It's astonishing, when you think about it, that two such wildly dissimilar personalities as Pete Rose and A. Bartlett Giamatti should have even met, let alone, metaphorically at least, collided. But as James Reston Jr. so ably persuades us in Collision at Home Plate—The Lives of Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti (HarperCollins, $19.95), their lives were somehow fated to intersect, and with mutually disastrous consequences. Before his clash with Giamatti, Rose's most famous home-plate collision was with American League catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game, a dustup celebrated at the time as characteristic of Rose's crowd-pleasing, hell-for-leather style of play. Many felt it ruined Fosse's career. The collision with Giamatti would ruin Rose's. And, in all probability, it would contribute to Giamatti's premature death at 51.
By now the story of Rose's compulsive gambling, which Giamatti said he believed involved betting on baseball, is painfully familiar. What sets Reston's book apart from other accounts is his threading together of the lives of the wayward ballplayer and the commissioner who cast him out. In the end, the real collision was between the pragmatist and the idealist, the vulgarian and the aesthete. Reston, writing his first book with a sports theme, leaves little doubt where his sympathies lie. Rose, he writes, was good newspaper copy because of "the wisecracks, the braggadocio, the ribald jokes, the memory for his own statistics, the bad grammar, the ardor and single-minded-ness, the elemental, balls-scratching primitivism." Giamatti, on the other hand, was "more interested in illusion than in reality.... Hope and bittersweet memory and illusion and denial are more interesting than outright triumph to the poet." When he left the presidency of Yale in 1986 to become first the president of the National League, then commissioner of baseball, he saw the fans as his true constituency. Indeed, he was forever one of them.
Reston's prose nimbly dances back and forth between the two lives, drawing some unexpected parallels. Rose, for all his crudeness, knew how to play to a crowd and could be quite funny in public; Giamatti was an accomplished farceur as a Yale undergraduate and a lifelong devotee of the theater. They both, of course, loved baseball. But while Rose abused his high station in the game, Giamatti, the visionary, sought to raise his. When he banished Rose, Giamatti saw himself, according to Reston, as "an American leader...showing the leaders of other American institutions that absolute, sincere, passionate stands were possible." He died, a martyr to his ideals, only a few days after passing judgment.
The late commissioner is cast in a somewhat harsher light by Marvin Miller in his A Whole Different Ball Game—the Sport and Business of Baseball (Birch Lane Press, $21.95). The retired first and foremost executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association is repelled by "the aura of sainthood" surrounding Giamatti, a man he sees as "pompous, righteous, a dilettante," one whose paeans to the game smack of "poetic goo." Miller is convinced Giamatti pursued a personal vendetta against Rose and violated the terms of their agreed-upon settlement by saying in a press conference that Rose had bet on baseball.
The denunciation of Giamatti occupies only a few pages of this, on the whole, peevish book. Poor Bowie Kuhn, who was commissioner for much of Miller's 17-year tenure as the union leader, gets battered from beginning to end. He is ridiculed as a union-buster of such surpassing incompetence that "to paraphrase Voltaire on God, if Bowie Kuhn had never existed, we would have had to invent him." But Miller really doesn't have much good to say about anybody, including such villains as greedy owners, unscrupulous agents, ignorant sportswriters, uninformed fans or even—now that, through him, they've gotten what they want and are acting complacent about it—ungrateful players.
It is a pity that there is so much repetitious name-calling and self-congratulation in this overlong (413 pages) book, because Miller's story of the players' escape from the bondage of baseball's old reserve clause is an important one. Maybe he should have allowed somebody else to tell it for him.