A Fan in His Own Right

A. Bartlett Giamatti was a professor of comparative literature, a scholar of Renaissance writing and an avid baseball fan. Spectators who are bored by any sport that moves slowly enough to see what is happening would say he was a connoisseur of the quaint, old and new. For us, it says much that needs to be known of both the man and the game, of grace, pressure, courage, pain, occasional sheer joy and the irrelevance of stereotypes.

Giamatti, a president of Yale University at the age of 40, retired in 1986 and started a new career as commissioner of the National League. Last April, he became Major League commissioner.

Baseball never was simply a matter of grace and courage and it is not now. It has had its share of mugs, but it has survived since the White Sox scandal of 1919 because the first duty of its commissioners has been to keep it as pure as humanly possible. An associate described Giamatti as fan-oriented, interested in seating and ballpark conditions and anything that would make watching and enjoying easier, not harder.

For a lot of us, the hardest part of winter is not snow or mudslides or water too cold for surfing but an absence of baseball, so being fan-oriented also means keeping the game clean. No matter how hard that was on Pete Rose and others whom Giamatti fined or suspended for cutting corners on the rules, that’s what he was there for.

In theory, a baseball game can go on forever. That has never happened, and nobody has a right even to expect even extra innings in real life, but Giamatti’s death last week at age 51 cut far too short the life of a scholar, a baseball fan and, in the most old-fashioned sense, custodian of what baseball means to a lot of Americans.