After the Death of Bart Giamatti, His Friend Fay Vincent Steps in as the Commissioner's Pinch Hitter

updated 09/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Baseball, figures Francis T. "Fay" Vincent Jr., prepares you for life's great disappointments. "Every boy starts out thinking he can become a major leaguer," he says. "Up until the age of 14. Then he becomes a spectator. Teams let him down. Then players don't perform. After all, they only succeed three out of 10 times at bat. Baseball teaches you to cope with failure and disappointment."

And so on Sept. 1, when his friend and boss, A. Bartlett Giamatti, 51, died of a sudden heart attack (see following story) at the peak of his first summer as commissioner of baseball, Fay Vincent was prepared. "I will try to carry on," said the 51-year-old acting commissioner. "I know how Bart felt about the game. We both loved it and respected it and were in awe of its place in the American soul."

Giamatti often spoke lyrically about the mystical beauty of the game he revered. Vincent, a lifelong fan himself, shared his late friend's sense of wonder about the national pastime. "No one knows why baseball itself works," he says. "We thrill to it, we appreciate the great splash of colors and the contrast. I've always been struck by the green of the field and the white of the bases. The home team wears white; that seems important. Maybe it's the immutability of the design. The 90-foot base paths, the 60-foot distance between home plate and the mound. But we really don't know why the game works. Maybe it's the fact that it's the only game played in summer. It has the best season."

On the surface, they seemed an odd pair—Giamatti, the witty Renaissance scholar and former president of Yale, and Vincent, the reserved lawyer and former chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. They were introduced at the Princeton home of a mutual friend a dozen years ago. "We were friends from the moment we met," says Vincent. It turned out they shared both their ages and Yale—Giamatti attended as an undergraduate, Vincent as a law student. "Bart said to me that night, 'Whose job is better?' He was president of Yale, and I was head of Columbia Pictures, and we agreed they were both impossible jobs. Then I said my job was better, and he asked me why, and I pointed out that I made $300,000, about three times what he earned. He laughed. He had a great capacity for joy, great energy." In the years that followed, says Vincent, "We often talked about working together. Bart said that whatever we do, we should do it together. If he had a job where he could hire me, he would, and if I had a job where I could hire him, I would. But the important thing was that we would be together."

When Vincent became executive vice president of the Coca-Cola Company in 1986, he tried to find a job for Giamatti. "But there was nothing for him there," he says. Still, they kept up. Vincent and his wife, Valerie, have three children and live in Connecticut, not far from Giamatti's home in nearby Hamden. When Giamatti was named baseball commissioner last year, he called his friend and said, "Come with me—we'll go to games and write one book a year." "What will I do?" asked Vincent. Fred Wilpon, co-owner of the New York Mets, suggested the post of chief operating officer and deputy commissioner.

Vincent gave up his high-paying job at Coca-Cola to work for his friend as baseball's first deputy commissioner. Much of their energy was spent on the Pete Rose case, but this did not stop them from getting out to the ballpark on a regular basis. "We went to Yankee Stadium," recalls Vincent, "and the fans all knew Bart and teased him, and he teased them back. He wouldn't sit in the press box; he sat among the fans. That's where he wanted to be."

If Giamatti was the poet, Vincent was regarded as the bottom-line bookkeeper who would shepherd the upcoming negotiations with the players' union and oversee major-league expansion. "Fay has vast corporate experience," says Frank Cashen, executive vice president and general manager of the New York Mets. "Whether or not he can deal with the kind of gregarious groups baseball has, from umpires to players to owners, is something I just don't know." The Executive Council plans to meet this week to determine how long Vincent's stewardship will last; some baseball insiders feel "pro tern" might be dropped from Vincent's title down the line and he will be named baseball's eighth commissioner.

Vincent's commissionership, be it temporary or not, comes at the end of a difficult summer. Giamatti's 154-day term was consumed with the Rose affair, which, unfortunate though it was, the commissioner felt underscored one of baseball's basic truths. "You have to go back and read his decision on the case," says Cashen. "I think the last line is, 'No individual is superior to the game.' "

"We both felt that whatever happened, we didn't want to injure the game," says Vincent, speaking for his friend. "The game—it's so much more than that. It's America. It is the essential part of the American soul. And it should be changed as little as possible—above all, do not tamper with the game."

—Ken Gross, with additional reporting by Andrew Abrahams in New York Continued

From Our Partners