Baseball is a game of episodic action rather than of flow (as in basketball or soccer). Discrete events stand out. The players are dispersed around a large space. And it is the American sport with the longest season and longest history. These are among the reasons it has such a strong institutional memory. One savors one’s memories of episodes, so much so that A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late commissioner, said that baseball is, in a sense, the conversation about it.
The conversation often concerns the most famous this or that. The most famous home run? Perhaps Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world,” the one by which the Giants beat the Dodgers in the 1951 playoff, or perhaps the one by the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski against the Yankees in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, the only home run to end a Series. Or perhaps Babe Ruth’s “called shot” against the Cubs in the 1932 Series. The most famous pitching performance? Perhaps Don Larsen’s perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 series, or Orel Hershiser’s fifty-nine consecutive scoreless innings at the end of the 1988 season. The most famous defensive play? Probably “The Catch” by Willie Mays, the over-the-shoulder spectacular in game one of the 1954 Series.
Baseball’s most famous collision at home plate is as famous as it is not just because it involved a superstar and occurred in front of a huge national television audience, but also because it occurred in a game that did not matter. It happened during an All-Star game, baseball’s mid-season picnic, when work is suspended and the business of baseball becomes pure play for a day. The All-Star gathering is the community of baseball condensed and at ease, a mingling of players who have competed against one another since they were deep in the minor leagues and of executives many of whom played against each other long ago.
The 1970 game was played in Cincinnati’s new Riverfront Stadium, with the President of the United States present. In the bottom of the 12th inning, with the score 4–4 and two out, Pete Rose, a product of Cincinnati’s sandlots and by then a hero of the Reds, came to the plate. He singled, then advanced to second on another hit. The next batter lined a single on two bounces to the American League’s centerfielder, who played the ball cleanly and came up throwing, as Rose, the potential winning run, raced around third. The throw was headed for Ray Fosse of the Indians, who at twenty-three was baseball’s premier young catcher. He was in the most vulnerable position a player can be in, his eyes on the incoming ball, with a runner barreling toward him. He was prepared to catch the ball and sweep his glove at Rose, who presumably would be trying to hook-slide around Fosse’s tag.
But Rose was not sliding. He made of himself a missile, slamming Fosse with his left shoulder. Fosse never touched the ball. And he never had much of a playing career after his recovery, such as it was, from the injury that Rose inflicted.
After Rose’s fall (James Reston, Jr., says in Collision at Home Plate that it is hard to think of any American, other than the president who was at that game, who has fallen farther faster) this was frequently said: poor Pete was fine between the white lines but just couldn’t handle life off the field. That judgment misses the connection. The Rose who swerved across the lines of common sense and then of legality was the same headlong charger who hit Fosse. What Rose did in the 1970 All-Star game was within the rules. It also was unnecessary, disproportionate, and slightly crazy.
Baseball is not a game like football, a game of adrenaline rushes and manufactured frenzy. The crucial baseball skills—throwing a ball fast and with movement into a small space over a seventeen-inch-wide plate; hitting such a ball with a round bat; catching a batted ball and knowing what to do with it—require a combination of force and delicacy, strength and precision. To exercise these skills with the consistency demanded by a 162-game season requires a remarkable equilibrium of temperament, a combination of intense concentration and relaxation. To sustain this equilibrium, baseball has evolved a set of unwritten and rarely even spoken norms, mores, habits, and customs. These make up a silent, almost intuitive, code of the kinds of competition that are appropriate and those that are not. The code governs such matters as when it is appropriate to pitch at, or very close to, a batter; when and how to retaliate for that; which displays of emotion are acceptable and which constitute “showing up” an umpire or opposing player; what sort of physical contact, in what sorts of game situations (breaking up a double play at second, trying to score when the catcher is blocking the plate), is acceptable.
Rose’s slide broke rules no less real for being unwritten. In time, he would shred written rules, of baseball and society.
Soon after the 1970 All-Star game Rose was lying about what boon companions Fosse and he had become the night before the game. He bragged, “I could never have looked my father in the eye again, if I hadn’t hit Fosse that day.” Rose’s father was a blue-collar worker and semi-pro football player who was not really big enough to play without getting hurt but was tough enough to play hurt. He was, in his way, as representative of Cincinnati as any Taft ever was.
