By TIM BARTO
This past weekend, Pete Rose wrote a letter to the Commissioner of Baseball, asking for a dispensation that would end his suspension and allow him to be considered for election to the Hall of Fame. The letter was apologetic and contrite, characteristics for which Charlie Hustle is not known.
Pete Rose loves baseball, and he played the game the right way, with enthusiasm and gusto. He sprinted to first base after drawing a walk. He slid headfirst. He rattled off statistics like an accountant. He punched Bud Harrelson in the face. He loved baseball more than anything in the world, and he may very likely have been the first unanimous election to the Hall of Fame . . . if he hadn’t gambled on games in which his team was playing.
Posted on the wall in every Major League clubhouse is a sign that reads, in part, “Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform, shall be declared permanently ineligible.:
It is Rule 21, section D, subsection two, known simply as Rule 21. It was written after “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and seven of his Chicago White Sox teammates colluded with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series, and it is the reason Shoeless Joe is not in the Hall of Fame despite a lifetime batting average of .356, third highest in the history of the game. And it is the reason why Pete Rose, who amassed 4,256 hits – the highest total of any player ever – has been banned from baseball, and the Hall of Fame, since August of 1989, when he struck a deal with then Commissioner Bart Giamatti.
Before proceeding, allow me, please, to let you know why this whole matter matters to me.
I became a Cincinnati Reds fan in 1970 when I was seven years old. It was a great year to become a Reds fan. They hired a new manager in 35-year-old rookie skipper Sparky Anderson, who led the team to 102 wins, a division title, a National League pennant, and a trip to the World Series. Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench won his first Most Valuable Player while leading the league in home runs and RBIs. A new stadium opened in Cincinnati, just in time to host the All-Star Game in July, when hometown hero Pete Rose bowled over Ray Fosse to win the game in extra innings.
As a kid, my favorite player was Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench, but Pete Rose was a close second. Pete hit from both sides of the plate, crouching low and intensely following into the catcher’s mitt any balls he didn’t swing at. His uniform was usually covered in dirt, and he seemed to be enjoying himself every second of every game.
Like thousands of boys who grew up in the 1970s, I imitated Pete by sliding headfirst, despite Mom’s objections that I’d break a finger or crack my head open. I also crouched in my batting stance like Pete. It didn’t help me hit any better; in fact, it probably made things worse, but I still did it.
In that glorious year of 1970, I attended my very first Reds game in person when they came to town to play the San Francisco Giants. My Dad, my older brother Rick, and I arrived at Candlestick Park two hours early to watch batting practice, and as Rick and I were walking around the nearly empty stadium, we spotted a Reds player near the stands, just behind home plate. I had a brand new baseball and a pen with me in the hopes that I could get a Reds’ player’s autograph, so I ran down the steps to hopefully get my first signature. Upon approach, I realized that Reds player was none other than team captain Pete Rose. He saw me barreling full speed at him with a crazed look in my eyes, and probably thought I was going to sprint myself right over the rail and on top of him. I was able to slam on the brakes and skid to a stop, then stuck out my baseball and pen. Pete grabbed it, signed it, and for a split second there I thought he might have actually made eye contact with me.
I was so starstruck I lost my ability to speak, unable to even get the words “Thank you” out of my mouth.
(Side note: a week or so later, my best friend, Gertch, and I wanted to play catch, but we couldn’t find a ball, so I retrieved that Pete Rose-signed pearl and, figuring it wouldn’t get too smudged just from playing catch, tossed it around with Gertch. It didn’t get smudged, but it did get dirty and worn, so I traced over Pete’s signature with a pen to make it look good again. It didn’t look good, but I still have it 52 years later.)
In late 1978, after a season that saw him hit in forty-four straight games to tie for second place all time in that category, Pete Rose, incomprehensibly left the Reds and signed an $800,000-a-year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, making him the highest paid player in the game. (The minimum salary in the big leagues for the 2022 season was $700,000. Think about that for a minute or two.)
Pete’s defection not only betrayed my inner sense of loyalty but, to add insult to injury, the Phillies were favorite team of my other best friend, Andy. This whole situation was intolerable to me, and Andy knew it. Without saying a word, and without any warning, he would crouch down into a Pete-Rose-like batting stance just to irk me. And irk me it did. I’d had enough.
“The name Pete Rose,” I declared to my family, “shall henceforth be disallowed in the Barto household. He will be referred to as Benedict Arnold.”
That’s how serious I took this stuff.
