Neil Thomas Proto has written a new book about former Yale University president and Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bart Giamatti, titled Fearless: A. Bartlett Giamatti and the Battle for Fairness in America. During Mr. Proto’s active and accomplished career as a lawyer, author, and teacher, he had engaged in extensive research, writing, and organizing events in Washington, DC, his hometown New Haven, and in support of others in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts to give renewed life to the lives and cultural history of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco. In addition, in 2014, his one person play, “The Reckoning: Pecora for the Public,” focused on Ferdinand Pecora, an Italian immigrant who served as chief counsel to the US Senate Committee that, in 1933, investigated the causes of the 1929 stock market crash. The play premiered in Seattle to highly acclaimed reviews.
Mr. Proto, now living in Washington, DC, entered the US Department of Justice in 1972, argued cases before US Courts of Appeals, returned to New Haven in 1979, where, as we discuss below, he met Giamatti for the first time. He returned to DC in 1981 to serve as general counsel to President Carter’s Nuclear Safety Oversight Committee established after the accident at Three Mile Island. He has taught at Yale in 1988 and 1989, and, while in private practice in DC, was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. In 2010, he was elected a Fellow in the Royal Geographical Society of London. He has written numerous articles and three books: To A High Court, The Rights of My People, and now, Fearless.
We met recently in New Haven with Neil Proto to discuss Fearless: A. Bartlett Giamatti and the Battle for Fairness in America, published by State University of New York Press, and to learn, in a unique way, about the substance and background of his years of effort:
Why did you think to write a book on Bart Giamatti?
“I met Bart in December 1979, when I was asked by the newly elected Mayor of New Haven to chair his inauguration, which was, at Giamatti’s invitation, to be held on the Yale campus. It was one thread in Bart’s effort to establish a new, respectful relationship with the city that his predecessors treated shabbily, sometimes with contempt and exploitation, almost always with condescension. I admired Bart’s skill and his intellect, and his broad-based, easy sociability in a manner not seen in his predecessors. His family on his father’s side was still in New Haven. Because of my own experience in New Haven, and my broader experience on a range of matters, I thought I could bring a care and thoroughness to the research and writing. And I did.”
He was the first non-Anglo-Saxon to be president of Yale at a very young age, how did that happen?
“He was not the first choice. Kingman Brewster, Bart’s predecessor, had left the University is such a dismal financial condition that a Harvard dean turned the offer down. The Yale Corporation, led by younger members, advocated for a change—the Harvard dean was Jewish, though he had no connection to Yale. Giamatti seemed always on their list of candidates; he was a recognized Renaissance scholar, very popular teacher, with stunning rhetorical skills and friendships, and he had, as they understood it, roots in New Haven, where the University needed to pay serious attention. His age also helped him. As I write in Fearless, I don’t believe the Corporation fully appreciated the radical departure from Yale’s history of discrimination with the choice it made or the depth of the underlying discomfort that Giamatti, as a Southern Italian American on his father’s side, caused the old guard among the faculty, the alumni, and even the corporation. In the old Yale lexicon, still alive when he was selected, Bart was “unfit” as a racial and ethnic matter. Giamatti expected that eugenics mentality; it had deep historical roots at Yale and had affected his grandparents, Angelo and Maria, and his father, Valentine. It was that lingering ugliness, that unfairness that he challenged at Yale in his conduct and speeches among faculty, students, and alumni.”
Many have defined him as a Renaissance man, what is your opinion about that?
“He was. Not only because he had a profound knowledge of the history and writers and meaning of the Renaissance, and those writers who, in America as well, drew heavily from their works. He also knew the lives of these writers, especially the civic duty Dante engaged in as the responsible citizen of Florence. And his knowledge of theater, sports, and his skill as a mimic of popular characters where just a few of the threads that deepened his insight and social nature and defined him as a Renaissance man. But he was not an academic. The Renaissance to Giamatti—its writers, before and after Dante and England’s Edmund Spenser– were also about the responsible citizen, about moral choices, about the value of what the Renaissance writers called the journey, the quest. It was about using your knowledge in attaining the good, yet to be aware, always, of the uncertainties in life”.
Can you tell us about his family? Specifically, about the Italian American family life, his values and his culture?
“His mother, Peggy, was Anglo-Saxon, yet from a family that had experienced marriages with Quakers and Jews with ease, and that understood and disdained the viciousness of elitism and bigotry of Calvinism that defined early Boston and the Anglo-Saxon mentality. Peggy also was fluent in Italian and deeply knowledgeable about Italy’s culture and history. Bart’s farther was born in New Haven, attended public schools and thanks to the high school faculty, received a scholarship to attend Yale. He lived at home, and stayed focused not on the Yale culture but on his studies. He graduated and was elected into Phi Beta Kappa, the highest academic ranking available. It happened at the ugly height of Yale’s eugenics denigration of southern and eastern European immigrants and African Americans who surrounded it. Yale’s president at the time said: ‘…if we could have an Armenian massacre confined to the New Haven District…we might protect our Nordic stock almost completely.’ That attitude also was strongly supported by northern Italians, who found favor at Yale.
