A Man for All Seasons: Fay Vincent, Baseball and America

Wall Street Journal readers may have noticed a beautiful tribute in its pages last week to Roger Angell, the longtime baseball writer for The New Yorker, who died May 22 at the age of 101. The author hailed Angell as a unique talent who “had an eye for the telling moment and the unusual player”, placing him atop a pedestal with Red Smith and Shirley Povich as the great sportswriters of his day. But the tribute writer was no ordinary baseball fan. It was Fay Vincent Jr., former commissioner of baseball.

Vincent was named commissioner in September 1989 following the sudden death of Bart Giamatti, during one of Major League Baseball’s most troubled times. Financial disputes between players and clubs were at an all-time high; the owners instituted a lockout the following year, and just five years later the 1994 World Series was canceled because the owners and players could not resolve a labor dispute. The player with the most hits in baseball history, Pete Rose, had been banned for life by Giamatti for betting on games earlier that summer. The league continued to face suspicion of widespread drug use. Vincent even had to ban Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for life for hiring a small player to spy on one of his own players.

Fay Vincent officially resigned on September 7, but not before penning a letter to America editor George W. Hunt, SJ, a longtime friend, on this whole messy affair.

Vincent, who had been president of Columbia Pictures and executive vice president of Coca Cola, had a short reign as commissioner. On September 3, 1992, the owners voted 18 to 9 on a vote of “no confidence” in Vincent, later replacing him with one of their own, Bud Selig of the Milwaukee Brewers. Vincent officially resigned on September 7, but not before writing a letter to America editor George W. Hunt, SJ, a longtime friend, on this whole messy affair. His letter, which Father Hunt published as part of his “Of Many Things” column in America on September 19, 1992, was (in Vincent’s words) his effort “to try to put the whole current mess into perspective.” The newspapers want something provocative from me right now, but I’m not interested. The attached is more appropriate of me at present.

The reporter in me is outraged, and the editor in me jealous, that Hunt received such a scoop; he was wise not to edit it, but to let Vincent’s eloquence do its job, but not without Hunt adding a bit of his own rhetorical skill in a jab against baseball owners:

Ever since that bite of the tasty fruit, the way of the world has been for third raters to conspire to disparage or oust the first raters in their midst. This was always the case in playgrounds, factories, lecture halls, even churches, since the same Tree of Knowledge also feeds the appetites of ignorance and stupidity.

Vincent was more diplomatic, more philosophical. “Once in a while, baseball fans have to wonder and worry about the game we love. Once again, a lot is being written – if not shouted – about the problems with the game and even with its bureaucrats,” he wrote. “But let me remind all of us that baseball will survive; our grandchildren will have baseball to love and introduce to their grandchildren, and this latest turmoil and tumult will not destroy the game that fills our summers with the joy of a wonderful game.

Vincent was more diplomatic, more philosophical. “From time to time baseball fans have to wonder and worry about the game we love.”

Despite all the changes the sport has had over the decades, Vincent wrote,

our game retains the most sublime challenge of all sports… that of batter versus pitcher. It’s that moment when José Canseco takes on Roger Clemens that defines baseball and our love for it. This is the moment we are addicted to. And it is this moment that our grandchildren will also love. Everything else will be lost to newspaper archives and historians. What is real, true and essential cannot be diminished.

Like his predecessor Giamatti, Vincent had a sense of words (and therefore can be forgiven for using two cartoonish heels, Canseco and Clemens, as an example). And he hadn’t finished writing for America. During his tenure as baseball commissioner, he had written several articles for the magazine, including essays on “Morality v. Moralisms” and “Education and Baseball,” as well as a review of a biography by Samuel T. Coleridge. After the ax fell, during a period Father Hunt described as Vincent’s “post-post-graduate sabbatical” in Oxfordshire, England, he returned an essay on St. Edmund Campion.

Other of his writings have appeared in America in the years that followed, including a 2001 tribute to Isaac Stern and book reviews on everything from baseball to John Henry Newman to anti-Catholic bias in American public life. In 2013, Vincent was interviewed by America associate editor Tim Reidy on the morality of baseball. Vincent has spoken out strongly against the use of steroids in baseball, saying the infusion of performance-enhancing drugs is “a very pernicious and frightening threat to all of our sports, whether high school, college, or professional.”

Baseball, he noted, had too long winked at spitballs, plugged bats and other petty rule violations, leading players and owners to think cheating was only wrong. if you get caught: “I think one of the problems with baseball has been that we’ve been too tolerant of what we call innocent forms of cheating. There’s no such thing as innocent cheating.

When Father Hunt died in 2011, Fay Vincent sent a eulogy which was reprinted in America. “In the Thomistic sense, he gave meaning to the difference between a priestly essence and the accidental aspect of his life as a scholar, teacher, editor and writer,” Vincent writes. “To me, however, he was also a wonderful and loyal friend.” One of Vincent’s favorites was Father Hunt’s “Of Many Things” essays:

Every week he wrote a short essay on the front of the magazine and each of them was an adorable little thought on a topic that caught his attention. The eclectic range of these essays is the best proof of the range of his interests. In his days America was a confident and powerful voice that Catholic intellectuals could hear. I listened to him and George with respect and admiration.

Oh, and one more thing: Going back to another of Fay Vincent’s favorite writers, Roger Angell, Joe Bonomo wrote a biography of the great scribe in 2019 that was reviewed here in America by Jill Brennan O’Brien.

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Regular readers may notice that three weeks ago we announced the winner of the 2022 Foley Poetry Contest: Lisa Mullenneaux, for her poem “In Copenhagen”. AmericaJoe Hoover’s poetry editor, SJ, also wrote an essay about the contest and some of the other worthy submissions. Congratulations! Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.

In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.

Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Telling truth and lies with the Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel Prize

How Walter Ciszek found God in the Gulag

Leonard Feeney, Americathe only excommunicated literary publisher (to date)

Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life

Good reading!

James T. Keane

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