A. Bartlett Giamatti

A. Bartlett Giamatti

September 1, 1989

A. Bartlett “Bart” Giamatti, formerly a professor of Renaissance literature and president of Yale, was hired as the National League president in 1986. He had no background in the game — except for his life-long love of the Boston Red Sox — but was promoted to the commissioner’s office three years later. There, he made his mark by suspending Pete Rose for life in August 1989. Just eight days later, Giamatti died at the age of 51.

Giamatti, whose favorite player as a youth was Bobby Doerr, had joked upon his hiring as Yale’s president in 1977 that “all I ever wanted to be was president of the American League.” That wisecrack prompted a tongue-in-cheek offer from current AL president Lee MacPhail to swap places. It also piqued the interest of baseball’s owners, who offered him the commissioner’s job in 1983. Giamatti refused (he had promised his school’s trustees three more years on the job) but after resigning from Yale in 1986 he agreed to succeed Chub Feeney as president of the National League.

I’ve just fallen love and run away,” Giamatti announced. “With a beautiful redhead with flashing eyes whose name is baseball.” Indeed, he had always been passionate about the tradition and purity of the game. He once wrote that “the layout of the field shows baseball’s essential passion for and reliance on precise proportions and clearly defined limits, all the better to give shape to energy and provide an arena for equality and expression.”

Rose first incurred Giamatti’s wrath soon after the 1986 season began. In one of his first major moves as NL president, Giamatti slapped Rose with a thirty-day suspension for bumping an umpire. When Giamatti became commissioner in 1989, one of his first tasks was to discipline Rose again.

Chronically strapped for cash by a long addiction to gambling, Rose had hit rock bottom by the mid-1980s. The bat he had used to break Ty Cobb‘s hits record in 1985 was gone, sold for $125,000. That season, he had been forced to accept a huge loan from a cocaine dealer to cover his debts.

What troubled baseball most was not simply Rose’s gambling, but the possibility that he had bet on baseball games. While Rose had categorically denied to outgoing commissioner Peter Ueberroth that he had done so, Giamatti officially launched an investigation led by Washington lawyer John Dowd. It would reveal damning evidence that contradicted Rose’s denials.

Giamatti made one major blunder along the way, accidentally signing a draft of a letter Dowd had intended to send to the parole officer of a key witness named Ron Peters. The draft stated that Peters had been “truthful”, rather than simply “cooperative”. Since baseball’s disciplinary process requires the commissioner to sit in judgment of an accused player, the word “truthful” implied that Giamatti had prejudged the case. After Dowd submitted his report in May, Rose’s lawyers immediately counter-sued.

An injunction was handed down in June, preventing any disciplinary action from taking place. The two-month stall — and the intense publicity that resulted — frustrated Giamatti, but his team and Rose finally reached an agreement in August. Rose would be suspended for life, but able to appeal after one year; he also did not have to admit he bet on baseball.

“The matter of Pete Rose is now closed,” announced Giamatti on August 23. He had won the war, but it had taken its toll. The process, Giamatti said, was “private agony.” Eight days after the agreement was reached, while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, he suffered a fatal heart attack.