Bart had an informed, loving family life. His father was a Dante scholar and taught at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. Bart had been to Italy twice with his family and once more, on a grand journey with a friend. But the importance of fairness to him throughout his life stemmed from the discrimination his father and grandparents experienced in New Haven, and that his mother deplored.”
Do you see a part of yourself in this story?
“Yes, in ways special to me and my own grandparents and parents. My mother was born in Italy, came in 1916 at 6 years old in steerage. My father was born only a few blocks from Bart’s father at nearly the same time. They played street games together. But I also knew the neighborhoods and many of the events and personalities that emerged in my research, only I didn’t know them as well as I thought and certainly not the depth of harm Yale and northern Italians inflicted on southern Italian immigrants from the moment they left Italy and entered Ellis Island. Northerners—my grandfather often talked about the “Northern Problem” in Italy and in America— ensured Southern Italians were categorized racially when they entered: ‘Nationality: Italian. Race: South.’ Bart’s grandparents and mine were listed that way. What I especially knew that mattered, as it does for many Italian Americans, was the importance of ensuring that your conduct in America reflected positively on the values and conduct of your parents and grandparents. It did for Bart Giamatti and it did for my sister, my brother, and me. It was the loving duty within and to your family, and to those who watched over you, to always do more.”
You mention that Yale discriminated against Italians, when and why?
“At the turn of the 19th century, Yale and other White Anglo Saxons in America believed Northern Italians were ‘Nordic.’ They were like Germans. It was based on a wholly ignorant view of the history of the south, its writers, theologians, humanism, broad contacts, and culture, and its unique window into the Greek past and into the Mediterranean. Yale’s own Calvinist elitism only fortified its deeply held view. Southern Italians were from ‘Africa,’ and, as northerners convinced themselves and Yale, were, genetically, criminals. New Haven became the place for study of the ‘Italian colony’ and experimentation, which Yale and Connecticut led, especially under former Yale dean and Governor Wilbur Cross. Both were advocates for the institutionalizing and sterilizations of the ‘unfit.’ Connecticut enacted such laws in 1911 or so, second in the nation to Indiana.
There was also always a deep contempt for Catholics in the Yale culture, which was displayed through and including, Bart Giamatti’s selection as president. Even though he wasn’t Catholic, when he learned of what was said, he was angered at the stereotyping and discrimination it reflected. And made that known.”
Giamatti also was the commissioner of Major League Baseball, can you tell us about the Giamatti and Pete Rose controversy?
“If you go back to Bart’s childhood, when he played touch football, as a very skinny quarterback against much bigger and tougher kids, he always insisted there be rules and that everyone stick to them. It was the only way of ensuring fairness, that skill and merit defined the game. No cheating. At Yale, he’d dealt with the same kind of attitude; that the rules applied to everyone but them. To Bart, there was no difference if you wore a cap and gown or a business suit or a uniform. Bart understood Rose to be not only the clear violator of the rule against betting, especially on your own team. He also was a liar, and 15 years later said so. What Bart also recognized was that Rose understood one ugly thread in Baseball’s history and culture: greed, the power of money and how that was the deeper imperative that justified cheating. I’ve just published an article, “Bart Giamatti: The Quest for Fairness in Cooperstown,” about how Bart anticipated having to deal with cheating, which he could see coming. And it did (i.e. steroids, the Houston Astros).”
What can you tell us about his relationship with labor, his toughness on dealing with the union at Yale?
“Because Bart’s presidential papers are not yet available for public review, I didn’t explore his relationship with labor in detail. But your question contains an inaccurate presumption. Yale engaged in rough, very harsh treatment of labor beginning in the 1930s. More than once strikes and violence occurred under Kingman Brewster, and Brewster’s predecessor, Griswold, had an overt scorn for working class people. When Giamatti came in, he negotiated two contracts with labor that its leaders praised. Giamatti had departed from his predecessors; his own aunt, to whom he was very close, was a union member. It wasn’t until the third contract that tension arose.”
What about Yale and Urban Renewal in New Haven?
