A. Bartlett Giamatti: Baseball as a Meditation and Narrative On Life

Voices at the New York Public Library

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 - 10:00 AM

The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, was President of Major League Baseball’s National League and a renowned scholar of Renaissance literature and a former President of Yale University, On November 24, 1987 he gave a finely crafted talk on baseball as a meditation and narrative on life at the New York Public Library's Celeste Bartos Forum.

Giamatti’s extensive academic credentials include the books Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic and Exile and Change in Renaissance Literature. But he was also a lifelong Red Sox fan who wrote extensively about baseball, including articles for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Harpers with such titles as Tom Seaver’s Farewell and Baseball and the American Character.

Less than two years before he was named Commissioner of Major League Baseball -- a post he held for less than a year before his untimely death by heart attack at the age of 51 --Giamatti shared his thoughts on how the structure and rhythms of baseball send players on timelessly epic quests while allowing viewers to reach a transcendent state.

Giamatti sees the landscape architecture of the baseball field as a sort of mandala, a sacred construction with circles – the pitcher’s mound and circle around the batter’s box – all enclosed by a larger square turned on its points to form a diamond. He likens to the verse repetitions of a sonnet the game’s ritual repetition of the numbers 3 and 4 or their multiples – three strikes, three outs, nine men, nine innings, four balls, four bases, four-sided batter’s box, 400 feet from home plate to center field. These cycling patterns create a contemplative environment within which, Giamatti posits, the spectator can find the Self or even the Godhead. Home plate becomes the omphalos, the center of the universe, the point where all conscious energy converges.

Yet a baseball game’s beautiful symmetry, Giamatti says, is also a pastoral setting for an epic struggle. Within the confines of its pleasing patterns, violence and unpredictability erupt as counterpoint with players embarking on a quest that will only end with a victor and a loser. The game’s leisurely pace and structure will suddenly give way to speed and dynamic movement towards freedom. Giamatti sees the action of baseball as Homeric in scope: the journey home –Odysseus’s goal -- repeated again and again. To go back home, the place of self-definition, is not an easy task. The most violent actions occur just before the player arrives, rounding third and crashing into home plate.

For Giamatti the recounting of baseball exploits after they have transpired is also akin to epic poetry. While the players tell a truth by their actions, those for whom the game is played control the narrative. The late Baseball Commissioner walks his listeners through the lobby of a large hotel in St. Louis during a playoff series involving the home team Cardinals. The talk of baseball comes from many voices -- team executives, scouts, grandmothers sipping coffee, baseball writers, boys with their fathers, groupies – all talking anecdotally about the game, each giving their personal slant and color. These loops and segments of talk become the story of baseball passed on to others as the fables are continuously refined. Hearing these many voices all discussing the same thing – baseball – made Giamatti realize what Aristotle meant by talk being the imitation of an action.

At the end of the late Commissioner’s remarks, a member of the audience suggested that baseball players should all be made to listen to this lecture and wondered “who among them would then dare to spit on the field again.” Giamatti, who would go on to ban Pete Rose from the game for gambling, laughed and said “all of them.”


The original WNYC broadcast date for the produced program was April 18, 1993.


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