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Baseball's Greatest Scandals, #9: Pete Rose

Pete Rose Check
Pete Rose Check

BETTING ON BALL GAMES. Any player, umpire, or club official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has no duty to perform shall be declared ineligible for one year. Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.
-- MLB Rule 21(d)

There's a reason the above is posted in every major-league clubhouse. It was established in a response to the 'Black Sox' betting ring - which, you'll not be surprised to hear, there will be more about further up this list. But it succeeded in barring from the game someone who is, arguably, one of its greatest players.

Admittedly, by many modern metrics, Pete Rose wasn't such a great player: you can make the case that his Hall of Fame credentials are more because of the remarkable length of his career, than its quality. His OPS+ of 118 would rank him 57th of the 64 outfielders in Cooperstown, and ahead of just two first basemen. He reached seven WAR in one of the 24 seasons he played - 1973, when he won MVP, and had only one other season finishing in the top three of voting.

On the other hand, Rose was the ultimate super-utility guy, playing more than 500 games at five different positions, and finished his career with a .303 average, and a K:BB ratio of 1143:1566. His debut and final game in the majors were more than 23 years apart, and his 3,562 games and 4,192 hits in the majors are likely untouchable as records. The current active leaders in those categories, Omar Vizquel and Derek Jeter, have seven hundred and thirteen hundred less respectively.

But it's mostly the intangibles: he was the blue-collar baseball player to end them all, who never gave less than 100%. He reached the majors despite a scouting report which read, "Pete Rose can't make a double play, can't throw, can't hit left handed, and can't run." [This has to be up there with Decca Records' assertion concerning a certain Livepudlian beat combo, that "Guitar groups are on their way out." ] Facetiously nick-named 'Charlie Hustle' by manager Whitey Ford, Rose took the name and wore it like a badge of honor. Even in the All-Star Game, he (in)famously ran over the opposing catcher in 1970.

[Betting slip allegedly showing Rose’s bets for April 8th and 9th, 1987]

Which all makes his self-immolation almost Shakespearean in its tragedy. The problems began a couple of years after Rose's career had ended in 1986. He was the last player-manager in the game, but continued in the latter role until 1989. In February that year, a friend of Rose, Paul Janszen and bookmaker Ron Peters provided evidence of his betting. Then-commissioner Bart Giamatti brought in John Dowd, a former federal prosecutor to investigate the case. Rose's phone records and bank records helped uncover a forest of dubious transactions made by the player, who was estimated to be betting up to $15,000 per day.

Rose himself was quizzed for two days, resulting in 350 pages of transcripts. As well as admitting to legal gambling on horses and dogs, he also confessed to placing illegal bets on basketball and football games. While he denied any association with those involved, the supporting evidence in the form of canceled checks, etc. was damning, and Rose's explanations unconvincing. Rose, at this point, also strenuously denied any kind of betting on baseball games. However, there was no evidence that his gambling took the summer off, with the pattern of payments continuing serenely on, beyond the end of the NBA season.

When Dowd published his report, it was damning. It concluded, "The testimony and the documentary evidence gathered in the course of the investigation demonstrated that Pete Rose bet on baseball, and in particular, on games of the Cincinnati Reds Baseball Club during the 1985, 1986, and 1987 seasons." While there was no hard evidence to suggest Rose bet on the Reds to lose, Dowd later said he felt that had been the case, though some sources say he subsequently retracted the statement. But baseball's rules do not distinguish: it is simply, "any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform." The result was thus largely inevitable.

The Commissioner, recognizing the benefits to Baseball from a resolution of this matter, orders and directs that Peter Edward Rose be subject to the following disciplinary sanctions, and Peter Edward Rose, recognizing the sole and exclusive authority of the Commissioner and that it is in his interest to resolve this matter without further proceedings, agrees to accept the following disciplinary sanctions imposed by the Commissioner.

Peter Edward Rose is hereby declared permanently ineligible in accordance with Major League Rule 21 and placed on the Ineligible List.

Of course, the phrase "permanently ineligible" doesn't necessarily mean... Well, permanently ineligible. It's a list which has, at one time or another included Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and, as we saw last time, George Steinbrenner. In Rose's case, part of the agreement was he could apply to be reinstated one year later. But things were complicated by the death of Giamatti from a heart-attack, just eight days after the announcement of Rose's exile from the game. However, it's curious that Rose waited almost eight years - skipping Giamatti's replacement, Fay Vincent entirely - before applying in 1997 to Bud Selig.

But 14 years later, Rose is still on the outside. Part of the problem has been his shifting stance on the matter, which has left him with little or no credibility. First, he said he never bet at all. Then, he did bet, but not on any baseball games. Then, he admitted to betting on baseball - but not on Cincinnati Reds games. Then - and I'm sure this is just coincidence, at the same time his auto-biography My Prison Without Bars came out - he admitted that he did bet on Reds games, but never for them to lose. Given the fifteen years of persistent lies which preceded this, you'll pardon me if I take anything Rose says with a pinch of salt.

It's not as if he has been squeaky-clean since: there was the little matter of 1990 tax evasion charges, which led to a sentence of five months in prison. More tangentially, there was the fascinating story of an apparently-corked bat which surfaced a while ago, and his son, Pete Jr., also sent time in the federal pen, for distributing gamma butyrolactone to his minor-league team-mates. The general opinion at this point seems to lean towards the view that Rose won't see any doors opened while Bud Selig is still commissioner.

But with Selig planning to retire after next season, it's possible his replacement may be more conducive to letting Rose return. Has twenty years been enough? Or, in this case, should "permanently eligible" mean exactly what it says?