Bart Giamatti: The Quest for Fairness in Cooperstown

A tribute to former Major League Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giammatti’s intrepid and deep-seated ethical convictions, by the author of Fearless: A. Bartlett Giamatti and the Battle for Fairness in America…

by: Neil Thomas Proto

When I entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, for the first time, I witnessed immediately the larger-than-life-sized statues of three players, uniformed, without their caps, poignantly upright, their expressions confident about their purpose. Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I recognized eachnot as iconic statues to the memory of the great plays or hits made or championships won—although they all achieved such accomplishments—but as the personal embodiment of ethical conduct and civic duty. Models of aspiration and fairness, each real, known, touchable, looking into the future from a history of humanitarian commitment, racial struggle, and the menace of death.

It was a moment that required reflection on values that Baseball wanted understood. Conveyed to the young boys and girls captured in the photograph behind each player was the standard for preserving Baseball’s place in America. Baseball explained it: “Off the field challenges—and how those challenges are met—reveal an inner character that serves men and women throughout their lives.” Gehrig, Robinson, and Clemente faced obstacles “with strength and dignity that set an example of character and courage for all others to follow.”   

I was in the Hall’s “Giamatti Research Center” to determine the scope of a biography about Bart Giamatti, former president of Yale and Baseball’s seventh Commissioner, who died unexpectedly in September 1989. The documents centered on Cincinnati Reds Pete Rose’s conduct, which Giamatti called a “stain on Baseball.”

In 2004, Rose—15 years after Giamatti banned him from Baseball—acknowledged he lied. He had bet on his own team. He had lied to Cincinnati authorities, to fans, teammates, and the press, and to the United States when he evaded the civic duty to pay taxes. In 2004 he substantiated what former prosecutor John Dowd, Giamatti, and Deputy Commissioner Fay Vincent had proved in 1989. Rose was imprisoned for every parent, son, and daughter to witness.

As if it excused him from the rule prohibiting gambling or that, given his pervasive lying, it was even believable, Rose asserted that he never bet against the Reds. Henry Aaron, who hit more than 700 home runs and was honored in 2002 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said: “[Pete] hasn’t given any signs of an honest confession … . I’ve seen absolutely no truth.” The rule doesn’t exclude you “if you have 4,000 hits or 700 home runs,” he said. Aaron understood the meaning of Baseball’s “example of character and courage.” Money and the lie seemed the only imperatives that mattered to Rose.

What mattered to Giamatti, however, wasn’t just Rose’s lie. It was the cunningly insightful, amoralconfidence Rose had in persistently embracing it. Giamatti learned that Rose also lied to the writer of Pete Rose: My Story, Roger Kahn; to the publisher, Macmillan; and to at least four lawyers. Those lawyers misled courts of law about Rose’s gambling. Kahn and Macmillan’s monetary interests, and the monetary interests and ethical duty of lawyers, had legitimized the lie and used it to make money.

Rose was the forewarning of a more insidious threat to Baseball. He evokes the insatiable dark lure that has always slithered through Baseball’s owners and players, the looming apparition of greed cloaked in athletic and legal pretense. He lent credence to forces more dangerous than himself. Giamatti anticipated that danger and said to all of Baseball in early February 1989 that he was prepared to do battle.

Giamatti had long engaged in the moral journey to attain fairness. The Quest—the imperative central to the Renaissance Epic—spoke to his commitment to responsible citizenship. “We cannot escape epic’s long view,” he wrote, “that rest will come by never resting, that peace will come only by war.” In Baseball, it was the battle to preserve Elysian Field—the idyllic paradise in Homer’s Iliad, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen,and the first game in Hoboken’s green field that to Giamatti and others reflected the soul of America.

Giamatti had embraced the ethic of rules as the base of fairness since grammar school, when on the touch football field, as quarterback he battled tougher and bigger kids fearlessly with the understanding that skill alone mattered. He abhorred discrimination, the claim of special privilege that precluded fairness to others. It tempered the life of his father and immigrant grandparents. He’d experienced discrimination at Yale. “Those days” he said as Yale president, “must never return.”

In Baseball, Giamatti did the same. “[W]hen baseball desegregated itself in 1947,” he said, “baseball changed America… . Merit will win, it was promised.” But, he said, “When [Baseball] failed to deliver completely, it cheated the country. [It] “must again strive to lead, and it will.” Giamatti melded fairness into everything he wrote, spoke, and acted regarding the game.  

As Commissioner-elect, Giamatti made his intentions plain and public. He called out to the dark forces in Baseball—stated that he knew them, past and present, and their vulnerability to challenge, his challenge. He laid the battlefield strategy, the intellect and his duty as weaponry, for the Quest he knew was necessary.

