Immediately after his election as Commissioner of baseball, Angelo Bartlett Giamatti faced the most significant scandal to rock baseball since the 1919 Black Sox. While investigating Pete Rose, Giamatti’s prime responsibility was to protect the game, even when it was threatened by one of baseball’s high-profile figures.
The case against Rose, and the lifetime ban he levied, remain Giamatti’s legacy.
Giamatti’s actions in the years prior to his accession to the commissioner’s office offer a better understanding of who Giamatti was both as a fan of the game and as a league official.
In 1988, while serving as President of the National League, Giamatti suspended Rose for 30 days for shoving umpire Dave Pallone during an argument. Rose alleged that Pallone provoked him by poking him in the eye, a charge Pallone denied and baseball could not prove.
After Rose was ejected, the fans in Cincinnati threw objects onto the field, delaying the game for 15 minutes and forcing Pallone to leave the field for the remainder of the game.
Cincinnati radio announcers Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall made the situation worse with on-air conduct that encouraged the fans. Giamatti publicly issued a strong reprimand to both announcers and summoned them for a private meeting. Giamatti said, “There is no excuse for encouraging a situation where the physical safety and well-being of any individual is put significantly at risk. Nothing justifies such unprofessional behavior.”
He may not have been able to punish these men, but he could make an example of them. Some unruly behavior committed by fans is to be expected in a game known for heckling of players, but Giamatti felt such conduct was a threat to the game.
This was one of the most high-profile incidents in Giamatti’s tenure as the President of the National League. His decision to deal with the behavior of the fans that night went beyond what happened on the field between Rose and Pallone. It addressed the bigger picture of protecting the values of baseball.
It may have seemed like a relatively small incident at the time, but Giamatti appeared to have served notice to the rest of the league that all aspects of the game would be protected under his watch.
Rose should have heeded this warning.
Impressed by Giamatti’s performance atop the National League, baseball owners unanimously elected him to a five-year term as Commissioner in 1989. His first order of business was the investigation of Rose, which he had inherited from his predecessor, Peter Ueberroth.
Giamatti moved the investigation out of the commissioner’s office and appointed John Dowd as Special Counsel to the Commissioner. Dowd was tasked with discovering if the allegations against Rose were true and reported his findings directly to Giamatti.
In one savvy move, Giamatti had ensured the investigation would be fair to Rose and reduce the damage the scandal would cause to baseball.
Dowd conducted an extensive inquiry, speaking with bookies who had direct contact with Rose to obtain evidence that he had bet on his own team. Books written in code and deciphered during the investigation, bank records, telephone records, expert reports and interview transcripts provided baseball with a detailed history of Rose’s transgressions.
The Dowd Report, delivered to Giamatti in May of 1989, ultimately forced Rose to relent in his defense and accept the lifetime ban handed down by Giamatti. The commissioner’s case against Rose was absolute, and so was the punishment dictated by the rules of baseball.
According to Major League Baseball Rule 21, “Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.”
Still, the lifetime ban and permanent ineligibility for baseball’s all-time hits king has been controversial since the punishment was announced. Perhaps this is due to the amount of time that has transpired since the last time such a punishment was levied, but Giamatti only followed the rules he was sworn to uphold.
Rose may submit a request to be reinstated any time he chooses to do so, but the actions of Giamatti have ensured such a request will always be denied. Rose will not be allowed back into the game despite his admission to the charges and repeated efforts by supporters fighting on his behalf.
Twenty-four years after the banishment of Rose, Giamatti’s good friend and current Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig encountered serious charges against another high-profile figure in baseball.
Baseball believes Alex Rodriguez is a repeat offender of its substance abuse policy, recruited players to a biogenesis clinic in Florida that distributes performance enhancing drugs and has obstructed MLB’s investigation.
These are staggering charges against one of the best players in the game who could challenge the all-time home run record set by Barry Bonds in 2007. If these charges are accurate, then Rodriguez has committed offenses against baseball which are far more serious than anything Rose ever did.
Due to Selig’s perceived lack of credibility regarding steroid use in baseball and an investigation that has come under intense scrutiny, Rodriguez has successfully created reasonable doubt about the inquiry.
In a lawsuit against Major League Baseball, Rodriguez has accused Selig of pursuing his case as a personal vendetta. He alleges baseball has purchased stolen evidence and paid off its primary witness, Anthony Bosch, to testify against Rodriguez.
Initially these accusations were dismissed by the public as an attempt by Rodriguez to shift the spotlight off of his indiscretions and cast it on baseball’s own suspect actions in the case. However, a state official in Florida told ESPN that baseball did in fact buy stolen evidence and inhibited an investigation by the state’s Department of Health.
Baseball has denied the purchase of stolen evidence, but Boca Raton police officer Sandra Boonenberg said the investigation into the incident has been reopened based on new information.
This has emboldened Rodriguez’s attorneys and changed public opinion of both baseball and Rodriguez. In the beginning, Selig was praised for his 211-game suspension of Rodriguez, but baseball’s fan base has started to raise questions. Some still believe Rodriguez is guilty and deserves his suspension, but others think he has made a strong case against baseball.
The suspension itself must also be questioned, as Selig has levied such an extreme punishment that it appears to go beyond the rules of baseball’s substance abuse policy. Rodriguez has only tested positive once, and that was before the implementation of the current anti-steroid rules.
While Rodriguez admits he took steroids in the early 2000s, he has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence against more recent charges and has not failed a single test under the new rules. As a first-time offender under the substance abuse policy, Rodriguez should have received the same 50-game ban as the other players found to be in violation of MLB’s drug regulations. Instead, baseball chose to make an example out of him and hand down an unprecedented punishment.
Given that, it is difficult to blame Rodriguez for objecting to the way his case has been handled by Selig and Major League Baseball.
Selig should have appointed an outside party to improve baseball’s objectivity in its search for the truth, taking the case out of the commissioner’s office. An impartial investigation utilizing a neutral party would have spared Selig and Major League Baseball the scrutiny they now endure.
Selig had the same opportunity as Giamatti to reduce the damage the scandal would cause. But with his actions, Selig has essentially given the game’s alleged worst offender a chance for redemption.
In the end, Rodriguez will miss the entire 2014 season after his suspension was reduced to 162 games. The Players Association has washed their hands of Rodriguez and reportedly looked into expelling the slugger from the union.
Rodriguez is on his own going forward, but will continue to defend himself in federal court. With every hearing and every quote in the media, Rodriguez will continue to cause damage to Selig and Major League Baseball, damage that could have been diminished with a better investigation.
Baseball’s reputation has suffered greatly as a result of the Steroid Era, and this scandal has inflicted more destruction to the credibility of the game and the commissioner’s office. Had Selig followed the lead of his predecessor, the cries of foul play over the investigation would have had little effect on the integrity of the game.
Giamatti gave Selig a blueprint for investigating high crimes against baseball. Selig failed to follow in Giamatti’s footsteps and as a result, the game has been dealt a blow that will take years for it to overcome.