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A Biased Reason Why Pete Rose Should be in the Hall of Fame

August 25, 2013

Rose and Boone

The 2002 World Series was full of surprises. The California Angels, perennial losers, became the ultimate winners. Barry Bonds, after seventeen years of post-season futility, hit homeruns with the same frequency that he blows kisses toward himself in the mirror each morning – though perhaps with a little help from his good friend, the syringe. And the game’s announcer, the erudite Tim McCarver, used words that could actually be understood by the average doltish fan. But the biggest surprise was the introduction of Pete Rose to a roaring crowd at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco. It was the first time since his banishment from baseball in 1989 on charges of gambling that Rose had been allowed into a major league venue, much less as the center of adulation.

Then came the inevitable question from Tim McCarver and fans around the country: Should Pete Rose be admitted into the Hall of Fame? To know on what side of the argument stood the general public, all one had to do was listen to the response of the fans that night in San Francisco. They fawned on Rose even more than on the great Hank Aaron and Cal Ripkin. We all knew that Rose had indeed misbehaved by betting on HIS own team, but we were not willing to deny a career so impressive that the statistical numbers far dwarfed the staggering numbers of dollars he had paid to his bookies.

Those numbers include a record 4256 lifetime hits. To reach the 3000 hit mark is a major achievement for a player; only 28 men belong to this illustrious club, 27 of whom got an automatic free pass into the Hall of Fame. He is also first in at-bats and games, a testament to his durability and love of the game. He has the unique distinction of having played in 500 games at five different positions. He was a player-manager at the end of his career with his original team, the Reds, in the town, Cincinnati, where he was born and raised to play baseball. Some consider Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak to be the most unbreakable in all of sports, and it was Pete who came the closest at 44 games, the most ever in the National League.

Then there were the intangibles as to why he should be allowed back into baseball, regardless of whether he gambled on the game or dealt drugs to fans behind the dugout. His nickname was Charlie Hustle. Those 4256 hits were not all the result of balls landing in the outfield gaps. This was a guy who would sprint to first base on a walk; a guy who, in an All-Star game (an occasion for the players to have fun and not try to win at all costs), plowed over and thereby ended the career of catcher Ray Fosse; the guy who fans of all opposing teams hated with the virulence of a white Baptist toward a foreigner. He willed his teams to six World Series, three of which were anointed supreme victors. One of those world championships was a certain team’s first such title in its one hundred year history, the team holding the dubious record of the most losses of all time, the Philadelphia Phillies. In Philadelphia, Pete Rose is God, more of an icon than even in his native Cincinnati.

I am a Philly native and a lifetime Phillies fan, and so my views on the Pete Rose issue can serve as an accurate reflection of the city as a whole. I became aware of baseball at around seven years old when my dad took me to my first game at the old Connie Mack Stadium. This was in 1967 when Richie Allen, Cookie Rojas and Chris Short were the stars of a team that always seem to finish in the basement. The one time when they did compete for the pennant, 1964, still lives in baseball infamy. They had been up by six and a half games with only twelve games left before losing ten consecutive games and finishing second to the Cardinals, a team whose young catcher was Tim McCarver. In ancient years, the Phillies were just as hapless, except for two years, 1915 and 1950, when they won the pennant only to lose each time in the World Series.

Then, in 1972, Steve Carlton came to the team and won 27 games, though the Phillies still finished in last place. But this was the beginning of a roster that, as the Seventies wore on, came to include Greg Luzinski, Garry Maddox, Larry Bowa, Manny Trillo, Bake McBride, Tim McCarver (the guy is ubiquitous), Tug McGraw and the greatest third basement ever to play the game, Mike Schmidt. In ’74, they finished third, and the next year were runners-up in the division. In 1976, the Bicentennial, they racked up a staggering 101 wins, but lost in the league championship to the Reds. The exact same thing happened in the two following years, except this time it was the Dodgers and the annoying Steve Garvey who denied them a chance to play in the World Series. It was understood that the Phils were one of the best mini-dynasties never to have won a pennant, unlike The Big Red Machine, the Cincinnati Reds, led by Pete Rose, whom every Philadelphian worth their high cholesterol count hated more than they did any native New Yorker. Rose was cocky, had a dumb haircut – and what was up with him sprinting to first base on a walk anyway? Worse, he was so damn good, and had an irritating knack for willing his team to victory. This was the kind of hustling lunatic-asshole that the talented Phillies lacked to raise them to the next, highest level.

Then, following the 1978 season when Rose put together his 44 game hitting streak, he signed on as a free agent with the Phillies. We were happy, yet, c’mon, the guy was now 38 years old, not exactly in his prime. Still, in 1979, he batted .331 with 208 hits, though he was open in his criticism of the team, saying that, sure the players were exceptional, but they did not know how to win. That was why, every year, they were always the bridesmaid, never the bride. He even questioned, of all people, Mike Schmidt’s passion for the game.

