On a beautiful July morning in 1991, three men gathered in a hotel suite for an informal breakfast and conversation. The discussion ranged widely over events and characters of the past, famous names and fabled accomplishments flowing along with the coffee and juice. Two of them, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, were the ultimate symbols of athletic glory for generations of American men. The third man, Fay Vincent, was living a dream, sitting with and asking questions of his boyhood heroes.
Fay Vincent never set out to be the commissioner of baseball. He got into the game alongside his good friend A. Bartlett Giamatti, as deputy commissioner, when Giamatti was named to the sport's highest office in 1989. They spent their first spring and summer dealing with Pete Rose's gambling, and Vincent's legal expertise complemented his friend's moral thunder. But that was to be their only season working side by side, as Bart Giamatti's heart gave out just days after the announcement of the Rose suspension. Vincent found himself the only logical candidate to fill a position as guardian of the best interests of the game he loves.
In The Last Commissioner: A Baseball Valentine, Vincent takes us along for the ultimate fan's fantasy camp. As commissioner, he got to talk baseball with the likes of Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, Warren Spahn, Ernie Banks, Eddie Lopat, Whitey Ford, and Henry Aaron. He brought his legal training to bear on the delicate issue of whether Roger Clemens uttered the magic word that would justify his being tossed out of a playoff game (and it's not the word you think). He was one of the few outsiders at the annual Hall of Fame banquet for the new inductees and their immortal peers, where he watched, amazed, as Johnny Mize demonstrated to Ralph Kiner his method of hitting an inside pitch -- a piece of advice from forty years past. And he brought equal respect and attention to the greats of the Negro Leagues, listening to the gracefully told stories of Joe Black and Buck O'Neil, slowly learning how Slick Surratt earned his nickname, hearing Jimmie Crutchfield give as good a definition of a well-lived life as we will ever know.
Vincent shares these stories and more: his high regard for umpires, instilled in his youth by his father, an NFL official and respected local ump; his close relations with the Bush family, forged in a summer spent working in the oil fields with his schoolmate Bucky Bush, the 41st president's brother (and 43rd president's uncle); his unusual experiences with the relentless George Steinbrenner, including the famous meeting where the Yankees owner was facing a two-year suspension and plea-bargained it down to a lifetime ban. Vincent also gives his candid views on the state of baseball today, firm in his belief that the game will survive its current leadership and even prosper.
Through it all, Vincent's deep love of baseball shines through. His most remarkable accomplishment as commissioner may have been to emerge from the office with his fandom intact. The Last Commissioner is truly a valentine to the game, written with the insight and vision that comes from the lofty perch of the ultimate front-row seat.
To publish a valentine to baseball on the heels of the sport's recent labor crisis seems like a particularly bad stroke of timing. It is to his credit that Vincent, the commissioner of baseball in the late 1980s and early '90s, ignores the game's current scars to focus on its past-both the distant past of DiMaggio and Williams and the more recent past of Vincent's own tenure. Unfortunately, Vincent too often sends his valentine to his brand-name chums, to whom he gives various shout-outs ("Ralph Branca... is today a great friend"; late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti was "a friend who enriched me, changed me, challenged me, fascinated me"), or even to himself. He describes his "full life" cavorting with CEOs-he was a Hollywood producer, a Coca-Cola executive and a Yale Law School graduate, he reminds readers a few times-and assorted baseball legends. What redeems the book are the deep reserves of baseball anecdotes throughout, recalled by everyone from Leo Durocher and the DiMaggio brothers to a rookie umpire. Vincent also vividly retells the turbulent months he spent building cases against Pete Rose and George Steinbrenner in a manner that manages to be informed without feeling like insider gossip. A chapter on baseball's most recent labor crisis offers some innovative, if at times not fully cooked, ideas about how owners and players can better work together. This is an uneven and at times self-indulgent effort, but Vincent gets away with it, in part because of the book's appealing leisurely pace and nostalgic tone.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Simon & Schuster
September 19, 2007
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Excerpt from The Last Commissioner by Fay Vincent
Mostly, I've been lucky. I came of baseball age in the late 1940s, when Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were at the height of their powers. My family lived in southern Connecticut, in New Haven, a train ride away from Boston and a train ride away from New York. You could get the Red Sox games on the radio. But the Yankee games you could get -- if you actually had one -- on TV. We had a DuMont TV, black-and-white, about the size of a breadbox; my father, a frugal New Englander, had won it at a raffle at a Polish Catholic church in New Haven. I rooted for DiMaggio's Yankees, much to my father's chagrin. His team was the Philadelphia Athletics of Connie Mack. "Rooting for the Yankees," he'd say, "is like rooting for General Motors." The Red Sox, anchored by Williams in left, embodied the New England spirit: frugal, never flashy, successful, but not wildly so. When the Sox and the Yankees played, our little world slowed down. How many hits for DiMaggio? How many hits for Williams? Who won? Up and down Orange Street, where we rented the first floor of a three-family house, that's what people wanted to know. All the ballplayers were heroes, and these two men were the giants among them. They were in your dreams at night, on the sports page the following morning, they followed you up to the plate in our sandlot games as we tried to imitate their batting stances.