A century and a half ago, when Cincinnati was the most vital metropolis west of the Alleghenies, Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope went there in anthropological moods to observe the manners of elemental Americans. It was there, in 1869, that baseball took a large step from pastime to profession, with the founding of the Red Stockings professional team. So Cincinnati has a fair claim to be the birthplace of major league baseball as well as of Pete Rose. Cincinnati has a genteel tradition that produced a president whose son became a Hall-of-Fame senator. (Literally: his visage is on a wall of honor outside the Senate Chamber.) But the city also has a rough side that lingers from the days when it was known as Porkopolis, a hog butcher before Chicago got into that business in a big way.
Six hundred miles northeast of Cincinnati, Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, who was three years older than Rose, grew up in academic gentility. He had, writes Reston, a quiet and graceful upbringing suffused with the decorum and public-spiritedness of a Yankee village. His father had grown up in the Italian tenements of New Haven, where he rode the trolley and a four-year scholarship to a Yale degree. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard and taught Italian literature at Yale before moving to Mt. Holyoke, where Bart was born. The Giamatti house was pervaded with the father’s love of Dante’s books, and Dante’s categories—damnation, purgatory, salvation, allegory, and symbolism. The young Bart learned from his father that all of those are relevant to real life.
Bart’s town was filled with talk about the Red Sox, “the lingua franca of the place.” Baseball would one day see the results of the boyhood in which, Reston writes, Bart acquired “an Italian sense of nobility” and a “Latin sense of the expansive gesture.” By his middle teens he had twice lived for a year in Italy, acquiring, he said, an Italian feel for history and the fragility of institutions. This he combined with his American idea of possibility.
Upon his second return from Italy at age sixteen, he entered Andover, which fostered another Mediterranean idea, the Greek ideal of the scholar-athlete. Bart was skinny and clumsy but charming and popular. He was pleased to find, in the Greek elevation of the great athlete to the level of the great artist, a distinguished pedigree for his enthusiasm for sports.
In 1989 Rose was to have another famous collision, his last in baseball. This time he collided with a portly, chain-smoking, and utterly unathletic fifty-one year old former Yale professor of Renaissance literature. When the dust settled, Rose was sprawled in it, and Bart Giamatti, the Commissioner of Baseball, was standing. Rose was out, banished from baseball because he had bet on it.
A few days after that decision was rendered, Giamatti was dead from a heart attack that may have been hastened by the strain of his struggle with Rose. Giamatti’s father had suffered a serious coronary attack at age fifty-one. Rose did not kill Giamatti, an unhealthy constitution and habits did. But Giamatti condemned Rose to a kind of death-in-life by severing him from the game that was the source of his vitality.
James Reston, Jr., has written a brisk narrative of the two remarkably different lives that intersected so dramatically in the summer of 1989. It is a story suited to a novelist, which Reston is, and to a biographer, which Reston also is. It could become a wonderful play in the hands of a play-wright, which Reston is as well. It touches on some of the great themes of literature—love, waste, regret. It concerns two radically different temperaments that came together at one fateful place, a shared love for baseball.
Rose spent five years in high school in Cincinnati, repeating his sophomore year, which he had flunked. Then he went into professional baseball, weighing 155 pounds. He was carrying his father’s heavy expectations and, Reston says, wearing “the desperation of his situation on his sleeve.” Remember the famous report on Fred Astaire’s first screen test? “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” The Reds’ scouting report on the puny switch-hitting infielder said: “Can’t make a double-play, can’t throw, can’t hit left-handed and can’t run.” At that time the report was correct, but it missed an ingredient—Rose’s fanatical concentration of his meager athletic gifts on whatever task was at hand.
An occupational hazard of any demanding craft or profession is the intense concentration that can also become a deformation of character. That hazard is particularly acute in the life of a professional athlete, for two reasons. His attention is focused on his physical self. And many people are poised to make the world smooth and undemanding for him in order to banish all distractions from his small universe of physical exertion.
As Giamatti was to say about baseball players,
You can’t get to the top of your profession without having lived a life where a lot of people are taking care of you. It’s an adulated, isolated life, and you’re vulnerable. These people who have developed their physical gifts haven’t necessarily developed the rest of themselves.
This is one reason why professional sports teams have a lot of louts. And it is one reason why great athletes of fine character deserve special admiration.
Rose made himself a great player by sheer strength of will. That will was, he now suggests, extinguished by a gambling “addiction.” But Rose’s behavior, as Reston reports it, looks like extreme willfulness.