“The conventional quality of contests,” he began, “lies in the fact that games are rule bound”—on players, owners, and coaches. “[T]he essential assumption of all the rules is that skill or merit … will win out.”Giamatti identified the sadistic threat to those rules: the “cult, those closed-off, self contained cultures” of “short-cuts” into the cockiness of special privilege. “Totally absorbed, some [people]”— Rose defined it but not singularly—“feel invulnerable, invincible, completely exempt [from rules] and completely protected from sanction.”

When the cult is given free reign, that destruction of Elysian Fields in America occurs in its deadliest form: cheating. A “premeditated act [that] has no organic basis in a game,” maliciously intended only “to acquire a covert advantage.” Cheating, Giamatti said, “strikes at the heart … of openness and equality,” which requires that players and teams “all begin … aboveboard.” Giamatti’s unequivocal belief for all to know: “If cheating is not dealt with swiftly and severely, the game will have no integrity” and spectators and other players “cannot trust the game to deliver the fairness it promises.”

Giamatti declared the duty that all Baseball should expect. “The highly moralized (because rule-bound) world of [Baseball] is very fragile in the face of the amoral … hunger to win at any cost. [W]hen those running [Baseball] do not believe their own conventions, then … meritocracy … will be undermined. When laxity on that scale occurs, then cheating on a large scale metastasizes,” and will “threaten to shatter the whole enterprise.”

What encouraged the laxity, Giamatti believed, was the power of money, be it greed cloaked in grand and loud scoreboards that diminishes the centrality of the score or the enormous compensation that removes owners and players into a cult of expectation far from the daily lives of fans. Giamatti knew the damning antecedents, the classic moment when “Odysseus cheated in the Funeral Games near the end of the Iliad” on through to the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Emerging in time was the premeditated drug-induced plague of steroids, displayed openly in grotesque bodies and fraudulent performances that Baseball accepted. Only the “asterisk” was available to penalize cheaters.

What followed, predictably, was premeditated cheating by stealing by an entire team, the Houston Astros. The legitimacy of standings; every Astro batter’s average; the pitchers skill; the umpire’s purpose; the coveted World Series and player bonuses—all unequivocally corrupted. While fans were deceived, attentive betters cashed in. All metastasized into Giamatti’s fear: players who lied and cheated unpunished, the grand award from unearned wins preserved, no penalty of severity related to the immorality and harm of the wrongdoing that, in the end, confirmed only the power of money. And there stood, once again, Henry Aaron: “I think whoever did that should be out of Baseball the rest of their life.”

And, with cunning timing, Pete Rose seeks readmission to Baseball, now that Baseball has abandoned any standard of acceptable conduct. The looming apparition of greed no longer hides within the history Baseball is intent on abandoning, except as expensive theater. The apparition knows its prey: Cooperstown’s “examples of character and courage.” Replaced by Pete Rose, and the Little League player, dollar bills jutting from his glove, plainly on the take.

Giamatti had the help of Fay Vincent’s shared ethical imperative and corporate experience, and the prosecutor’s insistence on truthRose was the insightful cultist for whom, if truth was properly found (as it was), the rule’s proscribed penalty was the opening challenge in the Quest. Dino Giamatti said of his brother: “[H]e was going to make it right … . It’s in his nature.” Giamatti also knew, his friend David Halberstam wrote, that he’d “end up clashing with” the owners. Halberstam conjectured, “Whether, given the forces … that have worked greatly to lessen the game’s attractiveness [,… Bart] would have been able to hold the line against the power of greed and materialism is doubtful. But … we would have had his voice.”

Giamatti would have eloquently, forcefully, and publically recognized that The Fall from America’s Grace was occurring, that fairness and merit were torn asunder by the cheat in uniform or business suit. This Dante scholar knew where to place liars and greed-driven entrepreneurs who’d spread the stain they’d wrought in every town, city, and school that had a ballpark, green or sand or pavement. They’d be out of Baseball. Giamatti never had to confront that choice. Yet who is to say that—with his knowledgeable commitment to principle, to fans who embraced his respect for the game, grandparents holding tightly to grandsons and granddaughters, glove in hand, and to players who retained their pride in a game they loved that fairness helped them earn—Giamatti would not have engaged in the epic quest of a lifetime, and that he would have won it.

Neil Thomas Proto is the author of Fearless: A. Bartlett Giamatti and the Battle for Fairness in America. In 1956, he played third base, in the Annex Little League, New Haven, CT.

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