Pete Rose: An American Dilemma

Sports Illustrated staffer Kostya Kennedy explores the controversial baseball star's life in a smart, balanced biography.

Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, by Kostya Kennedy, Time Home Entertainment, 352 pp.

Soon after Pete Rose admitted in 2004 that he bet on baseball, a memorabilia collector asked the all-time hits leader to sign baseballs with the inscription, “I’m sorry I bet on baseball, Pete Rose.” He complied, happy to collect the fees.

Fans and collectors paying for Rose’s autograph in years since have requested, and received, inscriptions including “I’m sorry I shot JFK” and “I’m sorry I screwed up the economy.”

Among other things, Rose has been body-slammed at professional wrestling extravaganzas, participated in a cable-TV reality show (“Hits & Mrs.”), and made his belated gambling confession in a memoir released the same week as the Baseball Hall of Fame vote in January 2004, overshadowing the players elected that year.

In 2007, 18 years after being banned from baseball, his former team, the Cincinnati Reds, invited Rose to be honored at the club’s Hall of Fame and museum. Rose asked for an appearance fee, a request denied by the team. HBO halted work on a documentary because of Rose’s demands for additional perks and compensation.

These are just a few examples of Rose’s Hall of Fame-caliber crassness, collected and reported by Kostya Kennedy in a smart, balanced biography of the tarnished baseball all-star.

This summer, Rose’s ban from baseball will have spanned 25 years. Then-commissioner Bart Giamatti, backed by an extensive and thorough investigation totaling 225 pages and conducted by Washington lawyer John Dowd, convinced Rose to forfeit his eligibility in Major League Baseball. At the time, Rose was three years removed from his playing career and in his fifth full season as Reds manager.

The agreement left open the possibility for reinstatement, at the discretion of the commissioner, after one year. Giamatti died a week after he forced Rose out.

Before his unexpected death at age 51, Giamatti made it known that he hadn’t committed to reinstating Rose, but rather left open the possibility. Rose insisted to all who would listen that he would be reinstated. His banishment cost Rose his eligibility on a permanent basis but neither convicted nor exonerated him of baseball-related gambling activity.

And, until 2004, Rose defiantly insisted he never bet on baseball, despite the mountains of evidence collected by Dowd. As Kennedy writes, “For someone to spend even a short time paging through the document – which, includes, over one 72-page stretch, a game-by-game breakdown of Pete’s bets on the Reds during the first half of the 1987 season – and still maintain Rose’s innocence is to be a subscriber to the most elaborate conspiracy theories. It is to believe that the ’69 moon landing was a hoax and that the earth, never mind what Copernicus, Galileo or, well, satellite photos might say, is obviously flat.”

Now in his 70s (Rose turns 73 on April 14), the heart of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” during the 1970s finally seems remorseful. In 2010, at a celebrity roast of Rose commemorating the 25th anniversary of his record-breaking hit, he broke down in tears and apologized to former teammates, family members, and baseball fans for disrespecting the game.

That the roast took place at a casino in Indiana seems about right: almost everything involving Rose and his black-sheep existence includes at least a hint (or much more) of irony and awkwardness.

Kennedy, an editor and writer at Sports Illustrated, never takes sides in what his biography subtitles “An American Dilemma.” That is, the dilemma of whether Rose’s bust belongs in Cooperstown, N.Y., alongside that of Ty Cobb (whose hit record Rose eclipsed) and the other baseball greats.

What the author does do, though, is make a persuasive case that while Rose is in many ways untrustworthy and crude, as well as guilty of betting on his own team, on the issue of Hall of Fame consideration Rose has been railroaded.

Giamatti himself answered a question about Rose’s Hall of Fame electability by responding to a roomful of baseball writers that any such decision would be up to them. (The Baseball Writers Association of America decides who is and isn’t inducted into the baseball museum.)

In 1991, just before Rose would have become eligible for the hall – players must be retired five years to be considered – the Hall of Fame’s board, at the behest of a special committee, created a new rule stipulating that no one on baseball’s ineligible list could be a candidate for the Hall of Fame.

Bill Conlin, a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News, wrote at the time, “While no names were mentioned, some of us put 4,256 and 4,256 together and came up with Pete Rose.” Rose retired with 4,256 hits, one of numerous records he holds, along with most outs, at-bats, plate appearances and games played.

Rose has disappointed many, from baseball fans to two wives, his children, and his siblings.

And yet. And yet Kennedy makes clear Rose’s attributes, too. The famed, relentless drive on the field, earning him the sobriquet “Charlie Hustle.”

In the locker room, Rose never dodged reporters, chirped constantly in the dugout and made teammates feel at ease. During a career that included 17 trips to the All-Star game, three World Series championships, and the 1973 National League Most Valuable Player award, among many other achievements, he routinely gave credit to teammates and pushed them to play harder by setting a tireless example.

He befriended African-American teammates at a time when such gestures remained rare.

Kennedy finds the distillation of the Rose dichotomy and dilemma in Pete Rose Jr. At 44, Rose Jr. now toils in the lower level of the minor leagues as a manager, slogging through bus rides and minimal pay just as he did for 21 years as a player. The younger Pete Rose wasn’t the player his father was, but the same determination and stubbornness led him to play nearly 2,000 games, with more than 90 percent of those in Class AA or lower. (Triple A is one rung below the majors, where Rose spent less than a month of those 21 seasons as a player and collected two big-league hits.)

Pete Rose Jr. admires his father intensely but, unlike Pete Rose Sr., has, by Kennedy’s account, been a loving and faithful husband and devoted parent, attributes never ascribed to his father. Like his father, however, he, too, has been imprisoned. The elder Rose watched the Reds team he built win the 1990 World Series while serving a five-month sentence for tax fraud; Rose Jr., guilty of distributing steroids, spent a month in jail in 2006.

As a player, Rose Jr. “ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches six days a week,” Kennedy writes. “He crashed at friends’ houses to save some cash. He turned 34. Thirty-five. Thirty-seven. Thirty-nine. No one had ever led a baseball life like his.”

And in the case of the father, Pete Rose? Well, you could say it about him too: No one has ever led a baseball life like his, Hall of Fame or not.

Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.

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