The next year the Phils struggled from the beginning, as Pete became more vocal and confrontational. In September, they were far behind the division-leading Expos. This was when Mike Schmidt came to the fore and began smashing game-winning homeruns; Steve Carlton pitched like it was 1972 again, winning 24 games; and Tug McGraw, the closer, shut down each team in the ninth, recording 20 saves. During that stretch, at the end of each inning, Pete Rose, the first baseman, if he caught the putout, would run to the mound and spike the ball, as if taunting the other team, who would consider themselves taunted. They ended up winning the division on the last day, payback for 1964.

But now it was playoff time, when it was understood that the Phils of the Seventies would lose – except it was now 1980. They beat the Astros in the playoffs in cardiac fashion and so make it to only their third World Series in their one-hundred-year history. The opponent is the Royals. Flash forward to Game Six, the top of the ninth. The Phils are two outs from winning it all, FINALLY! But McGraw has loaded the bases. The whole city is thinking, Really? Are we going to lose AGAIN? The Royals have Frank White at bat. He hits a pop foul toward the first base dugout. This should be an easy out, right? Our Gold Glove catcher, Bob Boone, runs underneath it…and the damn ball pops out of his glove. Are you frigging kidding me? But what happens? Right before the ball is about to hit the ground and allow the Royals runners to advance…just then Pete ROSE swoops in and catches the ball. And then that crazy sonuvabitch runs toward the mound staring at those three runners to go back to where your were. He spikes the ball on the turf and then hands it to Tug, as if to say, not just to Tug, not just to the team, but to the entire suffering city of Philadelphia, “Don’t worry, kiddos, get on my back. I’m taking you home.”

They got those two outs and won the game and also the World Series. Many Philadelphians remember certain key moments that made 1980 such a glorious autumn. Mike Schmidt hitting a homerun in the tenth inning against the Expos to bring them to a tie in the standings on the penultimate game of the season; or Bake McBride scoring the go-ahead run in the fifth game against the Astros in the National League Championship; or Garry Maddox making a number of spectacular catches in centerfield during the post-season. Then there is the image of Tug McGraw jumping in celebration after the last out of the World Series. But we all agree that it was Pete who made it all possible – and it was Pete who, just when it was about to unravel, lived up to his nickname, Charlie Hustle, and took that dropped ball off the carpet, and thereby led our loser city to the Promised Land.

In August, 2001, Vanity Fair published an article giving good evidence that Pete really did gamble on baseball and that he may have even been involved with drug trafficking. He was called on by the journalistic priesthood to admit to the charges and then offer a sincere apology. This was yet another variation of the Oprah Winfrey game wherein the penitent strips himself naked and cries a litany of I’m sorrys, and all to make Couch Potato Nation feel good about their own moral purity which they project over their crumb-covered and beer-stained game jerseys. Pete would not play this game, even as a wager. Babe Ruth was a drunken, womanizing blowhard; Ty Cobb a racist nut with perhaps a murder in his past; and, five years ago, Pete’s own former teammate, Steve Carlton, had made public his neo-fascist political opinions — and none of these Hall of Famers ever so much as shed a tear for their ample sins. What was good enough for these guys should now be good enough for Pete Rose. In fact, he should be inducted into Cooperstown because he had refused to abase himself to the media.

During that summer of 2002, there was a reunion at Veteran Stadium to commemorate the boys of ’80. The players were introduced, whereupon they ran out to the field to loud ovations and stood shoulder to shoulder at the first base line. Only Pete Rose, due to his banishment, was not allowed to make an appearance. As the crowd grew quiet, Larry Bowa walked back into the dugout – with no one in the stands understanding what was going on – and reemerged holding a white jersey, which he then rested down on first base. The name on the back of the jersey read R-O-S-E. The fans went nuts, rising en masse and applauding and yelling “Pete! Pete! Pete!” for what seemed like a half hour. Sixty thousand people voted yes for Pete Rose to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

In 1992, I was in a bar in Cincinnati talking with Pete Rose’s brother. He asked me if I thought Pete should be in the Hall of Fame, to which I snorted that, as a once long suffering Phillies fan, I was obligated to vote him in on a moment’s notice. Then we began to reminisce about 1980 – the late September charge and, of course, the catch. At one point, he lowered his head and, in a solemn tone, quizzed me on what was the one key thing Pete had done for my native city – and then he answered his own question: Pete taught you people how to win.

And that, my friends, is why Pete Rose should be issued a plaque in the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame.

(Check out my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

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