One of my favorite sports photos ever taken is the one you see above. I believe it embodies the grit, hustle, and determination a player must have in order to succeed in the sport. The player in it isn’t just sliding into base, he’s hurtling his body towards it as if nothing else matters. It shows traits that anyone should have in any job, really. Any baseball fan will instantly recognize the player in the photo as Pete Rose.
After a long and illustrious career as a player, Rose was undone by an all-too-common vice: gambling. Rumors started flying that Rose had bet on baseball games while playing for and managing the Cincinnati Reds for at least three years. Rose denied these allegations, but lawyer John M. Dowd, in a move that launched his legal career, submitted the Dowd Report to baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti that detailed Rose’s gambling activities during these years, including a day-by-day account of his betting on Reds games in 1987, which, according to Major League Baseball rules, is grounds for permanent expulsion from the game. According to the report, there was “no evidence that Rose bet against the Reds.”
Rose’s response was to deny these allegations for years, at first even refusing to appear at a hearing orchestrated by Giamatti on the matter. Eventually, the two men entered negotiations and Rose voluntarily agreed to be placed on baseball’s permanently ineligible list, removing him from baseball for life. This made him ineligible to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame alongside other greats of the game. In his 2004 autobiography, My Prison Without Bars, Rose finally admitted to betting on baseball games, but insisted that he never bet against his own team.
In this post, I want to examine whether or not Rose should be eligible for the Hall of Fame. The first key issue to examine is whether or not he deserves to be considered on the basis of his productivity during his career. The answer to that question is an overwhelming yes. Rose has the most career hits in Major League history with 4,256, having surpassed Ty Cobb’s record on September 11, 1985. That alone would qualify him for the Hall, in my mind, but it is far from his only achievement. He also owns such records as the most career singles, most career runs & doubles by a switch hitter, and an ironman record for most seasons with 150 or more games played. Rose was also a versatile player, having been the only one to play at least 500 games at five different positions (1B, 2B, 3B, RF, LF). And it’s not like he played five similar positions. Each infield position requires a different set of skills, and are all much different than playing in the outfield. Rose has also come the closest to breaking Joe DiMaggio’s incredible 56-game hitting streak, with a 44-gamer of his own in 1978. Simply put, he was the type of player a coach loves to have, who puts the ball in play consistently and avoids outs. His career on-base percentage was .375, which puts him among many players considered the greatest in history. He also finished with a batting average of .303 and 79.4 Wins Above Replacement, further underscoring his value as a player. While he was no slugger (he only finished with 160 home runs), that doesn’t diminish his ability at the plate.
The next issue to examine is whether or not his betting on baseball games diminishes his candidacy for the Hall. I applied my “Clinton test” to Rose in an earlier post, and I asked whether or not his transgressions impacted his job performance. I do not believe that this is the case. Ohio baseball reporter Hal McCoy once said that “the major problem with Rose betting on baseball, particularly the Reds, is that as manager he could control games, make decisions that could enhance his chances of winning his bets, thus jeopardizing the integrity of the game.” I agree with McCoy’s observation, however I do not believe Rose acted any differently as manager than he would have if he had not bet on games. If he bet on the Reds to win, then he would still be acting as any manager would: he would try to win the game both for his team, and to collect on his bet. This argument hinges on the absence of evidence that he ever bet against the Reds. If evidence of this is ever uncovered, then I would seriously reconsider my position on this matter. I believe that his punishment was fair, as he clearly violated a baseball rule. And, because of that, I do not necessarily believe that he should be fully reinstated (and thus eligible to manage again, have his number retired, etc.)
Is Pete Rose a perfect man? Not a chance. He once got into a fight with an umpire that was so intense that he earned a month-long suspension. His charity work despite the wealth he accumulated as a player has been arguably sparse (though his 1990 tax evasion conviction didn’t help). He lied about gambling for many years before owning his mistake, though the fact that he eventually came clean does help his argument in my eyes. It has been almost a decade since he acknowledged his mistake, and I believe enough time has passed that he deserves enshrinement in Cooperstown. The Baseball Hall of Fame is not a “good guy” or humanitarian award. It simply recognizes the greatest on-field performances in baseball history. After all, the player whose career hits record he broke, Ty Cobb, was an avowed racist and anti-Semite, yet sits in the Hall. Many players from the Steroid Era that are up for Hall consideration now took drugs that affected their performance and at least in some cases, made their statistics Hall-worthy when they might not have been without these drugs. Rose’s sins pale in comparison to those players’, and I believe do not overshadow his achievements on the field. I believe he should be on the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame and, were I a voter, I would vote for his enshrinement.