Rose’s willfulness on the field made him much loved in baseball’s inner circles, and in the bleachers. His success, Reston writes, was accessible, not exotic. He excelled because he tried harder than anyone else. That is why the public perception of Rose was so positive, at least until the 1970 collision at home plate.
But the force of his severely narrowed will, which made him an All-Star, had—had to have—its dark side. In the process of becoming a star, by dint of extreme concentration he became unusually self-absorbed and blind to the rules of living. Those are rules which, ignored long and thoroughly enough, can take a fearful toll.
With cold calculation Rose cultivated a hot manner, a swagger, to supplement his slight physical gifts. He bought a green convertible. During spring training he bet at Florida dog tracks and jai alai frontons.
As Rose’s life became more garish, Giamatti was cultivating his garden at Yale. As a graduate student in the early 1960s, he became interested in the image of the garden in literature, the garden as conducive to spiritual experiences. Games, Giamatti thought, could be an adjunct to such a garden. Games are a space for ordered striving, under rules made not by nature but by free choices. Hence games are apprenticeships for self-governance. “Order and disorder preoccupied him,” Reston writes.
In several of his academic essays, Giamatti focused on the image of the wild horse. The unchecked, riderless horse is in Renaissance poetry a metaphor for “appetite run wild, a people completely leaderless.” The rider, by contrast, represents the rationality of man. The combined image of the horse and the rider were the halves of man himself.
Giamatti taught a course on Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, an allegory of justice and virtue, and wrote a book about it. He identified with Talus, the enforcer of righteous decisions:
made of yron mould
Immoveable, resistlesse, without end
who in his hand an yron flale did hould
With which he thresht out false- hood, and did Truth unfould.
Giamatti’s preoccupation, academic and otherwise, was with excellence within rules. Reston says Giamatti’s trips to ballparks usually included visits to the spartan (or worse) rooms for the umpires, “the keepers of the rules, the ones who controlled the fire of competition.”
Giamatti, a man devoted to order and excellence, could not fathom the forces raging in Rose’s life. Reston gives new depth to the term “low life” as he recounts Rose’s slide into gambling, debts, drugs, incessant adultery, and the company of muscle-bound dimwits resembling characters who wandered out of a Damon Runyon short story that had been rewritten by Elmore Leonard. Rose was surrounded by body builders whose narcissism was so great they did not notice his own. His retinue included drug dealers and other hangers-on, who greased his slide into criminality. By 1987 he was losing $30,000 a week to bookies—$34,000 on a single Super Bowl bet. His need for money intensified his avarice. During the game in which he broke Ty Cobb’s career record for most hits, he changed his uniform shirt three times—one shirt for himself, one for the Reds’ owner, and one to sell. Reston says that by March 1989, ten collectors claimed to have the bat with which Rose broke Cobb’s record.
The flavor of Rose’s runaway life is caught in Reston’s description of Rose and a lackey named Janszen driving to a baseball card show in Cleveland:
As they started out of Cincinnati, Rose made an unscheduled stop at a house, and out came a young woman whom Janszen knew. The threesome proceeded happily to Cleveland and checked into adjoining rooms in a Holiday Inn. A half hour later, there was a bang on the door, and there stood Pete’s wife. Long-suffering and often cheated upon Carol Rose had finally put a sleuth on her husband’s tail.
Janszen described what took place next: “Pete is frantic. ‘Paul, would you please take the blame. If I put the girl in your room, we’ll lock the middle door. I’ll tell my wife you are with the girl.’ So he lets Carol in, and they are fighting and arguing, you know. And she thinks there’s two girls. He finally throws her out of the room. I said, Pete, why don’t I take this girl to the airport. Just get in there with your wife…. Carol was going crazy…. Pete, I said, just have Carol come in the room, stay with her, and I’ll take the blame. Hell with that, he says. I didn’t drive 200 miles to sleep with my own wife!
“So his wife is in the hallway crying. She finally gets a room. I go down and find out what room she’s checked in. I am down in her room. She is crying. I’m upset, trying to explain to her, I am with a girl that I’m not with. And Pete is up in the room, having sex with this girl.”
