Baseball Czar Giamatti Dies of Heart Attack

Times Staff Writer

A. Bartlett Giamatti, the seventh commissioner of professional baseball and a former president of Yale University, died of an apparent heart attack Friday. He was 51.

Giamatti was stricken in mid-afternoon at his vacation home in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard.

State police responded to a call from a family member and found Giamatti unconscious and in full cardiac arrest, officer Byron Rizos said.


“CPR was initiated but there was no response,” Rizos said.

Giamatti was taken by ambulance to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 4:32 p.m., “after all-out efforts to resuscitate him failed,” Matthew Stackpole, the hospital’s director of development, said.

Giamatti, a chain smoker who once said that cigarettes were his primary vice and who resisted the efforts of a number of baseball owners who tried to get him to quit smoking, had left New York Friday morning to spend the Labor Day weekend on the popular vacation island.

“I dropped him off at noon on Martha’s Vineyard and he seemed fine,” deputy commissioner Francis T. Vincent Jr., who traveled to New England with Giamatti, said. “This is a tremendous shock. He was a uniquely talented man who had great friends and admirers. It’s a serious loss for the country, the sport and his family.” Giamatti was an authority on Renaissance literature and a man who could discuss Dante and the infield fly rule with equal ease. He spent two years as National League president before being elected to a five-year term as commissioner in a unanimous vote of the 26 owners Sept. 8, 1988.

He succeeded Peter V. Ueberroth on April 1 of this year. He is the first commissioner to die in office since Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who died Nov. 25, 1944.

Like Giamatti, Landis made his mark with a lifetime ban, against Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other members of the infamous Chicago Black Sox who were accused of taking money from a gambler to throw the 1919 World Series.

Ueberroth Comments

“Baseball has been deprived today of the services of its finest commissioner in history,” Ueberroth, vacationing in Paris, said in a statement released through his Newport, Calif., office. “Bart Giamatti encompassed everything that is good and enduring about America’s favorite pastime. For this man of words, courage and deeds . . . no words can express the loss.”

Giamatti’s five-month tenure was three years shorter than any of his six predecessors and was dominated by the investigation into the alleged gambling activities of Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose, who received a lifetime suspension from Giamatti nine days ago.

Atty. Robert A. Pitcairn Jr., in a statement issued Friday on Rose’s behalf, said Rose was “deeply saddened” by the news of Giamatti’s death.

“In spite of their dispute, Pete had great personal respect for the commissioner. He extends his deepest sympathy to Commissioner Giamatti’s family.”

Rose, before agreeing to the terms of his suspension, contended that Giamatti had pre-judged his case and sought an injunction that would have prevented Giamatti from ruling on it. The long dispute was believed to have created stress for Giamatti, but he denied that in a recent interview.

“While it’s a serious matter, it doesn’t take up that much of my time,” he said. “Most of my time, 80 to 90% of it, is spent on other things. The way it’s been played (by the media) would make you think that I’ve been sitting here all day worrying about it, but that hasn’t been the case for months.”

President Bush, vacationing in Kennebunkport, Me., said Giamatti “in a short time made a real contribution to the game, standing for the highest possible ethical standards.”

Spoke With Giamatti

Bush said he had talked with the commissioner, a fellow Yale alumnus, “at great length” about the Rose case and just missed a call from him at Kennebunkport a few days ago.

Giamatti was trying to contact the President, Bush said, because “I told him I’d like to, just as a baseball fan, know the aftermath, know exactly how this matter had been resolved. But all through that I was thinking of the difficulty that he had in setting these standards that high and staying with it.”

Baseball’s rules provide for the Executive Council, comprised of the two league presidents and eight club owners, to carry out the commissioner’s duties until a successor is chosen. An owners’ meeting, previously scheduled for Milwaukee Sept. 13-14, will now focus on that objective, a spokesman for the commissioner’s office said.

Among those likely to receive consideration, baseball sources said, are American League president Bobby Brown, National League president Bill White, Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, New York Mets president Frank Cashen and deputy commissioner Vincent.

Vincent’s position was created in a reorganization of the commissioner’s office by Giamatti. He becomes interim commissioner until a successor is named.

Vincent, a longtime friend of Giamatti’s, is an attorney who formerly was chairman and chief executive officer of Columbia Pictures Industries Inc., as well as senior vice president of the Coca-Cola Company and president and chief executive officer of Coca-Cola’s entertainment business section. He served as a liaison to Giamatti on the Rose case and heads the commissioner’s corporate, licensing and broadcasting divisions.

Strong Ties to Boston

Angelo Bartlett Giamatti was born in Boston on April 4, 1938. His father, Valentine, was a literature professor at Mt. Holyoke College and an avid Red Sox fan, Giamatti recalled in an interview.

“I was probably 7 or 8 years old when my father and uncle took me to my first baseball game,” he said. “I’d been listening on the radio often enough, but going to Fenway Park, I just was astonished at the whole thing.”

The memory and the loyalty stayed with him. He often wore a Red Sox cap and carried a transistor to listen to the team’s games while serving as Yale president. He grew up with the romantic’s view that baseball is best played on grass in the afternoon, but he lacked the talent to play it himself and gravitated to literature like his father.

He received a bachelor of arts degree in English from Yale in 1960 and a Ph.D. in comparative literature in 1964. He taught Italian and comparative literature at Princeton before returning to Yale in 1966. He became a full professor there at 33 and director of the Division of Humanities at 37.

He was elected president of the university in 1978--the youngest in two centuries--and served for nine years, providing Yale with its first balanced budget in a decade and ultimately healing the wounds of his hardline stance in the face of a 1984 strike by clerical and technical workers.

“He gave of himself magnificently as a teacher, scholar and leader,” Benno C. Schmidt Jr., Giamatti’s successor at Yale, said Friday. “This university will be a better place because of his service. He will never be forgotten here.”

He wrote a number of books, essays and articles on Renaissance literature, but he also wrote about baseball, which attracted the attention of the game’s owners and executives. He became the 12th president of the National League on Dec. 11, 1986, and said:

“Dante would have been delighted.”

He added at the time that “people of letters have always gravitated to sport” and that he had long found baseball to be “the most satisfying and nourishing of games--outside of literature, of course.”

2 Schools of Thought

Asked what his colleagues at Yale thought about his decision to become a baseball executive, Giamatti laughed and said: “One group thought it was nifty. The other thought it was the ultimate proof of my essential unsoundness.”

In a sport that holds the lexicon of the clubhouse sacred, Giamatti displayed wit, literacy and a youth’s affection for the game.

“The prism through which I see things is the prism that understands baseball is an enormously important American institution with long and deep roots whose purpose is to provide pleasure and fun for the American people, and whose integrity and authenticity are essential in order to provide that pleasure,” he said in a recent interview.

“The pace of the game allows for rumination even at the moment instead of just in retrospect,” he added. “And it is a game with a history and mythology so intimately connected to America that in some idealized and mythological sense it is virtually synonymous with America.”