Bart Giamatti and integrity

December, 22, 2007
Former Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent was a guest this weekend on Bob Costas's radio show -- the best show of its kind -- and in linking Gaylord Perry's admitted cheating to the current steroids scandal, suggested that Perry, as well as those of the steroids generation, should be ineligible for the Hall of Fame.

Vincent, ever thoughtful and passionate, cited a suspension for cheating issued by then-National League President A. Bartlett Giamatti that was considered excessive by the media and, naturally, the Players Association. As we all now have to deal with the notions of cheating and its relation to Cooperstown, it seems a good time to recall the words of the most eloquent and intellectual voice of most of our lifetimes.

Giamatti wrote "Baseball fits America. Above all, it fits so well because it embodies the antithetical, complementary interplay of individual and group that we so love, and because it conserves our longing for the rule of law while licensing our resentment of lawgivers."

The suspension that escaped Vincent's recall was a 10-game suspension given to Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross for being caught with sandpaper. In a sport where wink, wink and nod, nod is so common, Giamatti considered Gross's offense a violation of the essential integrity of a game that has nothing without its integrity.

Years later, when Sammy Sosa was caught with a corked bat, George Will put that, and the Gross ruling, in far better perspective than I could type.

Will wrote:

In 1987 pitcher Kevin Gross of the Philadelphia Phillies was caught with a small patch of sandpaper affixed to his glove, and a sticky substance on his glove. Sandpaper can be used to scuff a ball's surface, changing its wind resistance and hence its movement when pitched. Foreign substances also can alter the movement of a thrown ball, and it is no defense to say, as a pitcher said when indignantly denying that he put a foreign substance on the ball: "Everything I use on it is from the good ol' U.S.A.!"

Gross was suspended for 10 days by Giamatti, then National League president. A former president of Yale and a professor of Italian and comparative literature, Giamatti died in 1989 shortly into his five-month tenure as baseball commissioner, after imposing a lifetime suspension from baseball on Pete Rose for gambling on games. Giamatti knew exactly why "boys will be boys" is not a satisfactory response to paltering with the rules of the game. Most of baseball's punishable offenses involve fighting or other violence that arises from the heat of competition. While such acts cannot be tolerated, Giamatti wrote, "It must be recognized that they grow often out of impulse, and the aggressive, volatile nature of the game and of those who play it."

Such offenses, he said, are less execrable than acts "of a cool, deliberate, premeditated kind" -- acts that have "no organic basis in the game and no origins in the act of playing." They are acts of cheating that are "intended to alter the very conditions of play to favor one person." Such acts "are secretive, covert acts that strike at and seek to undermine the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner -- that all participants play under identical rules and conditions."

Giamatti understood that a team sport, like democratic society itself, involves a precious and precarious equipoise of individual striving and collective endeavor. In sport or society, break the rules that govern that equipoise and hark! what discord follows.

As we wrestle with steroids and other artificial performance enhancing issues and who does or will belong in the most important Fall of Fame in sports, the thoughts of Giamatti and Will, two men passionately attached to baseball, are worth recalling.



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