Let me start by saying that I am a fan. I grew up in the 1970s when the Reds were The Big Red Machine. I followed that team as closely as a kid living in Harlan County, Kentucky could, being over 200 miles away. Many nights, I sat in the basement listening to Marty Brennaman and the Old Lefthander Joe Nuxhall call games on WSGS out of Hazard, Kentucky.
You’re in the headlines again for all the wrong reasons. Newly discovered evidence indicates that you bet on baseball while a player for the Reds. You even bet on Reds games. You’ve denied all this in past. I’m sure you will again.
A lot of folks believe you should be reinstated by Major League Baseball and honored as one of the game’s greats. Major League Baseball Rule 21 (D) says something altogether different:
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.
This is posted in every clubhouse in baseball. There is no gray area. Was there something about this you didn’t understand? Maybe you just thought you wouldn’t get caught.
These new allegations, if true, are the end of the road for you and Major League Baseball. I take no pleasure in this. In fact, it pains me to watch this play out.
You were one of the idols of my youth, along with Johnny Bench, Roger Staubach, Dan Issel and Wilt Chamberlain, sports stars who seemed bigger than life. You, though, were different. You were a regular guy who just happened to be a great baseball player. As a kid, I knew I couldn’t do the things the stars did, but you made it seem that hard work made anything possible.
All Reds fans from those days remember when you left for the Phillies after the 1978 season. We had suffered through the indignity of seeing Tony Perez traded and now you were gone. Of course, we didn’t blame you. We blamed the Reds, in particular General Manager Dick Wagner whom we viewed as a villain on par with John Wilkes Booth.
I was as happy as anyone when you returned to the Reds in the middle of the 1984 season. With you as player-manager, the team responded, playing better baseball for the remainder of the season. A year later, you were the Hit King. By then, I was a grown man, but it still thrilled me to watch you play.
By 1989, I was in my second year as a lawyer. I heard about your suspension at work. I was outraged. There had to be a mistake. Later, when you were permanently banned from baseball for gambling, I still didn’t believe all the allegations. Sure, you bet on horses. Maybe you even bet on other sports. But you wouldn’t bet on baseball. Your denials rang true to me. You loved the game too much to compromise it by violating its most sacrosanct rule.
That you may have bet on baseball was just not possible, even as the evidence mounted. I continued to believe you even after you accepted a lifetime ban. You accepted this indignity, I rationalized, only to stop the kangaroo court of Major League Baseball from falsely declaring that you had bet on baseball games. You were in the Star Chamber where accusation amounted to conviction. I couldn’t blame you for falling on your sword.
As much I believed you–and I did–two things nagged at me. One, why would the Commissioner’s Office be out to get Pete Rose? You weren’t a bad guy. In fact, you were one of the good guys, a shining example of how to play the game. Two, why was Commissioner Bart Giamatti so convinced of guilt? Giamatti was no dim bulb. He was a man of great intelligence, both a scholar and an avid baseball fan. It made no sense.
Then I read the Dowd Report, the investigative report prepared by former federal prosecutor John Dowd, a man whose named you have dragged through the mud over the years. The report supports only two conclusions: (1) You were guilty as charged based upon overwhelming proof; or (2) you were so thoroughly despised that dozens of people would conspire to destroy you. I was wrong. You lied.
Of course, you remained defiant, that is, until you finally fessed up in 2000. I guess you knew you would never be reinstated unless you came clean, so you admitted to gambling on baseball. In your typical fashion, you didn’t confess in a meeting with the Commissioner or with any humility. Instead, it was part of a book, My Prison Without Bars. Almost immediately, you began hawking autographs with the inscription: “I’m sorry I bet on baseball.” I can buy one on PeteRose.com. Pete, you still can’t get out of your own way.
You know baseball history. Baseball was almost destroyed by gambling in the early 20th century when the Chicago White Sox fixed the 1919 World Series against, ironically, the Reds. After the Black Sox scandal, gambling on baseball was the third rail of the rule book. Touch it, and you’re finished. Anyone who bet on baseball would be banned for life–no exceptions.
You know about Hal Chase, first baseman for the New York Giants. Prince Hal was an early example. He was banned in 1921 for betting on his own team. Chase was a particularly scurrilous character who was also rumored to have fixed games as far back as 1910. The rule was clear–bet on baseball and leave the game forever.
Dowd estimated that you may have been in debt over $100,000 at the time you were banned. The new revelations show that some of this debt may have been owed to a bookie connected with organized crime. Did you really mortgage yourself to the Mob while we were cheering your return to Cincinnati?
This latest revelation isn’t the first indication that you bet on baseball while playing. In his book, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, author Kostya Kennedy offered several anecdotes of such gambling, even from your own mother! I suspect we’ll now start hearing more such stories. Hopefully, you’ll remain silent. When you defend yourself, things seem to get worse. Regardless, your time for confession has long since passed.
You taught me that my heroes do, indeed, have feet of clay. I believed you because I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe you loved baseball just like I did back in those days when you were a hero. Instead, you trashed the game by committing its gravest sin.
Your apologists–and there are more than a few–compare this to steroids. That’s a false analogy for a number of reasons. First, no one ever threw a game because of steroid use. Second, during the so-called Steroid Era, performance enhancing drugs weren’t even banned. Finally, you–of all people–should have been above this.
I’m not suggesting that you ever threw a game. I’ve never heard even a rumor about that. If I did, though, it wouldn’t be hard to believe. That’s where you’ve taken yourself.
What about the Hall of Fame? Contrary to some people’s belief, the Hall of Fame is not run by Major League Baseball. It has its own rules. Frankly, its rule declaring you (and all other banned players) ineligible is, at best, silly. Allow the voters to decide. Prince Hal never got in, even though he was regarded as one of the best players of his day. The Steroid Era stars have found the doors to the Hall closed to them despite none of them being on the permanently banned list.
As far as the ban goes, I have no sympathy for you. You knew the rule. You’ve done well because of your banishment. Unlike some, I don’t begrudge you making money hawking your autographs and photo ops. With your lifestyle, cash is probably a necessity. If you can make money off your own downfall, so be it.
In the twilight of your career, you chased the hits record of another notorious star, Ty Cobb, hanging on well past the point of being an effective player. It is ironic that you were so driven to secure your place in the record book, while so cavalierly disregarding the game itself.
So, make no mistake. You accepted a lifetime ban that was richly deserved. You knew that. Don’t act like it’s an injustice. It isn’t. You knew the rule. You knew the penalty. That’s actually that’s the epitome of justice.
The most surprising part of all this is that I’m still a fan. I’m a fan of No. 14 who strutted with his chest out. Charley Hustle who ran to first on walks. I see you rounding second with your helmet flying off and then diving head first into third. You made kids like me love baseball. It seemed like more than a game. It was important. It mattered. I just wish you’d felt the same.