Bart Giamatti was named Commissioner of Baseball before the start of the 1989 season. Before that year was done, he was dead.
His death remains one of the most aggravating “What If’s?” in baseball history. Maybe he would have changed the course of baseball history forever. Maybe he would have made little difference. Maybe the strife that happened right after his death was necessary for the game.
But there is no denying that in less than a season as Commissioner, he became one of the most respected figures in the game. And with his passing, his stature grew to monumental levels.
A Boston native and lifelong Red Sox fan, he lived one of those academic lives that seem only possible in New England. A graduate of Phillips Academy, he went to Yale, wrote academic volumes and published volumes on English and Italian literature. He rose through the ranks at Yale to become the President of the University from 1978 to 1986.
And yes, he is the father of Oscar nominated actor Paul Giamatti. In fact when Giamatti’s character refers to his father in the movie Sideways, he is holding a picture of his real life dad.
Giamatti served that role with distinction but not in a manner that would have allowed him to emerge unscathed in today’s social media world. He was a bit of a union buster and Yale did not divest from Apartheid torn South Africa.
His great loved remained baseball and he wrote articles for Harper’s Magazine about the subject. Eventually the National League named him President in 1986. He had a few tough decisions to make in his time there, none more public than suspending Jay Howell for using a foreign substance in his glove during the 1988 NLCS between the Dodgers and Mets.
When Peter Ueberroth stepped down as Commissioner (and left his legacy of owners colluding) it was Giamatti who stepped in after the 1988 season.
1989 was a strange year for baseball as one scandal hung over the entire season. Pete Rose was accused of gambling on Reds games while being manager of the team. Rose was one of the great stars of the 1970’s and his respect poured into the 1980’s as he passed Ty Cobb as the all time hit king in 1985.
Now Giamatti found himself in a battle of philosophy as much as enforcing the rules. The Dowd Report showed the facts that Pete Rose did indeed gamble on Reds games. But how could the new commissioner ban one of the great figures in baseball history less than 4 years after his crowning achievement.
The investigation and tension between Rose and Giamatti stretched out throughout the season until it came to a head on August 24, 1989. Giamatti decided that the integrity of the game was greater than any player.
In the end, his wisdom turned out to be true. Rose, despite his claiming the opposite for decades and besmirching the honesty of Giamatti for all of those years, eventually admitted that he did indeed do what he was accused of. And the example set by the Rose suspension shows that even 4,000 plus hits in the majors and a Hall of Fame career does not put a player above the rules.
The stress of the Rose investigation led to Giamatti to take a vacation in the middle of the pennant race. 8 days after suspending Rose, he died of a heart attack in Martha’s Vineyard.
The death coming right on the heels of the suspension put Rose in an even worse light. And the example that Giamatti set of erring on the side of the good of the game made him a martyr of sorts.
The next few years saw baseball dive into chaos and the Commissioner’s office became a joke. Fay Vincent seemed totally unprepared for the job as baseball went into a lockout to start the 1990 season.
With labor strife looming and the effects of collusion making players distrust the owners more than ever, hardline owners wanted to go to war. Eventually Vincent was ousted and an owner, Bud Selig, became the nominal commissioner.
The chaos at the commissioner’s office and a small market owner now in charge of the game led directly to the Player’s Strike of 1994 and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. That led to the steroid era.
Perhaps Giamatti would have been powerless to prevent those events. Maybe having a cancelled World Series and the limp aftermath was what baseball needed to learn never to have another work stoppage.
Or maybe a strong commissioner would have been able to stand up to both the hardline owners and the Player’s Association and avoid the work stoppages. Maybe tougher rules would have prevented rampant PED use.
When overwhelmed Vincent and scheming and untrustworthy Bud Selig manned the office of the Commissioner from 1989 to 2015, one could not openly wonder “What would Giamatti had done?”
His martyrdom made him a man of irrefutable wisdom, mainly because we didn’t get a chance to see him fail.
What would have happened?
It would have been different. The game of baseball breaks your heart, as he wrote so beautifully in his piece “The Green Fields of the Mind.”