Getting to Know Pete Rose

by David Wolfford
A new biography looks at the Hit King and Cooperstown.

Kostya Kennedy in his new biography, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, examines the hit king’s impressive baseball career and fall from grace in an era of asterisks. His chapters alternate between Rose’s impressive chronology and present-day Cooperstown. For anyone who missed it, Pete Rose won Rookie of the Year with the Cincinnati Reds in 1963. MVP awards and six World Series appearances followed. He left for Philadelphia in 1979 as the highest-paid athlete in America. In 1984 he was “repatriated to the Reds” as player-manager and soon broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record. His professional baseball days ended in 1989 when Commissioner Bart Giamatti issued Rose’s lifetime ban from the game for gambling. (Giamatti died nine days later.) Rose has never been on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Kennedy meticulously recounts Charlie Hustle’s tale after exhaustive research and conversations with his associates and nemeses. He spent time in Rose’s boyhood neighborhood on Cincinnati’s West Side and interviewed local sportswriters and old friends. He fully paints the supporting characters. Kennedy outdoes Pete’s own published memoirs in describing his relatives. His brother, Dave, signed with the Reds’ organization after a tour in Vietnam, only to see his career ruined by a motorcycle accident. Pete Jr. looked promising as a young player but became distracted by his father’s exile and the constant insults from minor-league bleachers. Attorney John Dowd, MLB’s fact-finder, served as the tragedy’s Inspector Javert.

For Kennedy, the issue isn’t only the question of whether America should allow arguably the best player of the age into the Hall of Fame. It’s also the challenge of trying to understand Peter Edward Rose. Kennedy tells how this otherwise unfocused athlete channeled his troublesome energies into disciplined play under the tutelage and influence of his tough and well-respected father, Harry Francis Rose. The loss of his father played in Pete’s demise. “With Harry gone,” Kennedy writes, “Pete did not care who he might disappoint.”

The “great Rose dichotomy” includes both the hardworking West Sider, who made up for deficiencies with determination, and the selfish off-diamond opportunist who will say or do anything to advance or to escape responsibility. Kennedy offers testimonials from no-name acquaintances electrified by Pete’s in-person humility as he treated them as equals. He tells how Rose never visited his brother in the hospital after the motorcycle crash. Former teammates speak of his ability to push them toward greatness and championships. Yet others claim Pete Rose is in it for Pete Rose. “Nobody will ever know him completely,” manager and father figure Sparky Anderson once said. “Can’t know him.”

Rose’s disciples refused to believe the Dowd Report’s conclusion that he bet on baseball and on his own team. And once Pete publicly admitted it 14 years later, they rationalized that after he earned all those records and took himself out of the lineup in 1986, his competitive edge required something extra. “When I’m through, I’ll still be Joe Morgan,” the Big Red Machine’s second baseman had once observed. “He won’t be Pete Rose and I worry about that.” Number 14 fell in with a bad crowd, says Kennedy, “sometimes accompanied at the ballpark by a coterie of neckless and decidedly unpolished men (often with pagers clipped to their belts).” He offers at least one pretty reliable source that reveals that Rose lost a bundle on the 1984 World Series. Harry had now been gone for 34 years.

Rose’s accomplishments include two Golden Gloves, three batting titles, 17 All-Star Game appearances at five different positions, most at-bats, most games played, and most winning games — 17 total career records. We can add to Rose’s résumé a divorce, a son born six months after his second wedding, gambling debts that required a loan from a neckless buddy, a lifetime ban from baseball, a five-month stint in federal prison, a paternity suit and his eventual acknowledgment that he was the father, and a second divorce. After his playing days he has hustled Charlie, selling his memorabilia and large gifts, appearing on a cable shopping show to sell items immediately after his ban, making appearances as a heel at Wrestlemania, and most recently appearing in an unsuccessful reality-TV run, Hits & Mrs., with a “tall, fit, and leggy” girlfriend. In 2010, when the Reds secured special permission from MLB for Rose to appear at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his record-breaking 4,192nd hit, Pete had to secure permission from nearby Hollywood Casino to delay a scheduled appearance.

A skilled writer, Kennedy can communicate both in locker-room banter and in language more suited to a sophisticated literature class. Mixed in with his discussion of this conundrum for baseball historians, he offers comic relief.  One is an ironic tale involving Pete and Andy Warhol on “switch-hitting.” Another is a laugh-out-loud transcript of a taped conversation between Rose’s friend-turned-rat and a foul-mouthed New York mobster, straight out of Goodfellas. Kennedy at one point compares Rose to a scorpion from an ancient fable. The scorpion foolishly stings a frog, knowing they will both drown. “I could not help myself,” the scorpion says, as they begin to sink. “It is in my nature.”

Kennedy explains well the relevant rules and customs, old and new, that have plagued Rose. The author suggests that if we believe in democracy, the official induction process into the Hall of Fame should apply to Rose, one of the game’s greatest utility men ever. MLB’s Rule 21 prevents any player from betting on baseball, and since the Black Sox scandal of 1919 it has made violators “permanently ineligible” for any participation in the league. MLB and the Hall, however, are separate entities, and sportswriters serve as the people’s voice in determining inductees. Even Giamatti, as Kennedy footnotes, answered a reporter about Rose’s banishment with “You will decide whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.” Five years after his last game as a player and soon after Pete left prison, however, a backroom deal by a Hall of Fame committee and a quick ratification by its board resulted in a rule change: “Persons on baseball’s ineligible list cannot be eligible candidates” for induction into the Hall. Even the tainted Shoeless Joe Jackson was eligible for the Hall until the “Rose Resolution” (Kennedy’s term), though the writers kept him out all those years because they knew he had thrown World Series games. Kennedy comments that “the democratic process had after more than 50 years been abruptly scuttled . . . to keep a particular player out.” Later that year, Gaylord Perry, well known for his spitball, and Ferguson Jenkins, with a cocaine conviction, were inducted. Rose received 41 write-in votes from those who knew they would not count.

Has Pete finally made things right between him and his dad? His healing process started with his memoir My Prison Without Bars (2004), which Kennedy rightly critiques as a “tour de force of spin.” It “never stops giving the reader the feeling of being conned.” As I read it before Dilemma’s release, I found there Rose cross-examining minor details of the Dowd Report and agreeing with its ultimate finding: that he bet on baseball and his own team.

No one has offered any substantive proof that Rose ever tried to throw a game. Yet Kennedy explains how a manager betting on his own team can harm the game’s integrity. He also provocatively addresses the perennial debates that surface as tourists fill Cooperstown. (Much of his book reveals the town’s Hall of Fame culture.) Where does Rose stand relative to busted cokeheads and players juiced with human growth hormone? The author reminds us that “there is only one player among the game’s elite whom we remember primarily for his effort, for his unstinting commitment to playing the game, . . . for day after day fulfilling his contract to the baseball-watching public.” And as American Dilemma proves, no one will ever truly understand Pete, but Kostya Kennedy knows him.

David Wolfford teaches government and politics in Cincinnati. He has written for NRO, The Weekly Standard, and the Cincinnati Enquirer.