Rose’s first wife, Karolyn, was the functional equivalent of a green convertible. She was given, Reston writes, to wearing tight-fitting T-shirts with off-color slogans written on them. Her husband was a moderating influence of sorts, vetoing her request for a CB radio in their Rolls Royce. Rose, who once said that he had been raised but had never grown up, took his girl friends on the team plane and lent them his cars. When his first wife saw her Porsche being driven by a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader, Mrs. Rose “did a fast U-turn, caught up with her Porsche at a stoplight, jumped out, and tapped on the window. When the blond rolled it down, Karolyn punched her in the nose.”
When Rose was getting divorced, he was asked if it upset him. “Nothin’ bothers me,” he said. “If I’m home in bed, I sleep. If I’m at the ballpark, I play baseball. If I’m on the way to the ballpark, I worry about how I’m going to drive. Just whatever is going on, that’s what I do.” As Reston notes dryly, the day Karolyn filed for divorce, Rose went five-for-five. He did what he wanted to do. Karolyn knew the score: “He’s making so much money now that he thinks he doesn’t have to play by the rules.”
Major league baseball’s rules are posted in every clubhouse. The most important, because of baseball’s history, forbids gambling. The office of baseball commissioner was invented in the aftermath of baseball’s worst trauma, the 1919 Black Sox scandal of the fixed World Series.
Baseball and gambling were dreadfully entangled in the game’s early days. Stories are told of bullets splatting into the grass at the feet of outfielders as they were about to make catches that would have upset the calculations of gamblers. In 1867 Harper’s Weekly reported,
So common has betting become at baseball matches that the most respectable clubs in the country indulge in it to a highly culpable degree and so common… [are] the tricks by which games have been “sold” for the benefit of gamblers that the most respectable of participants have been suspected of this baseness.
In the bidding by cities for star players, gamblers joined politicians in offering fringe benefits. In 1872 The New York Times thundered on behalf of amateurism: “To employ professional players to perspire in public for the benefit of gamblers…furnishes to dyspeptic moralists a strong argument against any form of muscular Christianity.” In 1908 some Phillies threw a gambler down the long flight of club-house steps at the Polo Grounds because he had tried to bribe them to throw a game. By then major league baseball was beginning to put gambling behind it. But the worst episode, the Black Sox scandal, was still to come.
By the time Rose’s gambling became too lurid to remain private, there was an interesting contradiction between baseball’s de jure culture and the nation’s civic culture. By the late 1980s, state governments coast-to-coast were in the business of promoting gambling. But gambling remained baseball’s capital crime. And rightly so. Baseball’s nightmare is a player or manager in hock to the mob. The severity of that nightmare is one reason why all commissioners have, if they husband it, vast power.
From time to time commissioners have made decisions that have, in effect, seized owners’ properties. The first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, made some players free agents because he did not like the way certain clubs were hoarding talent. In 1976 Commissioner Bowie Kuhn blocked Charlie Finley, then owner of the Oakland Athletics, from selling three players for $3.5 million, at that time an imposing sum. Kuhn did so under the vast grant of power by which commissioners are entitled to act “in the best interests of baseball.” Denny McLain, the Tigers’ pitcher, was suspended for ninety days in 1970 for associating with gamblers. Leo Durocher, the Dodgers’ manager, was suspended throughout the 1947 season for the same offense.
Some flaws in Reston’s report are not entirely his fault. Some significant participants in major league baseball’s final skirmishes and maneuverings with Rose, including Fay Vincent, who is now commissioner, have chosen not to talk to Reston or anyone else about the details of the case. John Dowd, the Washington attorney who conducted baseball’s investigation of Rose, says that Reston never tried to interview him. In piecing together what happened, Reston gets some details wrong, including some points of law, particularly about what was and was not owed to Rose as his due process rights.
For example, Reston is mistaken when he says baseball rode “roughshod” over Rose’s constitutional rights by compelling him to copy notations on betting slips. Rose was not required to copy anything. He was required to write certain numerals and letters, but the Supreme Court has held that compelling a person to give handwriting samples does not violate Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination. Anyway, baseball’s investigation did not constitute a trial or any other facet of the criminal justice system. It was a housekeeping function by the commissioner who was exercising the broad powers conferred in his charter. Rose, like all others in uniform, had acknowledged the authority of major league baseball’s governing structure. What Rose got from baseball was justice, not perhaps as exquisitely refined as Earl Warren would want it for every stage and procedure of the criminal justice system, but fundamental justice nonetheless.
