I had gone back east to Yale University for a parents' weekend, planning to attend a lecture on student living arrangements. But then the lecture was canceled. At that same hour Friday afternoon, Yale was holding a memorial service for A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late commissioner of baseball and a former president of the university.
Only once, in 1987, had I met Giamatti, and then just briefly. But on the morning he announced the settlement of the Pete Rose case, I formed an indelible impression of him as a man who despite all controversy would stand for high values and have the ability to articulate them. Something this country needed.
That night, I mentioned to my 14-year-old son, an ardent fan and student of baseball, that Giamatti might make a good President of the United States.
The Yale memorial service fortified that impression. As the speakers demonstrated, Giamatti had been an exhilarating presence in both the academic and sports life of the nation.
It was a wonderful service, sad and yet, as the best of such remembrances are, also a celebration--baseball mixed in with Yale, with committed scholarship, with tough but compassionate administration, with civilized behavior. It was a celebration, it seemed, not only of Giamatti's life, but of the great institutions with which he had been associated.
Through a series of stirring speeches and music to a climactic singing of the "Battle Hymm of the Republic," this was a memorial that awed everyone in attendance.
Of those paying tribute, no one was more eloquent than Giamatti's eldest son, Marcus, a 1987 Yale graduate.
"My father--the idealist and the epical romantic," he said. "I can remember home first on Central Avenue in the Westville section of New Haven. Yes, when I was age 4--and 5 and 6. I would sit on my father's knee, in his favorite overstuffed, scarred, leather chair. And he would read to me from a simple adaptation of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene--about 'St. George and the Dragon' . . .
" 'Marcus . . . ' His eyes would widen magically and he'd bare his awesome teeth. 'This noble knight, riding swiftly on the plain, this Red Cross knight, is on a great adventure bound, sent by Gloriana, to try his untried might. . . . ' He would whisper ominously: 'A dreadful enemy awaits him--a Foul Fiend--a dragon dangerous and frightful to behold. . . . ' And thus he would begin again to teach me to believe in myself, to be resourceful and resilient, and to carry on the fight. He would have so much fun with me when he read 'St. George.' He would act out all the parts, and he would allow me to dream, because he was dreaming too."
Giamatti's son continued: "At home again--at age 10 and 12 and 14--I would play baseball with my father. His brow furrowed, he would scrutinize my 'stance' at home plate (which often was a cardboard box-lid or a plastic dish). And with his usual unusual intensity, he would instruct: 'Marcus! Concentrate your forces! Focus! Keep your eye on the ball! It's just like anything else. . . . ' Or: 'Marcus! When you take a cut at the ball, swing with all your might! Remember, every stroke is a new time--a second chance; learn from the mistakes you made the last time. One of these days, you'll hit the ball right out of the park! It's just like anything else. . . . ' Or: 'Marcus! Never argue with the umpire. Try to understand him. Remember that he has an important job to do; he keeps and protects the laws of the game. . . .'
"Let no one say, 'There are no more heroes.' My father is my hero. And when I read the final paragraph of his book, 'A Free and Ordered Space,' I know that he is here with me and that he teaches me still: 'You must know that idealism is not paralyzing but liberating. And that to strive for principles, even if the journey is never completed, is to tap a vast source of energy, the energy to commit to do your best in the precious brief time each of us is blessed to have. You must not waver! I know you will not!' "
The memorial service went on, each speaker drawing lessons from Giamatti's life. "He was driven by an outsize compulsion always to do what was 'decent,' which is to say, what was fitting, comely, suitable," said Maynard Mack, retired chairman of the Yale English department. "He was a player in Shakespeare's sense, one who accepts with gusto whatever roles life calls on him to assume and plays them to the top of his bent."
Mack recalled that Giamatti, when he became president of Yale at a time when the school was running a $10-million annual deficit, had remarked, "I'm going to hate some of the things I'll have to do, and people are going to hate me." Yet, his fiscal severity put Yale back on a sound footing.
Maxine Singer, a Brooklyn-born molecular biologist with the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health and a Yale trustee, paid tribute to Giamatti for giving to Yale "the verve of a young student, the dedication of an exuberant teacher, the principled vision of a great president."