Later, I became the commissioner of baseball. As I say, I've been lucky. Forty years after Orange Street I was the commissioner of baseball and Williams and DiMaggio were still alive and well and active in the game I was charged with running. I found myself with a legitimate role in their lives, which, even as an idea, took some getting used to. When I became commissioner -- after the death of my great friend, Bart Giamatti, late in the 1989 season -- I remember walking on the grass at Wrigley Field and having the feeling that somebody would chase me off, that somebody would realize I was an interloper. But nobody did, and in fact people were very nice to me: I was the commissioner of baseball. And because I was the commissioner of baseball, I got to know DiMaggio and Williams, the heroes of my boyhood. The title came with remarkable privileges.
One day, I was able to spend several hours with them in a Washington hotel room, talking baseball. The two men respected each other, but they were never pals, they were not close friends, and now I had the two of them in a single room. As far as I know, it was the longest conversation the two of them ever had, the most time they had ever spent together. When this remarkable session was over, I did something smart: I got out a notebook and started writing things down as fast and as accurately -- I'm blessed with a good memory -- as I could.
I had met DiMaggio first, a few years earlier, in Baltimore, at a meeting of the Orioles board of directors. Eli Jacobs, the owner of the Orioles, did a smart thing: People he liked, he put on his board in ceremonial positions. DiMaggio was on that board. Howard Baker, the former Senate majority leader. George Will, the writer. An interesting group. I was invited to attend a meeting, as commissioner. I met DiMaggio and sat next to him during the game that followed. I knew enough to know that one had to be very careful, very respectful, when approaching DiMaggio on any subject.
"May I ask you a fan's questions?"
"You are the commissioner of baseball. You can ask me anything you want, Mr. Commissioner. I'll answer."
I warmed him up with some innocent questions. But then:
"How come you never hit 400?" I asked.
"Now that is a question almost nobody asks me," he said.
"They're afraid. I know you won't yell at me."
"It's a good question," DiMaggio said. This was a pleasing thing, to be able to ask DiMaggio -- the great DiMaggio, as Ernest Hemingway called him in The Old Man and the Sea -- a good question. "In 1939, I was going to hit .400. Right around the first of September, we clinched the pennant. We always clinched around the first of September. Right about then, I was hitting .408.
"I was going to hit over .400 that year. Then I got an eye infection. Couldn't see out of the infected eye. Our manager was Joe McCarthy. Every day, McCarthy puts me in the lineup. Commissioner, that guy made out a lineup card in April and he never changed it. Every day I'd go to the ballpark, every day my eye is getting worse and worse, and every day I'm in the lineup. I couldn't hit. My average starts falling. Finally, the eye gets so bad they have to give me an injection in the eye. And McCarthy still has me in the lineup. I wouldn't say anything to him. Now I did not have a bad year, Commissioner. I batted .381. But with my eye amost closed I had to open my stance. The infection was in my left eye, the lead eye. So I had to swing my left foot around to try to see the ball, but I couldn't. I had trouble and my average fell. That was my year to bat .400 and I didn't do it."
My little interview was going all right, so I asked the follow-up question: "Joe, did McCarthy ever tell you why he kept you in the lineup every day with the eye infection?"
"Yes, one time," Joe said. "We were in Buffalo, speaking together. He says, 'Joe, did you ever wonder why the hell I kept you in the lineup that year, when you had the bad eye?'
"I said, 'Yes, I did.'
"He says, 'Because I didn't want you to be a cheese champion.'"
"Cheese champion?" I asked. "What does that mean?"
"I don't know, Commissioner," Joe said. "I never asked."
