Pete Rose, Gambling, and the Hall of Fame

Tuesday, 27 January 2004

Earlier this month, the new inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame were announced in Cooperstown, New York. Absent from the list of inductees--in fact, absent even from the ballot--was the name of one of the best ballplayers of all time: Peter Edward Rose.

Am I the only person in America who thinks Pete Rose has gotten the shaft from baseball for the past decade and more? Probably not, but I definitely seem to be in the minority. In his new book, My Prison without Bars, Rose admits for the first time that he bet on baseball games, something he had denied for years. Despite his admission and what might be considered an apology of sorts, most of the commentators I've heard talk on the subject say that Rose still hasn't gone far enough. "His apology isn't sincere enough," some say, or "The mere fact that he bet on baseball games is enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame permanently," according to others. Rose's abrasive personality, his ever-changing story, and his failure--until now--to admit that he did anything wrong are all reasons for people to oppose his admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I would like to suggest, however, that none of these reasons is sufficient to bar Pete Rose from Cooperstown and that those who oppose his candidacy, especially those in positions of power in baseball, are exercising their authority arbitrarily and are in fact hypocrites.

Let's start with Rose's abrasive personality. When Rose was playing, Reds fans and many others loved him, while other fans hated him. He was a fiery player, and he didn't shy away from fights with opposing players. Some even accuse him of being a dirty player, citing Rose's collision at the plate with Indians catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game as evidence. After all, they argue, it was just a meaningless All-Star game, and the collision injured Fosse and effectively ended his career. What these critics can't seem to grasp is that Rose had a simple philosophy when it came to baseball: do all you can to win every game. His nickname, Charlie Hustle, was well-earned. He played hard on every play, and he used to run--RUN!--to first base after a walk. When he decided to try for home in the All-Star game, the goal wasn't to injure another player but to win the game, and in fact Rose did score the winning run for the National League on that play. This is not to deny that Rose was an arrogant, abrasive player, but if he was, he followed in the footsteps of many other players, including the man whose all-time hits record he broke, Ty Cobb. Cobb was a blatant racist and was at least as self-consumed as Rose was, but no one challenged his entry into the Hall of Fame on those grounds, nor has anyone suggested that he be removed from that illustrious group of players because he could be a mean S.O.B.

The reason Pete Rose was banned from baseball for life had nothing to do with his personality, or so it is claimed. The real issue was his gambling problem. Rose admitted early on that he illegally gambled on sporting events, though only recently has he admitted that he bet on baseball, including games the Reds played in while he was a manager. That Pete Rose is a gambler is hardly news, nor is it a moral problem of any kind, if state actions to legalize various forms of gambling over the past twenty or thirty years is any indication. Thirty-seven states plus the District of Columbia have legalized state lotteries. Thirty-three states allow betting on horse races. Eleven states allow betting on dog races. Twenty-five states allow some form of casino gambling. In fact, only two states, Hawaii and Utah, have no form of legalized gambling. This data suggests that Americans don't see gambling as an ethical problem of any kind, but maybe the problem is illegal gambling, as in betting on sporting events.

Betting on sporting events is officially forbidden, but in practice it is generally condoned. If it weren't, why would Las Vegas publicize the betting line on all sorts of sporting events, why would newspapers all over the country publish point spreads, and why would office football pools be ubiquitous? Many, many people bet on sporting events, so why exclude Pete Rose from the Hall of Fame because he did what millions of other Americans do, including, no doubt, many in the various sports Halls of Fame. The problem, some say, is that he bet on games his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, were playing in. This could indeed be a serious problem--if he ever bet against his own team. There is no evidence to suggest that he did. Betting against one's own team is a form of throwing games, which is undoubtedly a valid reason for banning a person from baseball for life and excluding him from the Hall of Fame. That is exactly what happened to the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox," who threw the World Series. If Pete Rose threw games, then I agree that he should be excluded from active participation in baseball and from the Hall of Fame. If he didn't throw games, then he shouldn't be excluded, at least from the Hall of Fame. I think a case can be made that a player or manager who bets on games in which his team is playing, assuming he always bets that they will win, should be excluded from further participation in baseball--either temporarily or permanently, depending on the situation--but not from the Hall of Fame itself. The Hall of Fame is supposed to honor a player's contributions to the game, not judge that person's moral character after his career has ended. Has O.J.'s jersey been removed from Canton?

Some commentators sound almost willing to admit Rose into the Hall of Fame, if only he would offer a better apology. The apology he makes in his book, they say, is insufficient. This argument is total nonsense and the height of hypocrisy. Pete Rose doesn't owe me an apology, nor does he owe anyone else one, either, to be eligible for admission to the Hall of Fame. Gambling may be a sin (although most Americans don't think so; see above), but if it is, it's a sin against oneself, since the majority of gamblers inevitably lose, and big gamblers like Rose often lose big. Has the president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Dale Petroskey, offered a sufficient apology to Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon for canceling the fifteenth anniversary celebration of the movie Bull Durham at the Hall of Fame in 2003 because of the pair's outspoken opposition to the war on Iraq? Has Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, banned Petroskey from all association with baseball for his un-American behavior? The answer is no to both questions. How can baseball tolerate behavior as un-American as punishing people for exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech while at the same time claiming the moral high ground on the Pete Rose gambling issue? To do so is hypocrisy of the highest order.

When Major League Baseball announced the thirty members of the All Century Team in 1999, Pete Rose was among them. Whether he deserved that high honor is debatable; that he would be a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame but for his gambling problem is not. Pete Rose played a large part in the Big Red Machine's success in the 1970s, which included two World Series championships, and he played on the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies World Series championship team as well. He set a standard of effort on the field that no one has surpassed. The most memorable plate appearance I ever saw was a Pete Rose walk. After getting two strikes, Rose fouled off pitch after pitch, eventually earning a base on balls after working the opposing pitcher for something like fifteen pitches. Rookie of the Year in 1963, Most Valuable Player in 1973, three-time batting champion, and all-time hits leader, Pete Rose deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, regardless of his gambling problems.

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