|"Charlie Hustle" in classic form|
13 April 1963. Major League Baseball was in reality what it still claims to be: America's National Pastime. Indeed, baseball was in its glory days. I would argue that the years between 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the sport's abhorrent color barrier, and 1969, when both leagues expanded to 12 teams and the divisional era commenced, were the apogee of the game. White stars like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Sandy Koufax were joined by African-American luminaries such as Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, and Bob Gibson. Added to the mix was a rising tide of Latin American stars like Minnie Minoso, Luis Aparicio, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal. Never before or since has such an assemblage of talent played on the diamonds of America's great cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and (later) California. It was a time when America's best athletes were drawn more to baseball than they were to football and basketball. I have often wondered whether Mantle and Mays, for example, would have ended up as a running back (Mantle) and cornerback (Mays) instead of the two best centerfielders I ever saw had they been born in 1981 instead of 1931. No doubt they would have, and been immensely successful. I, however, am grateful that they didn't, and that I had the privilege of seeing each of them play the sport for which they were best suited.
|Crosley Field, Cincinnati (firstname.lastname@example.org)|
|My first Pete Rose baseball card,|
the 1964 Topps
What set Rose entirely apart from his contemporaries, however, was the style of his play. He was certainly not a self-promoting "hot dog." Nor did he play with the panache of Mays or the simple elegance of Aaron. He was emphatically not "cool," as the flat top haircut he sported in the '60s attests. What he was was a hard-nosed player who played every minute of every game as if his whole life depended on it. My earliest recollection of Rose was his anomalous penchant for sprinting to first base when issued a base on balls (a "walk"). Indeed, such behavior led to the scornful nickname "Charlie Hustle," which Rose nevertheless bore as a badge of honor (according to Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford was the first to dub Rose thus when, on a long homer by Mantle in Spring Training 1963, Rose nonetheless sprinted to the wall and leaped as high as he could to catch the ball even when he had no chance in succeeding at his quest).
|Rose bowling over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game|
Rose's darkest days, however, wouldn't come until the years 1984-89, when he managed his hometown Reds. In 1989, after rumors had circulated for some time, Rose was questioned by Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and his successor Bart Giamotti about reports that he had bet on baseball, in particular games involving his own Reds team. After an investigation by attorney John Dowd uncovered incontrovertible evidence (despite Rose's persistent denials, which lasted all the way to 2004, when he finally admitted doing so) that Rose had gambled on dozens of Reds games during the years he managed the club. As a result, on 24 August 1989, Rose accepted a lifetime ban from the game he loved from Giamotti. And so he remains a baseball outcast to this day, denied the spot in the game's Hall of Fame he covets more than anything in the world. His story is a true Greek tragedy, his downfall precipitated by a fatal flaw of character that, when channeled properly, made him one of the greatest players ever to lace up spikes.
|Rose saving the day in the 9th inning of Game 6|
of the 1980 World Series in Philadelphia
Does Rose belong in the Hall of Fame? I say yes. His boorishness, past sins, and often pathetic current demeanor must be acknowledged as a matter of public record. But, in my view, he has served his time. Moreover, the Hall is home to two players with convictions for drug offenses (Orlando Cepeda and Ferguson Jenkins). It is home to a pitcher who flagrantly defied the game's rules by throwing spitballs (Gaylord Perry). It is home to former commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis who, despite his key role in restoring baseball's integrity after the Black Sox scandal (see below), was an implacable racist who perpetuated the "gentleman's agreement" that kept African-American ballplayers from playing in the Major Leagues (his insistent "concern" for the Negro Leagues that would have been, and ultimately were, decimated by integration ring more than a little hollow in retrospect). Most significantly, it is home to Ty Cobb who, despite being one of the ten best players ever to play the game, was the meanest player of his era and hated even by his own teammates (not to mention a possible perpetrator of manslaughter). [an aside: the Pro Football Hall of Fame has not seen fit to remove O. J. Simpson from its ranks either].
The upshot: membership in the Hall of Fame should be based on a man's achievement and historical significance, not his suitability to serve as a societal role model. The explanation for Rose's predicament, of course, goes back almost a century, to the aforementioned "Black Sox scandal," when a number of players for the Chicago White Sox, including superstar Shoeless Joe Jackson, took money to throw games and lose the 1919 World Series to the Reds (for those interested, see Eliot Asinof's fine book, Eight Men Out, or, for those with shorter attention spans, the movie of the same name starring John Cusack). As a result, the game has been extremely sensitive to gambling, and rightly so. Nevertheless—and to me this is the key point—Rose never has been shown to have bet against the Reds (and who that ever saw him play seriously believes he did?). And if he did not, I see no definitive or compelling reason to keep him out, lack of genuine repentance notwithstanding.
One of the thrills of my life was traveling to Cooperstown, New York in July of 1995 to witness the Hall of Fame induction of Phillies legends Schmidt and Rich Ashburn. The field on which the ceremony took place was a veritable sea of upwards of 30,000 people clad in Phillies red, at the time a record-setting attendance for an induction ceremony. Schmidt, in his speech, mentioned that Rose was his grandmother's favorite player. Then, as he is prone to do, he made a controversial pronouncement: "I join her and millions of baseball fans in hoping someday soon, someday very soon, Pete Rose will be standing right here." Of course, the ocean of Phillies fans in attendance roared their approval. Here's to hoping that Michael Jack gets his wish.