Also, and in a related point, Reston does not do justice to how close the Rose case came to becoming another case of a familiar political pathology. Yet another functioning American institution—the commissioner’s office—almost became a victim of judicial overreaching. Today’s courts have an unhealthy itch to supervise and fine-tune virtually every equity judgment in American life. Rose’s legal strategy was to find a judge willing to insinuate himself into baseball’s disciplinary procedures. If Rose had succeeded, the commissioner’s office would have been irreparably damaged. Its core function, which is disciplinary, would permanently have been put in question. Another of civil society’s intermediary institutions—those that stand between the individual and the state—would have been broken to the saddle of government. A nanny-like judiciary would henceforth have made the commissioner’s office negligible—another hitherto private institution permeated by state power.
Government action was not involved in major league baseball’s agreement with Rose, a standard agreement signed by whoever wears the uniform. The full panoply of constitutional due process rights did not apply. The “constitutional” rights involved were the commissioner’s. Rose, like everyone else who signs the standard agreement, had acknowledged them.
If Rose’s strategy had succeeded, the thin end of the government’s large wedge would not have been the constitutional rights of the players. It would have been today’s all-purpose word, “fairness.” Some judge probably could have been found to rule that it is unfair, and therefore unconstitutional (much constitutional law rests on that non sequitur), for the commissioner to be both investigator and adjudicator. Actually, uniting those functions is no novelty in American institutions: the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission have similar responsibilities.
In the end, the case was resolved only when rhetoric superseded legalisms. Rose dropped his legal challenge to the commissioner’s powers. In exchange, major league baseball issued a statement that did not include a formal finding that Rose had bet on baseball. But at the press conference announcing the agreement, Giamatti stepped up to the microphone like DiMaggio striding to the plate. In response to a question, he said he was convinced by overwhelming evidence that Rose had bet on baseball. He was able to say so because the investigation he had commissioned by John Dowd had made the facts of Rose’s betting entirely clear.
The evidence included the testimony of eight eyewitnesses, and Rose’s handwriting on betting slips, and telephone records showing that during a ninety-day period, thirty minutes before every game—home or away, night or day—Rose placed calls to people who placed bets.
Giamatti said much more and, as he spoke, the injury to baseball began to heal, and a national sense of ethical standards was strengthened. Baseball had been hurt, but as Reston writes:
It would emerge stronger, however, for the commissioner’s office had come through a difficult test with its absolute powers affirmed, and the principle established that no man, no matter how exalted, was above the game itself. For Giamatti, the whole episode had been about two things: living by the rules, and taking responsibility for one’s actions….
The country was witnessing a rare sight. The words alone were surprising: disgrace, banishment, integrity, authenticity, idealism, and the purchase that the national game had on the national soul.
Baseball was integrated before the armed services were; its Black Sox scandal of seventy-two years ago is more indelibly etched on the nation’s memory than the Watergate scandal of nineteen years ago. In the Rose crisis, baseball supplied a sight for the nation’s sore eyes—eyes made sore by looking for leaders in the years since Watergate. Reston writes:
Here was a leader who had been through a difficult and painful and debilitating process, who had agonized and had even been badly mistaken along the way, but who, at the end, spoke plainly and directly from the heart with natural eloquence…. He did not get technical or legalistic. There were no pauses or mumbles. Without regret or qualification, he took a simple and clear moral position…. To the wider world, this moment of leadership was stunning and uplifting….
The commissioner was talking about baseball, but his message applied to all American institutions; therein lay the power of the moment.
‘There was,” Reston writes, “something biblical—indeed, Old Testament—about the punishment.” Rose, like Adam, was banished from the garden that Giamatti tended. Rose had become, by that point in his downward spiraling life, a moral monster. This was not because his sins were scarlet—although they were so scarlet—but because of the coarseness of his self-absorption. He injured baseball a bit and affronted many people who had admired him in undiscriminating ways, but mostly he ruined himself.
Giamatti once said, “At the moment where an athlete makes something happen, everyone watching is elevated.” In his handling of Rose, Giamatti was an athlete of governance. Nowadays, when thinking well of a public person may be considered a dereliction of journalistic duty, it is rare for a writer to face the discomfiting fact that one of his subjects is a fine person. So a tip of the cap to Reston for his simple affirmation that Giamatti was “a wonderful human being.” A sentimental judgment? No, good reporting.
June 27, 1991