to giving them lunch, to inoculating them, to teaching them skills and values, and maintaining order, etc. —has been cut adrift by the colleges for whom they are allegedly preparing people. Colleges have been less and less interactive with them, less and less attentive to their needs. They have failed to understand that, regardless of the fact that you have a primary school and secondary school, a middle school and a junior high school, and all these little locks in the canal, universal public education is supposed to offer the opportunity of pursuing higher education. Nobody mandates it, nor does it mean that everybody will go to the same college. Nor does it even mean that everybody is going to go to college. But our public policy and our ideal is that if someone wants to go to college, he or she ought to be able to.
Therefore, colleges should be thinking about their relationship with the public-school system. If there is a perceived crisis of values because of changes in the family or the role of the schools, then to some extent, the relationships colleges and universities have with either their sectarian origins or with churches and synagogues and other houses of worship, ought to be something they think about. I don't hear much of it. Is there a general educational philosophy that permeates undergraduate education? What relationship does it have to professional education or technical education or commercial education? You can't just take the model and assume that it's going to stay the same.
You use that nice phrase, "locks in the canal," and I think of that old-fashioned term, articulation. It's appropriate to speak of it here because the College Board's traditional interest, of course, is in students' transition from school to college. In your assessment, the problems we see in the public schools begin on the other side of the gap. You speak of it as a problem beginning in the colleges and the universities first, and then trickling down.
Yes, I suppose I have a trickle-down theory, and I know very well that that's a partial view. It's the view you get from somebody who didn't spend his life in the public-school system or in private secondary education, but rather at the college level. But the fact remains that I know very well that public, private, or independent secondary education in this country has always been whipsawed at the mercy of the changing fashions and fads—curricular and otherwise—of the colleges. Preparatory schools or public high schools who aspire to send their progeny off to college have always tried to devise some intuitive method to divine what in fact the colleges wanted.
Now, obviously, that's going to change. Generations will define the needs for subsequent generations differently, and that's fine. But in the absence of even saying what the principles are, or assuming they are either so manifest and obvious that you don't even have to talk about them, there is now a bafflement and confusion that manifests itself in questions about college costs and prices. What the public is really saying is "What are you people doing? What are you after? And if you know, will you say so? And if you don't know, why don't you know? We can't tell you."
This seems to me to be profound, and I can defend it. Not because I can quantify a lot of data, but because I walk around with my ears and eyes open to the great swell in this country. All of the commission reports, white papers, investigations, mayors and governors and federal committees focusing on the secondary school system were in some respects trying to get at the larger question of where the colleges were, and why they were unavailable to us in terms of their thinking. It's one thing to be told everyone can go to college, it's another thing to be told, ''What is the point to it?''
You say that the schools can't substitute for the family.
They have tried and failed.
Isn't that ignoring the intractable reality around us, though, particularly in our cities? It's not really a question of whether or not they will substitute, but how, isn't it?
If there is one piece of folk wisdom about the problem in the public schools it is that the family has retreated, and without the family's backing, schools can't even impose discipline.
It's one thing to say, "How do you begin to take on some of the role of the family?'' but it's quite another thing to convince me that anybody has in fact decided that. That's not clear to me at all. It's clear to me that families don't want schools taking over their fundamental role. They do want them to function in some cases as day-care centers and socializing agencies, in other cases to get students off to college or off their hands. Families and schools function in a kind of partnership that is not identical to the one that mythologically existed in the 1890s or the 1920s or the 1940s, but which, given the change in society, must be up to date, must fulfill the mutual need.
The whole raging debate about whether we are going to have voluntary, mandatory prayer, or whether we are going to have quiet, strikes me as a symptom of the problem. Now since when are the public schools supposed to be churches? If the family doesn't want prayer at home at night around supper or with breakfast or whenever they meet, and if they don't want to send their kids to church or synagogue or whatever house of worship they choose, then it seems to me quite bizarre to assume that the public school, which is not there for any of these purposes, is the natural, necessary, and normal place to do all the things—such as improvement by prayer—that the family isn't interested in doing when it's together. If the family is not together, let's not pretend the school is going to be the family.
Our tradition of local control in the 16,000 school districts in this country is profound and powerful. We want our schools controlled at the local level. We want them to meet national goals, but we don't want the federal government running them. We want to have families involved, and the communities basically setting the standards. We want the states mediating. No one ever has figured out how to get a handle on the whole system.
Which places an extraordinary value on consensus, coordination...
You start with your excellent word, articulation, both in the old sense of the joints moving together, and the more modern sense of speaking your mind, and put that at a premium. Not to exercise that right and responsibility is to have it atrophy. And when it atrophies, others will necessarily and naturally pick up, take over. You will either find the federal government coming in willy-nilly, in a confused fashion, or you'll find state bureaucracies moving in. Or you'll hear people complaining endlessly about teachers unions without acknowledging the fact that the teachers’ unions are simply aggregations of people who are living and working in very tough working conditions that have to protect themselves. I mean, mutual recrimination becomes the order of the day.
The cover of A. Bartlett Giamatti's book "A Great and Glorious Game," which includes his essay "The Green Fields of the Mind"
Moving from academe to baseball for a moment, I wonder if you could comment on any of the continuities between those two worlds.
