Former baseball commish Fay Vincent ’60 talks sports and more

(Editor’s note: Fay Vincent ’60 served as the eighth Commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1989 to 1992, after acting as deputy commissioner under A. Bartlett Giamatti. He has been honored by the Negro League Museum for his assistance to Negro League Alumni and is president and chairman of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, a summer league for collegiate baseball players using wooden bats. Vincent’s book, “The Last Commissioner,” was published in 2002. He talked with Record Editor-in-Chief Mike Needham to discuss Williams, America and baseball.)

Mr. Vincent, can you begin by telling us what Williams has meant to you over the years?

It was a great place for me. A number of my friends there have been friends with me all the years since we were at Williams. Most importantly, I met and was influenced by a number of faculty – people who made an enormous difference in the way I lived. Williams had a terrific impact on me and I’m very grateful.

I came there as a financial aid – in those days we called it scholarship – student, so I’ve been very loyal to the place in part because the school has been very good to me.

How do you fit your four years here at Williams into the broader narrative of your life?

You know, I had a very bad accident at Williams – my freshman year I fell out of the fourth floor of Williams Hall and broke my back.

[A friend of Vincent’s had locked him in his room as a prank and left him there. After taking a nap and discovering he was still locked in, Vincent tried to escape out his window and crawl back in through another. He slipped on the icy ledge and crushed two of his vertebrae.]

That was a defining moment – I was a jock, I was a football player, I loved sports. After that, I got much more involved in academics – I had to do four years of Williams work in three, so I took seven courses instead of five.

You were very close with Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. How is baseball different today then it was when they were playing?

So much has changed in American life. A lot of it is the way the media has changed. When DiMaggio and Williams were playing, the media was very respectful of privacy – they may have ripped Williams in Boston, but they were very respectful of players’ private lives, and that’s not true anymore. There’s a much more adversarial relationship between the media and players – and that’s not just true of sports, it’s true of corporate life and academia; the newspaper people and media are in business to create big stories. They’re looking for big problems; when those guys were around it was much more tranquil and life wasn’t quite as complicated.

On the other hand, they were very aware of the fact that they were role models. If you tried to take DiMaggio’s picture with a drink in his hand he would put it down. He said, “I don’t want kids seeing me with a drink in my hand.” He was aware that all of America was looking at him through a magnifying glass.

Are there players nowadays that mean as much to America as DiMaggio or Williams did?

I think so, but it’s much more difficult. A-Rod does it down in Texas, Ripken did it for years, guys like Maddux have done it, Garciaparra in Boston. There’s no substitute for growing up with some role model or someone to influence you. Michael Jordan had Dean Smith teaching him for four years at North Carolina – that made a big difference in how he approached life. A lot of these guys in sports have that, and a lot don’t. You can almost pick out the ones who don’t. Early on they make mistakes and then they wonder why Wheaties or Coca-Cola is not coming to them for ads later on in life while DiMaggio, Williams, Yogi Berra and the others are still doing commercials well into their 60s because they protected their reputations.

Is baseball still our national pastime?

Probably not. Football and basketball have really moved up – they have a big advantage: there’s both the college and professional level. College baseball basically doesn’t exist, and as a result baseball only has one half of the equation. It’s still very important in American life, but I suspect football is really the national pastime.

You’ve had a lot of access to baseball and baseball players over the years, what still fascinates you about the game?

Most of it has to do with people. The thing I’m fascinated with – and it’s not just baseball – is what makes great, successful, wonderful people? How do they approach what they do? That’s why I read biographies. I’m interested in what makes Churchill such a great person, and Teddy Roosevelt, and other people.

If I had a chance, I’d sit down with Derek Jeter and ask him questions about his life. What makes him what he is, why does he perform so uniformly? DiMaggio had a great answer: he said “there may be some kid in the stand who only sees me play this one game in his lifetime and I better give him his money’s worth.”

In your book, Ted Williams gives you his all-time greatest players lineup. What does that lineup look like in your mind?

