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Still in the Game

Although Fay Vincent has not been commissioner of baseball since 1992, he still has a lot to say about the sport

Bob Capazzo

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Spend an hour in the Belle Haven home of former baseball commissioner Francis (Fay) T. Vincent and you get used to interruptions. Just when Vincent is in the middle of an anecdote about his old friend Joe DiMaggio or explaining why today’s large market/small market situation in baseball doesn’t work, the phone rings. Again.

“I talk to a lot of baseball people, whenever there’s a screw-up,” he says, a tight, characteristic twitching at the corners of his mouth suggesting weary bemusement.

Even when he smiles, and it’s hard to be sure when that is, a mantle of sadness seems to hang over Vincent. He came to baseball in 1989 as the deputy of his friend and the newly named commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who died five months later. In some ways, Vincent seems the living embodiment of Giamatti’s most famous baseball aphorism: “It breaks your heart.”

A charmed life is long and uneventful. Vincent’s tenure as commissioner was neither. An earthquake ripped through the first World Series he presided over in 1989. There were drug controversies, and then came the banning of two of the game’s best-known figures, all-time hits leader Pete Rose and Yankees boss George Steinbrenner, for clear offenses that nevertheless mired Vincent in still more controversy.

The last blow came when Vincent tried to intervene in a growing dispute between the players and owners. The owners said thank-you in 1992 by telling Vincent to resign by a two-to-one margin. It was the kind of ugly divorce that might sour someone on baseball for life.

“There’s something to that,” he allows. “There was a time I moved away from it in many respects.”

Now he has returned, albeit in less controversial fashion, through the auspices of baseball’s grandest institution, its Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, where he remains an honorary director. For the last few years, on behalf of Cooperstown, he has been directing the Baseball Oral History Project, an ongoing endeavor to collect for posterity the videotaped recollections of baseball’s most venerable former players. Some forty four-hour interviews have been conducted by Vincent and his associates so far; excerpts from ten appear in a book he put together, The Only Game in Town, proceeds from which benefit the Hall of Fame.

“What Fay is doing is making sure we don’t forget what baseball was like in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s,” says Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey.

Vincent’s other major project was chairing a special committee to evaluate Negro League players deserving of induction into the Hall of Fame. The fruit of that labor was the largest-ever induction class last July, which included seven-teen legendary Negro League figures enshrined on the say-so of Vincent’s panel. “Fay is a great friend of the Hall; he has a great sense of the history of the game,” Petroskey says.

Vincent isn’t in the habit of appearing at Hall of Fame inductions; when he was an undergraduate at Williams College, he fell off a dormitory ledge and suffered a spinal cord injury that has restricted his mobility considerably ever since. He moves only with difficulty and with the aid of crutches.

Nevertheless, Vincent’s life story has been one of constant motion. He grew up in fairly humble circumstances in Waterbury, the son of a part-time umpire and football referee. After completing his education at Williams and Yale Law School, he became a successful attorney; then, for ten years he served as head of Columbia Pictures, where he green-lighted movies like Tootsie.

That ended when Giamatti tapped him to be his deputy commissioner. In ways good and bad, baseball has defined Vincent’s life ever since. A recent book tour for The Only Game in Town has given Vincent a forum to share his observations and anecdotes.

“One surprising thing I found working on the book was the incredible level of intelligence these players exhibited,” he says. “We’re not talking SATs or college boards. But in their business, in their game, they were and are incredibly bright and analytical.

“I’ll give you an example. Elden Auker played with Ted Williams when Williams was a rookie. He said he and the other players would all be talking in the dugout and suddenly Williams would come down the bench and say: ‘You know, I’m watching that pitcher. The last five guys, the first pitch is always a fastball. You guys notice that?”

Of course, few did, which was part of what made Ted Williams great. Another player who exercised his brain in the game was Phil Rizzuto, the Yankee shortstop. When he was growing up, Vincent used to get to Yankee Stadium early and, during infield practice, watch Rizzuto deliberately trap easily catchable liners hit to him. Years later, when he was the commissioner and Rizzuto a Yankees broadcaster, Vincent asked Rizzuto what he had been up to.

“Rizzuto said: ‘If there’s a runner on first base and a liner was hit to me, I wanted to trap it because the runner on first base wouldn’t know what to do. Then I could throw it over for a double play.’ ”

Another Yankee great Vincent got to know well was Joe DiMaggio. “Joe was the greatest ballplayer I ever saw, greater even than Willie Mays,” he says. As he did with Williams, Vincent enjoyed a special relationship with DiMaggio, just not always a good one. As Vincent related in his 2002 memoir, The Last Commissioner, DiMaggio was once upset by a comment made by one of Vincent’s underlings and held it against Vincent for years after. Relations were later patched up, only after much groundwork by Vincent.

“DiMaggio was not a warm and fuzzy guy,” Vincent says, but adds, “I liked him very much.”

Vincent occasionally sees big-league games, particularly during spring training when teams play near his winter home in Vero Beach, Florida. His physical state necessitates a golf cart to get around the park, and there, as elsewhere, he often takes time to talk to baseball reporters, many of whom remain good friends. When asked a straight question about the present state of the game, he gives a straight answer, a habit which apparently annoys the baseball establishment and its commissioner Bud Selig, Vincent’s successor and one of the majority of owners that pushed Vincent out in 1992.

Last year, Vincent was refused a cart on at least one occasion, at a Washington Nationals game when that team was still owned by Major League Baseball. New York Times columnist Murray Chass questioned Selig, who denied any intent.

“Vincent has spoken his mind about current issues in baseball and is readily accessible to reporters,” Chass says. “Reporters have taken to calling him, and he is often critical of the current commissioner. That has not endeared him to Bud Selig.”

Vincent has not been shy about giving the media his take on steroids, an issue he calls “enormous.” There’s also the iniquitous inequality of revenue sharing, where he estimates the Florida Marlins’s owner gets $30 million from bigger-market teams and then fields a roster commanding a total salary half that. “Where is the rest going?” Vincent asks. “The Marlins are pocketing big money with a zero payroll.”

But when it comes to the ills of baseball, he says owners are not the whole of the problem.