My colleagues in higher education tend to have mixed views of what I do. Depending on whether or not they think I've sold out or betrayed the true church or I'm doing something really interesting.
You must have gotten that when you became president of Yale after being a professor there.
When you go from one side to the other, from full-time faculty to full-time administration, you are essentially telling people by your act that you were unsound and probably fulfilling their expectations that you were never quite right.
My father was a professor who never was a full-time administrator. So I was raised, from the moment of birth, in the world of the academy, and I know very well the fundamental distrust attendant upon any academic faculty person who goes over to administration. But at least you are staying somehow within the true church.
To leave the church itself and to go out to either the marts of commerce or the fields of play, or someplace where the marts and the fields meet, is really not only to have demonstrated a certain unsoundness but a positive inclination for not understanding any of the higher values.
Understanding all that, what are the commonalities besides the ones you noted before?
The Yale faculty?
Any faculty. Come on, let's not pick on the poor Yale faculty! The Yale faculty happens to be a superb faculty. It's the big leagues of its own kind, and it is full of .400 hitters and twenty-game winners and shrewd, aggressive base-stealers and cunning coaches and managers and pros who are looking for an edge. Astute, hard-nosed, second-guessers.
No instant replay?
There's no instant replay there or here, except for the fact that they are all intent on replaying for you the failures of the day.
There is one big difference, and that is between a community that grades everybody every day and a community that keeps score every day. While they are similar impulses, the scorekeepers are basically dealmakers and the graders are basically moralists.
The two worlds are similar in that they are both closed, historically oriented, fundamentally conservative cultures, and that tells me something about myself, that I keep ending up in them happily and fulfilled. I was never unhappy in academe, and I've certainly been stimulated and pleased here. I miss the university world. I miss teaching. But I must say I find that this existence has its own very real rewards.
Has the job changed the way you look at the game?
Oh, sure. As league president you go to the game and you watch the umpires. They are your boys. If one has a problem, it's your problem because you've got to work with them. So I tend to see a different game.
It's like going to work in the theater after having been an avid, enthusiastic, and maybe even semi-knowledgeable theatergoer. Now that you suddenly are producer or director—not an actor or designer, but a person responsible for the whole thing—you now know very well what goes on backstage. You've seen very well the squabbles. You've seen very well the human issues. You've seen very well how cramped the conditions are. It doesn't mean that when the curtain goes up the same kind of awe and magic don't work for you. Of course they do. But it is with a different set of awareness.
So your fundamental appreciation remains unchanged?
If anything, I think it's only deepened. The production of a major league baseball game is an extraordinary event, given the number of people that have to work extremely hard in all facets of it—charity, promotion, marketing, tickets, concessions, grounds—and in terms of municipal and county relationships-and I mean on a daily basis. The number of people who produce an inning of baseball is simply not reflected alone by the great athletes who play the game, although for them it's work and it should be respected. We call it play, but it's nothing many of us would be able to do for very long, even if we had that gift.
1990 Topps baseball card commemorating the life and baseball career of A. Bartlett Giamatti, who died in September 1989.
What would you like history to say about you after your time in baseball?
Oh, you know, I think it's a little early to be writing that. Journalists love to have you write your epitaph before you've even begun. I understand the impulse, but...
All right, throw that away. Are you still a fan? You still love the game?
Absolutely. In fact, you wouldn't do this if you weren't. Or you shouldn't. You've got to love the institution if you are going to throw yourself into working for it. That would be true whether it was for a university or for what I would call one of the country's great institutions for leisure.
And the sport has a powerful effect on people's lives, doesn't it?
I had underestimated that. Even as a devout fan, I knew the effect it had on me. Now, it isn't just the mail, or walking down the street, it's being in a community like Minnesota's Twin Cities in 1987, and feeling in that whole community, the state, the whole region, a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment, that is not trivial. It is not a joke. It is real. It is terribly important.
No city in the history of humankind can exist without some sense of pride in being together, because otherwise it's just abrasion. This game can pull people together. Not forever and not around everything. But in fundamental ways, in a way almost nothing else in this country does repeatedly. That's been one of the great functions of sport and why it is so important to people. It's where choice and freedom operate. How you choose to recreate is much more important to people, frankly, than what they do for a living.
When my 7-year-old nephew recently heard that his hero on the local pro hockey team had been traded, he was in tears. It was the first time that sports had broken his heart. Now, he was fine an hour later, but...
Of course he was, but it's not a joke. Whether you're seven or not, it represents a form of identification, a form of aspiration, a form of getting out of yourself, and when it goes well there is no feeling quite like it, and when it goes badly it hurts like hell. People don't die from it. People get over it, so basically, it's benign. But when it goes well, cities feel good about themselves in ways they have forgotten was possible. Suddenly, for a minute, we are all back in a village where we are all getting along. That may be one of the truly great things about baseball. We're only in cities, this country game.
Fly over a great city at night and you suddenly see that pasture, and it reminds you that there was another America and we brought it indoors, in through the walls. For all the stresses and strains and violence, there are those moments when in fact we can all feel as if we're an extended family.
It's an illusion, I know, but it's one of those absolutely necessary illusions to keep people going. So I love it.