“Yale led urban renewal in New Haven in the 1950s, when Bart first entered Yale as a student; and from the outset, urban renewal was never about benefiting New Haven or its neighborhoods or its business community. The truth of its purpose was set out in secret contracts I found in Yale’s archives and that I describe in Fearless. So, on the contrary, it was the immigrants and migrants who were precisely the people removed; 30,000 people were forced into relocation in a city of only 19 square miles and 150,000 people. They included Jewish, Polish, and Italian immigrant and African American neighborhoods that his father and grandparents knew and where relatives lived. What Yale wanted in the 1930s—the eugenics-driven ‘Armenian massacre… in the New Haven District,’—it got in the 1950s and early 60s. Its entire hospital complex and other university buildings are now located on land that once were thriving neighborhoods, and some of that land was acquired by federal money for the purpose of ‘urban renewal.’ It was not until the mid-60s that the next generation of immigrant children and their parents and African Americans, who remained in New Haven, began to transform their community self-help organizations into political and civic actions to stop Yale and the city government that it largely controlled. Enormous harm was done to families and New Haven’s history, and Yale was the singular beneficiary of it. Yale’s conduct was the continuation of the elitist eugenics mentality, from the 1930 through the 1960s. It was, by Bart’s definition, a failure of civic responsibility.”
You also wrote about the ugliness of the Italian Unification, why ugly?
“First, northern Italy played no role in the south’s battle with the Bourbon monarchy to gain freedom from foreign rule. Northern troops actually joined with the French military and the Pope against southerners. The fighting was led by Garibaldi but initiated by southerners in Sicily before Garibaldi arrived, who then moved up the peninsula to Naples, joined by a contingent from Giamatti’s ancestral hometown. Once ‘unification’ was agreed to, the King and prime minister dispatched 100,000 northern troops to destroy villages in the south, arrested southerners, maligned their bravery, taxed them for all the costs the north incurred for its vicious repression, killed women and children, and took 430 million lira in gold from the Bank of Naples. Then they imposed martial law on the entire south, with the right to execute relatives of those women and men who had fought against them because they wanted their freedom and independence. And the North kept records of the numbers of people it killed. All of this is documented in Fearless. Northerners had engaged in genocidal acts. To prove how ‘Nordic’ they were, they brought their elitism and ugliness to America to ensure that southern Italians, still seeking political as well as economic freedom for themselves and their family, continued to feel the North’s oppressiveness, what my grandfather and his friends called ‘The Northern Problem.’ In New Haven, southern Italians fought back, including against fascism and Mussolini. Bart’s father was an active member of the American Anti-Fascist Committee.”
What is your opinion on Giamatti’s legacy?
“I write in Fearless and want to read this to you: ‘The Yale Corporation’s choice [of Giamatti] in 1977 was more radical and enduringly explosive than perhaps some among them had anticipated at the time.’ What he did, in his intellectual and social manner and his comfort with his heritage, was to ensure that the selection of subsequent non-Anglo-Saxon presidents was readily accepted. He also dramatically improved the university’s relationship to New Haven in large part by talking candidly about its importance. As I also wrote: ‘Gone was the pretense that former Yale presidents, A. Whitney Griswold, Kingman Brewster, and their predecessor had relied upon to New Haven’s and the student body’s detriment.’ What you can still see is that the Yale Daily News writes about New Haven with detail and interest and involvement, that it never did before Bart became president. Other colleges and universities in New Haven had done that before and since, but not Yale. Based on what’s recently been written locally in New Haven newspapers, Yale’s president and administration have not continued Bart’s commitment and thoughtfulness toward the city, returning, instead, to the detachment, parochialism, and elitism that defined Bart’s predecessors and Yale’s history–that is, the failure of civic responsibility. One especially but telling debate that still rages that was the singular battle Bart undertook: he despised Yale’s cockiness that it admitted and produced ‘leaders.’ He believed such an attitude was condescending, excluded others, and was coercive; that it presumed you alone had the right or correct view. To him, as he said it, the purpose of a Yale education was to encourage responsible citizenship, to ensure that in a civil society you understood your duty to be civic minded and, in doing so, to contribute to society.
Just before Bart’s father died, his family had a stone bench made in tribute, called ‘Babbo’s Bench.’ It’s now at Mount Holyoke College. Bart’s classmates had a stone bench made in his honor after his unexpected death at age 51 in 1989. It’s often occupied, and stands comfortably in a quiet corner of Yale’s old campus.”
Where is the book available?
The book can be purchased at:
- Local bookstores throughout the NY, NJ, and Connecticut metropolitan area and in other bookseller venues
- State University of New York Press (http://www.sunypress.edu/p-6900-fearless.aspx)
- Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Fearless-Bartlett-Giamatti-Fairness-America/dp/1438479638/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Proto+Fearless&qid=1586525114&sr=8-1)
- Barnes and Noble.(Fearless: A. Bartlett Giamatti and the Battle for Fairness in America|Hardcover