The Yale baseball team’s history is a rich and storied one, having had such players as President George H. W. Bush ’48 captain the Elis in the past. Another captain, Fay Vincent ’31, saw his Yale baseball legacy continue through his son, albeit not as an undergraduate nor at Yale Field. Fay Vincent, Jr. LAW ’63 succeeded former University President Bartlett Giamatti as the eighth Commissioner of Major League Baseball, serving in that role from 1989 to 1992. Vincent most recently returned to Yale this past fall as a guest of honor prior to the Yale-Wesleyan exhibition game, which celebrated the 150th year of each program’s history. On Wednesday, the News talked to Vincent about his relationship with Yale, his friendship with Giamatti and more.
Q: Once you began studying at Yale Law, did you have any defined career plans or goals? Did you ever imagine working in the entertainment or sports industries, as you did as Chairman of Columbia Pictures and Commissioner of Major League Baseball?
A: None at all. My life has been a series of accidents. Literally. I kept answering the phone and some wonderful things happened. But nothing was planned.
Q: Of course, you were not the first Yale alum to hold the position of MLB Commissioner. Can you describe how you met and formed your friendship with Bartlett Giamatti, former Yale University President and the commissioner prior to you? And how much do you owe your becoming commissioner to that relationship and what you learned from him?
A: He and I were the same age, [with him being the] class of 1960 at Yale College. A mutual friend urged that we get to know one another and we met at a Yale football game at Princeton when he was new as the Yale presidency and I was new at Columbia Pictures.
We argued over whose job was tougher and enjoyed one another instantly. He was witty, so bright and such good fun. We saw each other and a fine relationship soon grew. In no time we became like brothers.
He asked me to be his lawyer when MLB asked him to be commissioner and in that process the owners asked me to come with him and to be the new deputy commissioner. There had never been one. I served with Bart for his term — he died after being in that office for only 4 months. He smoked five packs of cigarettes a day and enjoyed every puff. He claimed the only thing he did that was first-rate was smoke. Sad. I miss him every day and treasure the time we spent together. I quote him frequently. He was very wise. Yale was his great love and he was a fine president.
Q: Throughout your baseball career, was there a single individual connected to the game who jumps out as a particularly memorable figure, one that might surprise those not privy to the inner workings of the game?
A: A fine old-time Negro League player named Alfred ”Slick” Surratt became a hero to me and I loved him. He never got a chance to play in the majors and yet he was not bitter.
I once asked him how he got his nickname and he paused. The smiling told me “I don’t know you well enough to answer that question.” He had served at Guadalcanal with the Army and yet when he came back home he was not able to even get a tryout for a MLB team. I took him and Larry Doby and others to various colleges to explain to kids what it was like for these guys to suffer our form of Apartheid.
Slick is dead now but I loved him and he became a dear friend of mine — he is worth remembering.
Q: What is one thing about the game you would change if you were to reassume your commissioner duties today?
A: Very little. I would make pitchers complete seven innings for a win. I would eliminate the designated hitter and I would leave almost all the rest as it is. I am an old-fashioned traditionalist.
Q: You were an impressive athlete in your own right, as you were recruited to Williams to play football as a defensive lineman. There, you suffered a traumatic injury after a teammate’s prank to lock you in your room ended with you suffering a horrific fall and temporary paralysis, which seems to go unnoticed when people evaluate your career. If you would, could you share a little about that moment and how that transformed your life’s path?
A: It was the transforming event of my life and the greatest mistake. I live with it every day. It reminds me that one lapse can be a disaster. I am such a cautious guy I cannot imagine how I believed I could get out that window and into the next room. My old-man wisdom — be careful with the self-confidence of your youth.
Q: And of course last fall, you were an honoree and speaker prior to the Yale–Wesleyan exhibition, which honored the 150th anniversary of each program’s founding. How special was it to be brought back to be a part of that history?
A: I loved it all. I saw Babe Ruth when he came to Yale Field in 1948 and love that place. I often muse at how I managed to get to Williams and not to Yale until law school.
Any time I am able to be a part of some Yale event I am thrilled. My father was such a hero to me I grew up yearning to play in the Bowl [as my father also captained the football team]. I have never gotten over that feeling. Boola boola.