By Marty Appel, October 6, 2016

Pete Rose is as proud of his hit record as you would expect him to be—it defines him—but he also takes enormous pride in a lesser known record: most winning games played in. That’s quite a feat in itself.

There is another record of sorts that probably belongs to him as well. He’s been “part of the conversation” in baseball circles since 1963—53 years now where he remains top of mind. Connie Mack, who managed the Athletics for 50 years, was close, but the conversations today are more universal, what with social media, television, sports talk radio, and so forth.

Back in 1963, when he was Rookie of the Year, Rose was a contemporary of almost every great star of the ’50s, save for Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson. Whitey Ford first called him “Charlie Hustle” when he saw Rose running full speed to first on walks during spring training games. Rose broke in when games were still played in the Polo Grounds, in Crosley Field, in Shibe Park (then called Connie Mack Stadium), and in Sportsman’s Park (then called Busch Stadium).

I have the pleasure of speaking to college classes from time to time, and I quickly learned that with today’s college students, if my story predates Derek Jeter, then I have a lot of blank stares looking up at me. They know little of Williams and Cobb, Seaver and Fisk (a recent question: who came first, Mantle or Gehrig?), but they all know about Pete Rose.

Rose remains relevant because his story is so rich; it’s filled with ethical dilemmas, a sense of justice (fulfilled or denied), and his scrappy approach to life. His recent television commercial for a shoe brand, done with a good measure of humor (“Pete, you’re not supposed to be in the Hall. . . . I can’t catch a break”), made him a 74-year-old ex-athlete doing commercials!

For producers of sports talk radio shows, Rose is the gift that keeps giving. If the phone lights are not all blinking, bring up Rose’s name and the call board lights up. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion.

It is the great American debate. Should the man with the most hits in baseball history be denied a Hall of Fame plaque? For supporters, it’s hardly a debate at all. They say that his misdeeds came after his playing career and that there are plenty of miscreants already in the Hall of Fame. They wonder how he can be denied.

The Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame & Museum features a 50-foot-high wall of balls to honor baseball’s “Hit King.”
Credit: David Berkowitz on Flickr

For his detractors, he broke the ultimate rule, no betting on baseball, a fact he denied for years before deciding to come clean and confess.

But confession comes hard to him. At his 2015 hearing before Commissioner Rob Manfred, he denied currently betting on baseball, and then after a break with his lawyers, he decided he needed to “clarify” his answer and said yes, in fact, he did, legally, in Las Vegas. Even at this crucial moment of his life, the truth did not come easily to him. And it did him in. His goose was cooked at that very moment, if indeed he ever had a chance at all.

Four commissioners have now ruled him ineligible to be employed in the game and, by extension, ineligible for the Hall of Fame, which excludes players on the Ineligible List. He has probably run out of commissioners.

The Hall of Fame issue is clearly what drives the debate and keeps him in the conversation. When the Hall was created in 1936, few realized the prominence it would hold in American life. It was based on a now-defunct Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York City and has grown over the years to be the Hall of Fame, as each sport and many other fields of endeavor have them, from Rock & Roll to inventors. The question of whether you are in or out of the Baseball Hall of Fame really matters to a wide swath of the population. Arguably, if the Hall of Fame was not part of the Rose story, the story would be far less compelling. Would we all really care whether he was eligible to be a spring training hitting instructor at this point? That conversation would have gone away a long time ago.

When people compare him to steroid users, they miss the real point of his exile from baseball. Steroid users, evil though their deeds may have been, were at least trying to play better and help their teams win. There was no suggestion that they were throwing games, which would of course undermine the belief in the honesty of baseball, without which there is no Major League Baseball.

But when you get into gambling, that’s a different matter.

Rose’s supporters argue that he should be judged on his playing career alone, but we learned in the Dowd Report that he was betting while still an active player—especially as player/manager. (He was baseball’s last player/manager.)

If he had bet on the Reds to win every day—162 times a year—maybe there could be a measure of forgiveness along the way. But he didn’t. He was selective. There were days he did not bet.

What were those days all about? Was he delivering a message to his bookie with a wink, perhaps with an understanding that his debt could be cleared with this insider information?

This we don’t know for sure, but the very fact that his actions beg that question moves his case to a stratosphere where baseball can’t afford to be. If we have doubts about the outcomes of games—did he maneuver his relief pitching to alter an outcome unfavorably?—the very integrity of the game is undermined. We can’t have that, which is why four commissioners have been so tough on him.

Pete remains a funny, charming, good guy who is great to be around, and yes, a genius at baseball who might have gone on to be a very successful manager. Like Casey Stengel, Earl Weaver, and others, he had it all “up here” in the brain, without a need for spiral-bound printouts. He just knew things.

Steve Hirdt of Elias Sports Bureau once approached him when he was managing with a question unavailable to anyone through any form of publication. “Pete,” said Steve. “Which player in the National League do you think has the greatest ratio of fly balls to ground balls?”

Rose thought for a few seconds and then said, “Esasky?”

He was right. The answer was his own player, Nick Esasky. How could he have known this obscure fact?

Because he saw things others didn’t.

That genius could have served him well in a long managing career. But his recklessness in assuming that somehow because he was Pete Rose he was never going to get in trouble for a little thing like betting on his own team would do him in.

So Pete Rose will remain on the outside looking in when it comes to the plaque gallery at 25 Main Street in Cooperstown. He will talk about second chances and his hit total and his most winning games played in, but alas, it all falls short.

Perhaps he can take some solace in knowing his supporters will always be there for him, and he remains relevant by being part of baseball’s dialogue. A shame it can’t be more.

Source: The Trading Card Database