It’s almost impossible. How do you pick three outfielders? I’d pick Berra as the best catcher I ever saw – a spectacular player and his team won, so you’ve got to give a catcher credit for handling that pitching staff. First base is probably Musial. You could put Jackie Robinson at second. Shortstop is very difficult: Jeter, A-Rod and Garciaparra are definitely up there. Third base, I guess I’d pick Brooks Robinson – the greatest fielder I ever saw. The outfield is a tossup: I saw DiMaggio, Williams, Mays, Henry Aaron. It’s pretty hard to narrow that down.

The greatest right-handed pitcher I ever saw was Bob Gibson – the guy was unhittable. Warren Spahn is probably the greatest lefthander in the history of the game. Koufax, Whitey Ford, those are the greatest I ever saw.

On Pete Rose, are you surprised by the level of forgiveness the American public seems to have for him?

It doesn’t surprise me; it disappoints me some. I don’t think they understand the risk that corruption and gambling poses to baseball. The deterrent, to me, is very important; Pete Rose isn’t important. The public is thinking of Pete Rose: he belongs in the Hall of Fame, he was a great player. Suppose you reduce the deterrent and let Pete Rose back in and then a couple of really great players are caught betting on the game and say, “Look, if you did it for Rose you’ll do it for us, and it’s no big deal anymore.”

I caught Lenny Dykstra when he was in very bad shape with gamblers and I stopped him. He said to me he was very afraid of me. He said, “I’m afraid of you because you threw Rose out and if you threw him out you’ll throw me out.” We told him to stop it and he had to stop.

I consider the public uniformed on this issue. I’m a Jeffersonian, I believe in Democracy, but in this case I think they’re wrong and I’m right. Selig is making a terrible mistake. I think he will regret it, I think the country will regret it. Rose is a very bad fellow. He still plays around with mob guys and I don’t think I want Rose to represent baseball to me.

Would the public have tolerated a Pete Rose back in the 1950s?

Well, the players of that day do not want to forgive him. Bob Feller called the other day; he’s totally negative about Pete Rose. A lot of those players don’t want Rose back in baseball and they certainly don’t want him in the Hall of Fame. The World War II generation is very tough-edged on this subject and they are not sympathetic to Pete Rose.

Are records as meaningful nowadays as they used to be? For 75 years, 60 and then 61 were among the most sacred numbers in sports, and now the old benchmarks have been obliterated.

It’s really too bad. Look at Frank Robinson. When he retired he was the third leading home run hitter of all time and he’s dropped so far down the list it’s hard to believe. They pick the 50 greatest ballplayers of all time and leave him off the list – I just left him off my list. You tend to forget – Frank Robinson was and is a remarkable talent. The numbers cause you to lose sight of some truths. Look at Rogers Hornsby, nobody pays any attention to him. He averaged .400 over a 5-year period, hit .424 one year. Rogers Hornsby is probably the greatest hitter in the history of the game and almost nobody pays attention to him.

Can baseball realistically continue on a path where the game is threatened every four years or so by another strike?

Each time baseball goes through one of these dramas, it hurts itself seriously. Fortunately, this time they avoided a real confrontation. The real damage is baseball spending all of its time focusing on economics, relations with the union, the players. Nobody’s worrying about building the game. You have to create a sense of purpose and a strategy to fix the game. There needs to be a long-term program.

Finally, Williams has many connections to the world of baseball. What advice would you give to a current student interested in getting involved in the sport?

It you’re thinking about management, don’t do it. It’s really not a good career. So many people want to do it that there are opportunities to hire people at low pay. If you’re interested in baseball, I think you come to it later. You go out, build a set of skills, you learn business or marketing or the law, and you come to it when you are reasonably well-trained.

On the other hand, some people do go straight into the sport. Jim Duquette is now with the Mets, a good Williams person, he’s been in baseball a long time. It’s very difficult to do, and it’s just not a good career. They pay very poorly because they pay the players; the owners tend not to be management-oriented.

My advice to a young person thinking about sports is to be very careful. It’s much better to have a set of skills that are professional skills and then you can use them in sports if you want, but if it doesn’t work out you can do other things.

Mr. Vincent, thanks for your time.

Well, I’m delighted to have a chance to talk to Williams students. It’s a very important institution in my life.