Fast forward to 1984, and Pete Rose returned to Cincinnati to be the Reds’ player-manager. I tried not to care. One night, I was having dinner at my parents’ house when my Dad, reading the newspaper (a compilation of large pieces paper with news stories, advertisements, and baseball scores printed on them in ink), said, “Tim, the Reds are playing the Giants tonight at Candlestick. Pete’s back. Let’s go see ‘em.”
“His name is still Benedict Arnold, and I don’t want to see that traitor,” I replied.
“Come on. He’s a Red again. Let’s go. My treat.”
It’s hard to say no to a ballgame with my Dad, so off we went.
In those days, the Reds were awful, but the Giants were slightly awfuller, and, in true Bay Area spirit, the fair-weather fans stayed away in droves. We walked up to the ticket booth about a half hour before the game began and were able to get tickets (I kid you not) in section one, box one, the very first row between home plate and the first base dugout. To this day, the best seats I have ever had at a professional baseball game.
The public address announcer introduced Pete Rose, playing first base and wearing number 14, and I sat on my hands. “Oh, come on, clap for Charlie Hustle,” my Dad egged on.
“Nope. He betrayed his hometown and his fans,” I said as I refused to cheer such treachery. I didn’t boo; I just didn’t clap.
Until a few innings later.
Pete came to bat, hitting from the left side, he slapped a pitch to the opposite field and bolted towards first base. And that’s when the clouds lifted, the heavens opened, and the angels sang in unison. Pete took a wide turn at first and it became apparent he was going for two bases. Muscle memory kicked in and I subconsciously stood because I had seen this dozens of times before and it was a thing of beauty. Pete Rose was churning like a freight train towards second base and diving headfirst into the bag for a double. It was classic Pete Rose – and I was jumping onto the screen, chills running up and down my body, screaming, “You’re the greatest! Welcome back, Pete! Welcome back!” It was delicious, and I was delirious.
Dad smiled, and in less than ten seconds I had forgiven Pete Rose. He was back home with the Reds, where he belonged. He would bring the club back to the glory days of the Big Red Machine, and one day he would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Five years later, when the stories of Pete’s gambling were coming to light, many of us were in disbelief. When Pete agreed to his suspension, we were absolutely bewildered.
I agreed that Pete Rose should not be permitted into the Hall. He broke the fundamental rule of professional baseball by laying money on games in which his team was playing. He was a manager when he did it, and he bet on his team to win but, still, he broke Rule 21, and he would have to suffer a lifetime suspension. Those who know how much I loved the Cincinnati Reds and the way Pete Rose played the game, have been startled at the hard line I took on the matter.
At first, Pete was adamant that he did not bet on baseball. Former teammates shunned him. Advertisers avoided him. Friends told him to come clean. Lawyers gave him bad advice.
Eventually, Rose admitted he bet on games . . . but not on Reds’ games. Then, in 2003, after 15 years of denial and partial admissions, Pete Rose admitted his guilt: he did, in fact, bet on Reds’ games in which he was managing the team. He finally came clean, and he tried his best to embrace this newfound honest. His most often-requested autograph since then is one in which he writes, “I’m sorry I bet on baseball” next to his signature. He even signed copies of the Dowd Report, the investigative results that led to his banishment by Commissioner Giamatti.
But baseball has taken some unusual turns of late:
- The Houston Astros were found to be brazenly and collectively cheating during their 2017 world championship season, and none of their players received any punishment.
- The Hall of Fame voted in the first admitted steroid user (David Ortiz), and the more notorious steroid users – some of whom have admitted their use and some who have yet to do so – are receiving increasing vote totals from the Hall of Fame voters each year.
- Most unusual of all, Major League Baseball now allows gambling businesses to advertise at the ballparks with billboards and even their logos on pitcher’s mound.
- The MLB Network posts the odds for each game.
- And, in the most remarkable – and for Pete Rose, the cruelest – turn of all, next season the Cincinnati Reds will allow a betting operation, run by BetMGM, to take bets inside their own ballpark.
If admitted cheaters are allowed to continue playing the game without punishment, steroid users can be enshrined into the Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball openly allows gambling advertisement and actual betting at their ballparks, then it is only fair that the matter of Peter Edward Rose be revisited, and the all-time hit king be reinstated.
Pete is now 81 years old, and the math is against him. He is, perhaps, coming to terms with his mortality. To me, though, his recent letter to the Commissioner is reminiscent of that base hit down the left field line that resulted in me jumping on the backstop fence. Pete Rose is running hard, rounding first base . . .
Tim Barto is Vice President at Alaska Policy Forum, the immediate past President of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks Booster Club, and is feeling an unexpected sense of peace advocating for Pete Rose to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.