Kostya Kennedy, assistant managing editor of Sports Illustrated and author of the superb “56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports,’’ wastes no time in getting to the point: “Does Pete Rose belong in the Hall of Fame?” he asks on the first page of “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma.’’
It’s now been nearly a quarter-century since Rose was banned for life from Major League Baseball for betting on games, a span nearly as long as the 24 seasons he spent in the majors starting in 1963.
But the controversy surrounding him remains an open sore in the sport. “[A] moral conundrum,” as Kennedy puts it, “that over the course of its long and changing life has burrowed through every level of the game and expanded far beyond sports talk.”
There have been numerous books on Rose since his banishment, most notably James Reston Jr.’s 1991 “Collision at Home Plate’’ and Michael Sokolove’s 1990 “Hustle: The Myth, Life and Lies of Pete Rose,’’ but “An American Dilemma’’ brings Rose’s story up to date, laying out the cases for and against him better than any previous account.
Looking at Rose as a player, Kennedy presents an air-tight case for his worthiness in the Hall of Fame. Rose played in more games, came to bat more times, got more hits, and dirtied more uniforms than any player in major league history. He batted over .300 fifteen times, played in 17 All-Star games, and his 44-consecutive-game hitting streak in 1978 is second only to DiMaggio’s 56 straight games in 1941.
The problem, of course, is that when he was the Cincinnati Reds manager, Rose was charged and finally admitted to betting on baseball games, including some played by his own team. Gambling, as Kennedy makes clear, was not simply a matter of bad judgment on Rose’s part, but the nearly inevitable result of his overwhelming ego and competitive spirit conditioned by a youth spent in a hardscrabble environment.
In short, deft brush strokes Kennedy paints a picture of Rose’s hometown of Cincinnati, “a Northern city peopled by Southerners,” which prides itself, unabashedly, on being “the machine tool capital of the world.”
On the blue-collar West Side where Pete and his brother Dave grew up, “There was a sense of hardship in life that you accepted uncomplainingly . . . [a] belief that in the hardest times you would find a way to survive, that when the river rose up or work was hard to come by, you would persevere.”
Not gifted with exceptional speed or power, Rose hammered himself into a major leaguer who could bat from both the left and right side through hard work.
Arrogant, obnoxious, and crude — but also possessing “a scruffy kind of soulfulness’’ — Pete played baseball with such infectious enthusiasm he emerged from his first training camp with a new nickname, Charlie Hustle. Kennedy credits Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford with hanging the tag on Rose; his Cincinnati teammates made it official.
But, while Rose had “an almost inconceivable level of concentration on the field,” there were “mental blinders he wore at crucial times through both his ascent and his fall.” For instance, his passion for gambling, which included betting on big league baseball games.
Bart Giamatti, baseball commissioner and former Yale president, regarded Rose’s offense as a mortal sin and barred him permanently from the game after an investigation. When Giamatti died in 1989, his friend and successor Fay Vincent stood by the ruling.
Kennedy leaves no doubt about Rose’s greatness as a player or his guilt as a gambler. He makes an equally compelling case, though, that the punishment is too severe. As Kennedy points out, during Rose’s rookie season, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Green Bay’s Paul Hornung and Detroit’s Alex Karras for betting on professional football games, some of them involving their own teams. The suspension was lifted after one season.
As Kennedy points out, “Dozens of ballplayers have now been suspended for using performance enhancing drugs, receiving punishment that, to many, seem paltry when held alongside Rose’s permanent ban.” And numerous superstars known for use of performance enhancing drugs remain eligible for the Hall of Fame.
On the other hand, being inducted into the Hall of Fame “might, some collectors say, work against Pete Rose as a commodity, might take away the edge” that Rose has at memorabilia shows where sympathetic fans flock to pay for his autograph. Rose said laughingly to Kennedy, “Yeah, not being in the Hall of Fame — I guess that’s my shtick!”
Rose once told another disgraced baseball player, former Detroit Tigers star pitcher Denny McLain, “I get up and do Pete Rose every day” — without realizing, apparently, that doing Pete Rose is the reason he’s not in the Hall of Fame.Allen Barra writes about sports for theatlantic.com and the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is “Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.’’