From then on, I loved talking to Joe because he seemed interested in talking to me. This was all a function of my job, and I was grateful for it -- about the greatest unexpected benefit a job could have. My office was in New York, where Joe spent a lot of time. Every so often, my secretary would say, "Mr. Vincent, Mr. DiMaggio is here. He wonders if you could see him." I would say, "There is always time in the commissioner's life for the Yankee Clipper." He loved that. He would say, "I was in the building and just stopped by." He was around a fair bit, because he had a great friendship with his old teammate Dr. Bobby Brown, the American League president who was also a physician.
With DiMaggio, all the great questions were long-simmering, and he went to his grave with many of them unanswered. Bobby had the same fascination with Joe that I had, that a great many of us of my generation had. Bobby used to tell the story of a game in which Joe hit two long shots to deep center -- it might have been Joe's brother, Dom, of the Boston Red Sox in center, I'm not sure -- and both times the centerfielder made the catch. Now he comes up a third time, same thing. Three huge blows, three outs, Joe comes into the dugout and there's an ice bucket. He kicks it as hard as he can. But the ice bucket is jammed up against a pole in front of the dugout. The bucket doesn't budge. "Every heart in the dugout stopped because he's our meal ticket," Bobby said.
"Now I'm in medical school. I know he has to be hurting like mad, he's probably broken at least a toe. But he shows no emotion. We don't say a word and he doesn't say a word. He just walks down the dugout and sits down. Doesn't rub his foot, doesn't touch it, nothing.
"Years later, we're in Japan together. I say to him, 'Joe, there's a question I've been wanting to ask you for years. Do you remember the game where you hit those three shots to center and made three outs, came into the dugout, and kicked the ice bucket?'
"'Oh yeah, I remember. My foot hurt for weeks. Jesus, I thought I had broken it. But I couldn't let you guys know I was hurting. I couldn't do that.' When someone asks how Joe led that team, that's the story I tell."
I once said to DiMaggio, "People are always asking you about your successes. May I ask you a question about failure?"
We had been talking about All-Star games.
"What's the biggest failure you ever had in an All-Star game?"
"My first one, 1936," DiMaggio said, without pausing. He knew his career like nobody's business, the good times and the bad, not that there were many of those. "I was playing right field, at Fenway. Earl Averill, from Cleveland, was in center. He was senior to me. I was a rookie. Schoolboy Rowe was warming up along the right-field foul line for us. Gabby Hartnett, the Cubs' catcher, comes up to bat for the National League.
"I hear Rowe saying to me, 'Back up, kid, this guy hits out here.'
I backed up a little bit. 'Back up, rookie. He's gonna hit it out here.' I knew how to play the outfield, and I didn't like to play deep, but I backed up a little more. I'm a rookie, I'm not going to show up Schoolboy Rowe.
"Hartnett hit a shallow line drive. I went charging in for it. I never dove for a ball in my life, Commissioner, and I didn't dive then. The ball went right under my glove. The ball got by me, went to the wall, and we lost. Everybody ripped me, except one guy. Commissioner, do you know who that was?"
"Damon Runyon. Runyon was the Yankee beat writer. He was the only guy who didn't rip me."
In 1991, the All-Star game was to be played in Toronto and I invited President Bush -- the first President Bush, older brother of my high-school classmate and friend Bucky Bush -- to be my guest at the game. The president's son, George W., was then the president of the Texas Rangers.
I was in my office when the phone rang and the White House operator said, "Mr. Vincent, the president would like to speak to you. Are you available?" When the president of the United States calls, your heart skips a beat. Of course you are available. A minute later, George Bush was on the phone. His voice was very upbeat. He said, "I have an idea. You've invited me to the All-Star game. Why don't you come here with Williams and DiMaggio before the game, we'll have a ceremony midday in the Rose Garden, I'll give them the Presidential Medal of Freedom and then we'll all fly to Toronto? I'll meet with the Canadian prime minister. It will be the first time a president has ever gone to a ballgame outside the United States and it could be the first time a ballgame has been used for a diplomatic meeting." I could hear the excitement in his voice. It was wonderful.
We agreed that he would call Williams and I would call DiMaggio. A couple of days later, the president called again. "We have a problem. DiMaggio has already received the Medal of Freedom. Williams doesn't have it but DiMaggio does." I had already called DiMaggio, who neglected to mention that fact to me. I said to the president, "Go look in the closet. There must be another award you can give him." He laughed. "That's exactly what we'll do," he said.
