Saturday, April 13, 2013

Pete Rose after 50 Years

"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 (
But in the middle of that charmed era of change sprang an anomaly: a throwback player devoid of the speed of an Aparicio, the power of Mantle, or the all-around brilliance of Mays, a player who harked back to the bĂȘte noire of early 20th century baseball, the great Ty Cobb. I am speaking, of course, of Peter Edward Rose who, on this day 50 years ago, garnered the first of his record 4256 hits, an 8th inning triple off of Pirates' hurler Bob Friend in a lopsided 12-4 loss at old Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Rose, like Mays 12 years earlier, had failed to get a hit in his first 12 official at bats (though he did walk in his first plate appearance 5 days earlier, scoring on a home run by Frank Robinson). But once he got that first hit, there was no stopping him. In his first season, he accumulated 170 hits, hit .273, scored 101 runs, and was named the National League Rookie of the Year. 

My first Pete Rose baseball card,
the 1964 Topps
In his third season, 1965, Rose really hit his stride. That year he led the league with 209 hits, batted .312, scored 117 runs, made the first of his 17 All-Star appearances, and finished sixth in the voting for National League MVP. In his peak years of 1965-81, Rose hit over .300 15 times, had 200 or more hits 10 times, and scored more than 100 runs 9 times. He led the National League in hits 7 times, doubles 5 times, runs 4 times, and batting three times. Ten times he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, winning the award in 1973, a year in which he led the Big Red Machine to 99 wins and the NL West title by hitting .338. By the time he hung up his spikes in 1986 at the age of 45, Rose had amassed 4256 hits, scored 2165 runs, hit 746 doubles, and had a lifetime batting average of .303.

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
The dark side of Charlie Hustle reared its ugly head on the night of 14 July 1970 at brand new Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. The occasion was the annual exhibition known as the All-Star Game, pitting the stars of the American and National Leagues against each other. With Rose on second and two outs in the bottom of the 12th inning, Jim Hickman singled to center. Rose, against his better judgment, streaked home. As the throw from center approached Fosse, Rose decided against his typical headfirst slide, instead lowering his shoulder and steamrolling youthful Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse as the ball sailed by, separating Fosse's shoulder in the process. Rose's "hustle" guaranteed the National League's 8th straight victory, but his overzealousness was widely criticized as unnecessary in view of the game's status as a mere exhibition. Nonetheless, Rose, as is his wont, remained unrepentant.

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
I have a confession. Despite his obvious and multifarious character flaws, I love Pete Rose. And note that this confession comes from a Phillies fan of 50 years who absolutely hated Rose during his days with the Big Red Machine. The reason for my change of heart was the Phils' signing of Rose in 1979 for a then-record 4-year, $3.2 free agent contract. The Phils had won three consecutive division titles (winning 101 games in both 1976 and 1977), but had faltered each year in the playoffs (in 1976 to Rose's Reds). They had loads of star power, led by Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, but Schmidt in particular never seemed to be able to live up to the massive potential he so obviously had.  All this changed with the acquisition of Rose. Rose, for one, had the confidence in Schmitty that Mike lacked: "Mike Schmidt is the best player in the National League today. There's no question about that. He honestly doesn't realize how much ability he has. All he has to do is get the most out of those abilities on a daily basis because, believe me, he can play. He can do it all and he's just starting to want to more and more." The results were immediate: 45 homers in 1979, followed by MVP seasons in 1980-81 in which Schmidt developed into arguably the game's best player. More importantly, however, Rose brought legitimate swagger and confidence to the Phils, leading to the franchise's first World Series title in its then-97 year history. An indelible image etched into the memory of all Phillies fans alive at that time is that of Rose catching Frank White's foul pop in front of the team's dugout after normally sure-handed catcher Bob Boone had dropped it, securing the second out in the top of the ninth of the deciding 6th game at Veterans Stadium in South Philly on 21 October 1980. And never once did I ever see Rose dog it to first on a routine groundout, something I wish I could say about the current denizens of Pattison Avenue.

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.


  1. Great piece, Jim - in which I feel a bit complicit. We watched that 6th game of the '80s series on a black and white TV in my apartment in Dallas, and cried together when the Phils wrapped up the series. Funny, my memory of Pete bailing Bob Boone out on that foul ball is indelibly grayscale . . . .

    And the McGaheys stayed at our house (40 miles from Cooperstown!) on induction weekend 1995. Sea of red indeed . . . I remember walking back to town hearing all the Philly accents and commenting, "we should have set up a cheesesteak stand!"

    This is why I love baseball.

    I saw an interview somewhere where Rose described his aforementioned relationship with Schmitty while a Phil . . . Did you know that Rose's nickname for Schmidt was "Herbie?"

    1. I did not know that nickname. Any rhyme or reason for it? Both the 80 series (while strangers and sojourners in Dallas) and the 95 visit to New York were the best of times indeed. Hard to believe they were so long ago. It seems like yesterday that we went crazy and screamed "Phillies" at the top of our lungs for what seemed an hour the night they won. The other residents of the complex must have thought we were crazy. Schmidt's base hit, the Tugger, mounted cops ringing the outfield. I have always been a proud Philadelphian, but never more so than that night. Better than the Super Bowl in my book.

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