Remembering Bart Giamatti, A Baseball Fan

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As the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants square off in baseball's World Series, Bill Littlefield finds himself remembering one of the game's most enthusiastic fans.

Time was when former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti, gone 25 years ago this autumn, was right about the end of the baseball season. He felt that coming as warm weather surrendered to cold wind lent baseball’s departure a poetic dimension. The game ended when we needed it most. That was the way he put it.

[sidebar title="World Series Preview" width="630" align="right"]Ahead of the matchup between the Royals and Giants, Bill Littlefield spoke with ESPN's Tim Kurkjian to preview the Fall Classic.[/sidebar]Dr. Giamatti also found in baseball’s green pastures metaphors for a less prosaic garden, and he wrote about that aspect of what used to be the national pastime with the elegance one might expect from a professor of English enamored enough of the game to move from the presidency of Yale University to the presidency of the National League, and then to the commissioner's office. The essay is titled “The Green Fields of the Mind.” As Casey Stengel used to say about all sorts of matters less lyrical, “You could look it up.”

Those days are gone. Baseball’s great fun, sometimes, and a case can be made that the Royals and the Giants are more fun than the rest of the teams that could have ended up in the World Series once the playoffs began. But how much do we need it now?

Conversations at the water cooler, like conversations at the faculty luncheons over which Giamatti once presided, are more likely to be about the resurgence of the Dallas Cowboys or the inconsistency of the Pittsburgh Steelers than about the apparently eternal fecklessness of the Chicago Cubs. Those conversations are more likely to be about the impact of the NFL's concussion scandal on youth football’s numbers than about the tendency of great U.S. athletes to choose a sport other than baseball.

Sports talk show hosts, historians, philosophers and psychologists have offered lots of explanations for the shift in the nation’s allegiance: if, as Giamatti had it, baseball stops when we need it most, football cranks up its extravaganza precisely when we desperately crave a diversion from winter’s bleak butt-end; baseball is slow, football is fast; baseball on television can be tedious; football and television seem made for each other; baseball is pastoral, at least in the imagination of the beholder, albeit not for the catcher and base runner who collide at home plate; football is frankly and, for the most part, unapologetically violent.

For these reasons football appeals to more people here than does baseball.

[sidebar title="Baseball's Collision Rule" width="630" align="right"]After its first season on the books, Only A Game's Doug Tribou looks at the successes and failures of baseball's home-plate collision rule.[/sidebar]Like Giamatti, I like baseball better. He was born in April, and he died in September, which seems, at least in retrospect, appropriately poetic. Giamatti will be remembered by some for banning Pete Rose from baseball and suffering a fatal heart attack only 11 days later. But I prefer to remember him for what he is alleged to have said to Fay Vincent, the wealthy and successful businessman and corporate honcho who would succeed him as commissioner, in order to lure Vincent into the baseball business as his right hand man:

“Come on,” Giamatti told his pal. “It’ll be fun.”

Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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