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Books: Baseball philosopher

Books | Giamatti: scholar, moralist, sportswriter

Issue: "Foster or faster?," June 6, 1998

The Scottish writer George MacDonald once said that book critics should learn from God's example: They should be easy to please, but hard to satisfy. A Great and Glorious Game, a collection of baseball essays by the late A.Bartlett Giamatti, is that rare work that both pleases and satisfies. Mr. Giamatti had a very brief tenure as commissioner of baseball; before that he served as president of the National League and president of Yale University, where he had been a distinguished Dante scholar and a much-loved teacher of literature. His love of the game, his love of the English language, and his insights into both make a perfect Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance combination. In the essay "The Green Fields of the Mind," for example, he writes, "It breaks your heart. It is meant to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone." Mr. Giamatti apparently did not have the love of Christ that would allow him not to face the fall alone. And his love of baseball was put to the test during his time as baseball commissioner. In August of 1989, he had to make one of the hardest decisions of his life: to ban Pete Rose from baseball. Forever. Pete Rose, who collected more hits than anyone in baseball history, was caught betting on his own team's games. Bart Giamatti died one week later. "The banishment for life of Pete Rose from baseball is the sad end of a sorry episode," he told the press on the day of his decision. "One of the game's greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game, and he must now live with the consequences of those acts." Mr. Giamatti was capable of prose both beautiful and harsh. His essay in 1981, during a dismal baseball strike, was a little of each. "Call this baseball strike an example of deny-side economics," he wrote, "which says you can withhold from the consumer what he most desires so that you may substitute discipline for satisfaction; call it a symptom of the plague of distrust and divisiveness that afflicts our land; call it the triumph of greed over the spirit of the garden. Call it what you will, the strike is utter foolishness. It is an act of defiance against the American people, and the only summer God made for 1981, and I appeal for it to cease."

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