When I called DiMaggio, I received a tremendous insight into his world. The moment I asked him if this was something he'd like to do, DiMaggio said, "Do you want me to come, Commissioner? Is it personal to you?" He was making a mental note, depositing a chit from me into his account. Now he'd have a favor in the bank if he ever needed one from me. I realized that he lived in a world where he would do you a favor, but in doing so you created a debt. If I was having a problem with George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner, and I had plenty of those, Joe would say, "Mr. Commissioner, I think I can be helpful to you." And he tried to be, but all the while he was depositing a chit in his account with me. Maybe the whole world works that way, but with DiMaggio it was more evident.
Anyway, we began to make the arrangements for our day at the White House and our trip to Toronto, and nothing is easy when you're traveling with the president of the United States, to say nothing of the Yankee Clipper. He gave the impression of not being excited about doing anything. That was central to his character. At one point, I was telling Bobby Brown of our plans. Now Bobby had known DiMaggio for decades. He said to me, "Fay, let me tell you how the day will go. Joe will do everything you would like him to do. He will have a great time. When it's all over, he will say, 'I had a good time, I enjoyed myself, it was a very nice day. I will never do it again.'"
The night before the Rose Garden ceremony, I went to Washington, spent the night in a beautiful, large suite at the Madison Hotel. The next morning at about half past seven, the telephone rang. It was DiMaggio, asking if I'd like to join him for breakfast. I invited him up to the suite for breakfast; he said he'd be up in fifteen minutes. I put the phone down, it rang again. It was Williams. I told him that DiMaggio was coming up for breakfast and asked if he would do the same.
He had his son, John Henry, with him. I said John Henry was welcome, too.
We were due at the White House around noon. We had the entire morning. I knew then it was, for a serious baseball fan, a historic occasion: two of the greatest ballplayers of all time, two players who defined a generation, sitting together and talking baseball in more detail and at greater length than they had ever before. I can see the table in my mind, the four of us sitting at it, eating eggs and bacon, as clearly as I can see my hand in front of my face. DiMaggio was dressed beautifully as he always was, tailored sport coat, pressed pants, each of his perfect silver hairs in place, nails neatly manicured. Williams looked much more like a professor of hitting. If the barber had had an off day the day he was working on Williams, Ted didn't care. DiMaggio was calculated, reserved, always "on," soft-spoken, measured. Williams was effervescent. Williams took the lead. He brought DiMaggio out.
He said, "Joe? Joe! Did you ever use a lighter bat when you got older? Jesus Christ, I did, and it made such a difference. How 'bout you, Joe? Did you ever use a lighter bat?"
And DiMaggio answered, "No, you know, I never did that, Ted."
And Ted was surprised. "Really, Joe? Because I did, and it made such a difference." It was Williams as an expert interviewer, on his favorite subject, hitting.
"Well, maybe, once. In the World Series, in 1951. My last season."
DiMaggio was talking now, and you could hear a breakfast spoon drop on the plush Madison carpeting between his carefully chosen words.
"Fifty-one series, and I couldn't get a hit. Hitless in the first three games against the New York Giants. We trailed, two games to one. Game Four was rained out. I spent that day with Lefty O'Doul, my manager from my minor-league days in San Francisco. O'Doul told me to use a lighter bat. I had used a thirty-seven-ounce bat my whole career. This one was thirty-four. I did what Lefty told me. Had a single and a homer in Game Four, which we won. Few more hits in Game Five, which we won. Few more in Game Six, which we won. The Series was over and I was done. The only time I ever used a lighter bat."
Williams was wonderful, drawing DiMaggio out, but it wasn't always easy. Williams's intuitive understanding of DiMaggio was extraordinary. I had the strong sense that the two men, these two greatest living baseball icons, hardly knew each other, and here I was, playing a role in getting the two of them together. At one point, Ted said to Joe, "Do you remember Ned Garver, that little righthander for the Browns?"
"I remember him," DiMaggio answered.
"I had trouble with that son of a bitch. He could throw anything up there and get me out."
"I think I did all right against him," DiMaggio said.
At one point Williams said, "At Griffith Stadium, Joe, did you feel like you were hitting uphill? Did you feel like the whole park was tilted against you?"
"No," said Joe. "I never noticed that, Ted. I liked that ballpark, hit very well there."
Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, I was ready with a question. I asked, "Could you guys hit the knuckleball? When you guys played, didn't Washington have five knuckleballers?"
"Of course, Commissioner, I could hit the knuckleball," Williams said.
"That's right, we could hit the knuckleball," DiMaggio said.
"Hitting a knuckleball is like swatting a goddamn fly, dancing around," Williams said. "You don't lunge at it, you wait. You're going to miss some, and you're going to hit some."
