Conversation piece

A bench on the Old Campus is Yale’s memorial to late president A. Bartlett Giamatti. Look carefully. It’s hiding a few secrets.

Mark Aronson is chief conservator at the Yale Center for British Art.

Since 1990, The Giamatti Bench, a tribute to Yale’s 19th president from his Yale College classmates, has stood in the northwest corner of Old Campus. Those who sit here are afforded a peaceful view of green lawns, trees, and cloistered walks. Though its design is simple, the granite bench is rich in meaning—some of which I am still discovering after 27 years at Yale.

My relationship to the bench began on a day in 1991, when I chanced by as a student explained the piece to a friend. In the bench, he claimed, were references to the sport of baseball: the lip of the bench’s seat has the size and even the feel of a baseball, and you can discern the profile of a baseball bat in the bench’s side.

Why baseball? After all, A. Bartlett Giamatti ’60, ’64PhD (1938–1989), had been an authority on the literature of the English Renaissance. But he was also a deep-dyed baseball fan, a Red Sox devotee, and author of books and essays celebrating the game. (His essay “The Green Fields of the Mind,” a bittersweet staple of baseball literature, first appeared in this magazine. See yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/3864.) And he had shocked all when, having resigned as president of Yale, he took a job as president of Major League Baseball’s National League. After nearly three years in that post, he became the commissioner of Major League Baseball. (Five months later, at the age of 51, he would die of a heart attack.)

The student’s baseball argument intrigued me. Years later, I served on the university’s campus sculpture committee, and I was charged with drafting a care program for outdoor sculptures. That was the start of a conversation I began with David Sellers ’60, ’65BArch, the Vermont architect who had designed the bench. It was Sellers who had suggested that the Class of 1960 honor their beloved classmate, then still president of Yale, with a “chair” as a 25th reunion gift. As he tells it, the class couldn’t raise the funds to name an academic chair in Giamatti’s honor, but they “could at least afford a bench.” The project commenced, but it was not finished before Giamatti’s sudden death in 1989. Following his passing, the project assumed a memorial function.

Sellers and Vermont sculptor James Sardonis, who carved the bench, explain that there were no shop drawings; they worked the rock intuitively. Sellers chose black granite, as it would warm in the sun and invite sitters during all seasons. Sardonis carved the 22-ton block of Virginia stone in an industrial shed in Barre, Vermont.

He first squared the block and cleaved it in two on the diagonal. The resulting two right triangles were swung out to form a larger, two-part right triangle. A deep semicircle was cut into the stone along the triangle’s hypotenuse, and then the bench’s back and seat were sculpted.

The granite was finished at four different levels. The top surface was left in its raw, quarried state. The back shows the grooves from the boreholes made to cleave the stone in two. The seat and back were honed to a smooth matte finish, and the ends were polished to a near-mirrored surface. Monroe Price ’60 selected a Giamatti quote for the seat back: “A liberal education is at the heart of a civil society, and at the heart of a liberal arts education is the act of teaching.”

As a site-specific sculpture, the bench was truly finished only when it was situated in the grass near Lanman-Wright Hall. A narrow gap between the two split halves forms a line pointing to Phelps Gate. A semicircle of white marble chips on the ground finishes the circle begun by the arc of the bench seat.


In 2006, when I first called Sellers to ask him about the care of the bench, I also asked about references to baseball in the design.

“Nonsense,” he replied. “The bench has nothing to do with baseball.” He explained that the design used “ancient concepts of Greek solids: circles, squares, and triangles” meant to “reflect on a classical education, about which Giamatti was passionate.

“The gap points to Phelps Gate,” Sellers added. “Every first-year at Yale passes through Phelps to begin their education, and four years later they graduate though it.” Each of the four levels of polish represents a year in a liberal arts education. “Students arrive as rough intellects, ready to be shaped and polished by the many conversations they will have over four years.”

Lofty stuff, lovely and romantic. But I finished our conversation not convinced the bench had nothing to do with baseball.

To my eye, the bench’s back angles invoke the first-base and third-base lines. Nearby trees serve as foul poles. When seated, the observer has a view not unlike the walled and green fields of Fenway Park—the home field of the Red Sox and a favorite place of Giamatti’s. The white semicircle references the pitcher’s mound, an on-deck circle, or the arc of grass in front of home plate or at the infield’s end. That gap between the two stones is the narrowest of strike zones. And, as the student had pointed out, the front base profile resembles a taped baseball bat handle.

Giamatti’s baseball writing brings his love of literature and baseball together, and helped me decipher the granite. He had seen Greek geometry in the design of the game. Baseball was ordered “around threes and fours,” and its principles can be characterized with “squares containing circles containing rectangles.” Home base is “a curious pentagram,” which “organizes the field as it energizes the odd patterns of squares tipped and circles incomplete.” The field itself is a square “tipped so that a ‘diamond’ is encased in the grass.”

To Giamatti, baseball was an allegory for the American story. He likened its players, who run its bases and round each corner intent on returning home, to Homer’s hero Odysseus; and he observed that the narrative of that return home, the story of the journey, is told and retold by both classical scholar and baseball devotee. The Giamatti Bench is a seat of conversation and a place of memory: a witness to the field of play that is Old Campus.

In the spring of 2016 I put it to Sellers again: what were the references to baseball in the design of the bench, or more specifically why didn’t he admit to them? He answered that Giamatti’s premature death was so sad, so tragic, and so wrapped in baseball controversy that the Giamatti family asked that the bench contain “no overt references to the game.” Peter Knudsen ’60, who helped shepherd the project for his class, recalls that Yale was so insistent about the proscription that when the bench was placed, the facilities office sent a supervisor to assure that the gap between the two stones was not the diameter of a baseball.

Marcus Giamatti ’87MFA, Giamatti’s older son, has only hazy memories of the initial discussions about the bench. But he confirms that his mother, Toni, who died in 2004, did not want the memorial to include references to baseball. Giamatti’s short tenure as commissioner had included the discovery that the famous player and manager Pete Rose had bet on baseball, in violation of a rule held sacred in the game. Giamatti was responsible for determining Rose’s punishment: lifetime banishment from the game. He died eight days after announcing Rose’s suspension.

“The way he died, suddenly, with the Pete Rose stuff, was very difficult,” says Marcus Giamatti, an actor who also writes about baseball. “I’m only speculating, but I think my mother was pretty angry, not at baseball the game, but at the business.” He says, too, that his mother may have wanted to keep Giamatti’s Yale legacy separate from his baseball legacy.

But I have no doubt that baseball is there in the bench. Last spring, I flew across America and gazed down upon many fields of dreams. In some, there is a track between home plate and the pitcher’s mound to accommodate the many journeys a catcher makes to counsel his pitcher.

Something looked familiar. I snapped a photo: there in the grass, in some minor-league field, was an exact portrait of the bench. I e-mailed Sellers and made my case: if you cut a line across the diamond from first to third, the grass remaining describes the shape of the two blocks of the granite. The line between them is the result of the many consultations between catcher and pitcher, just like those between a teacher and a student.

Sellers wrote back, cagily: “The design of the bench is only incidentally related to baseball; however, the geometry of the Greek Solids and the game are entwined. I wonder if Bart’s love of the game grew out of his scholarly respect for the Greek sources of civil society.”

That was good enough for me. For his part, Marcus Giamatti says that if the bench is secretly about baseball, he doesn’t mind. “I love it,” he says. “My greatest connection with my father was baseball.”

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