Collision at Home Plate is about the fall of two American icons, Pete Rose and A. Bartlett Giamatti. The public already knows about the failings of Rose; by the time they’ve finished James Reston Jr.’s dual biography, it’s doubtful that even Bart fan Howard Cosell will have the guts to pitch the late commissioner to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Reston doesn’t have to strain to bring his subjects to their final showdown in 1989, when Giamatti punished Rose for betting on baseball by banning him for life from the game. The scrappy, uncouth ballplayer who chased the ghost of Ty Cobb, and the academic would-be poet haunted by the ghost of baseball’s first czar, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, seemed fated to clash from the moment Giamatti left the presidency of Yale to become National League president in 1986. Reston’s view of Rose is ultimately the same as that advanced in a 1974 Esquire profile by James Toback. Echoing Toback, Reston describes the ballplayer as ”a narcissistic man-child who had never grown up and felt no need to do so, especially because the press continued to celebrate his childishness.” Reston finds the essence of Giamatti — a son of immigrant parents, a man for whom baseball represented America’s link to classical heroism — in the man’s awestruck attitude toward pitcher Tom Seaver: ”’Tom Terrific’ did not merely excel in his sport — he embodied it; he was gentry. This romantic notion of the sport existed in Giamatti’s imagination and his class consciousness.” Giamatti saw his mission as nothing less than purging baseball of the impure element represented by Rose and his gambling.
Like Michael Sokolove, author of last year’s remarkable and largely unheralded book about Rose, Hustle, Reston criticizes sportswriters for falling in with ”the merchandising of Pete Rose” while looking the other way as he violated every principle of sportsmanship the press claims to uphold. Where Reston’s book improves on Sokolove’s is in its unromantic view of Giamatti, a pompous and ultimately shallow man whose verbosity cowed baseball writers. (Reston scores a wicked point by resurrecting former University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler’s comment about Giamatti. As a punishment for bumping an umpire, Schembechler kidded, Rose should have been forced to read a dozen of Giamatti’s articles on Renaissance literature.)
Reston stops short of saying that Rose was framed on the charge of betting on baseball, but it’s obvious from his scrupulous look at the evidence that baseball’s case against Rose wouldn’t stand up in a court of law. Given the wretched state of Rose’s behavior toward the game he professed to love, one might call Giamatti’s final act a classic case of poetic injustice — authored by a failed poet. B+