"How about knockdown pitches," I asked. "Did guys throw at you?" Williams jumped at that question.
"Oh, it was stupid to throw at us. The one thing you didn't want was for Joe or for me to get mad. Not smart." I thought it was very charming, the way Ted included Joe, speaking for Joe in the least presumptuous way. "You hoped that we didn't feel good, that we had a cold, that for some reason we didn't care. The one thing you don't want to do is get us mad. Now you throw a ball at me and I am going to go down, but I'm going to get back up. And now I'm going to be angry. You don't want me angry. You want me daydreaming, you want me not caring. Now I'm angry. The next strike you throw, I'm going to hit it."
I was like a kid in the candy store, knowing he can eat all the candy he wants and that he will not get sick. I asked them, "Did you guys guess? Were you guess hitters? Did you try to guess whether the next pitch would be a fastball or a curve?"
"That's not the way I would put it, Commissioner," Joe said. "I calculated the odds, what you think is going to happen, which is not guessing. You're pitching to me, you've got me a little behind in the count, a ball and two strikes. You have a really good fastball and you've got a curve. I can't afford to take the chance that you're going to slip the fastball by me. So I've got to look for the fastball and be ready to adjust to the curve. On the other hand, if I'm ahead in the count, I know you're going to throw me a fastball and that gives me a terrific advantage, because I can hit a fastball. I can hit it quite hard if I'm expecting it. It's all a case of expectations."
Bart Giamatti used to say that you had to be really smart to be an excellent hitter, that a Williams or a DiMaggio had an enormous, calculating brain. At that moment, I understood exactly what he was talking about. I had the feeling that if you gave these guys an IQ test that was geared toward sheer intelligence, the ability to come up with the correct answer on the basis of presented data, they would both be off the charts. Being with them in that room, for three uninterrupted hours, was one of the great experiences of my life.
The rest of the day was memorable, too. (Every encounter I ever had with DiMaggio or Williams was memorable, as commissioner and in the years after I left the office, too.) At the Rose Garden ceremony, it was obvious what true affection President Bush had for these two men. He awarded them...nothing. Just a nice ceremony on a beautiful July day to honor two baseball icons on the day of the All-Star game. President Bush was a great baseball fan, and a great fan of both players. Everywhere we went that day, the power of DiMaggio and Williams together was staggering. I had been the chairman of Columbia Pictures and saw Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Candice Bergen, great stars, in action, in public. The response to DiMaggio and Williams was clearly at a higher and deeper level. As we entered the Oval Office, a tall, crisp Marine officer in white gloves said to me, "Would Mr. DiMaggio and Mr. Williams be willing to sign my glove? I could go to the brig for this, but I don't care. Those two are great heroes." John Sununu, President Bush's chief of staff, asked DiMaggio and Williams to sign four dozen balls, which is a lot. DiMaggio, in his life, probably never signed forty-eight balls in one sitting -- flat objects, yes, many more than that. They were terrific about it, and with every signature and every little conversation they had, their stature just continued to grow. I complimented them on how they handled themselves in public. Williams said, "You work at it. It's not an accident." DiMaggio said, "You have to be very aware of every public thing you do."
But even on that day, I could see the private DiMaggio was different. When Sununu presented him with the balls, DiMaggio looked at me and said, "Is he kidding?"
"He's not kidding," I said.
"I'm going to do it, Commissioner, but I don't like it."
But this was all private, between Joe and me. Sununu and the president had no idea what DiMaggio was thinking.
At some point, I became very aware that I would not likely ever again have a day like this, and that I had better take full advantage of it. After being at the White House, DiMaggio, Williams, and I rode out to Andrews Air Force Base, a forty-five-minute drive, to take Air Force One to Toronto for the All-Star game. I got in as many questions as I could, particularly to DiMaggio. You could always talk to Williams about baseball, hitting particularly. That was his life's work. DiMaggio had to be in the correct setting to want to talk, and this entire day was the correct setting.
"Joe," I said, "could you tell me about Lazzeri?" Tony Lazzeri was a second baseman on the 1927 Yankees -- the greatest baseball team ever, many people think, I among them. Lazzeri was from San Francisco, like Joe, and he was closing out his career when Joe was beginning his. He was a legend, in part because he played with Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio, in part because he was a Yankee. "He was a great second baseman," DiMaggio said. DiMaggio was spare, and not often generous, in his analysis of others, so when he said words like those, it was truly startling. "He had epilepsy," DiMaggio said. "He had a seizure, fell down the basement steps, and died. Did you know that?" I did not.