The Pete Rose Solution: What To Do With Baseball’s Odious Hero

When Pete Rose played baseball, he encapsulated all of the traits we admire most in our sports heroes: loyalty, tenacity, toughness, passion, and a whole helluva lot of heart. Many people look at Pete Rose as guy who was born with little talent, but willed himself into being the all-time hits leader through sheer determination and grit. While this line of thinking almost certainly gives too little credit to his innate abilities, it is a great story line—one that led a lot of little boys and young men to believe they too could be a great ballplayer.

Pete Rose has unfortunately lived the game of life as poorly as he played the game of baseball well. He has always been drawn to lowlifes. He went to prison for tax evasion. He was unfaithful to both of his wives, and has been an absentee father to his children. And he committed the cardinal baseball sin—he bet on baseball. And these are just the things he admitted to in his dreadful 2004 pity-party autobiography, “My Prison Without Bars.”

Understanding how wonderful Pete Rose was on the field, and how terrible he was off the field, leads one to understand why Pete Rose is such a polarizing figure, and why reasonable people can disagree on whether Pete Rose should be admitted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. When hearing these debates, however, I can’t help but think both sides are arguing over one another, and ignoring a seemingly simple and perfect solution. Let’s begin by examining the compelling arguments on both sides.

Let Him In (The Good Arguments)

Pete Rose holds more offensive records than any other baseball player, including perhaps the greatest baseball record: most career hits. Over the course of his 24-year career (1963 to 1986), Pete Rose amassed an ungodly 4,128 hits, and did so while maintaining a batting average of .303. His career accomplishments include: 3 World Series Titles; an obscene 17 All-Star games; Rookie of the Year; 2 Gold Glove awards; and an MVP award. And none of those numbers can convey the special kind of player Rose was though. For those who aren’t especially familiar with what makes him special, I’d direct you to this video or this video. While the latter video may make some cringe, it was this attitude and drive to win that led many to adore Rose.

No one ever seemed to work as hard or want it as badly as Pete Rose. He once said, “I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.” As a fan, you always wanted Pete Rose on your team.

Many believe these amazing career numbers, and the intangible joy and energy he brought to the game, are enough by themselves to get Rose into the Hall of Fame.

Other supporters of Rose believe it is unfair that the Hall of Fame is filled with a wide array of real scumbags, and it is unfair to ban Rose for gambling. Most famously, Ty Cobb was allowed into the Hall even though he beat up a man in the stands at a game who had no hands because the handicapped individual had the audacity to say Mr. Cobb’s mother was half-black. But the list of loathsome Hall of Fame members does not end with Cobb.

Cap Anson refused to take the field if a black man stood on it (and Answon was believed to have been a member of the KKK—along with Ty Cobb). Orlando Cepeda was imprisoned for almost a year for smuggling drugs Wade Boggs was a serial adulterer. Duke Snider is a convicted tax evader. And beyond those who had questionable character traits, the Hall of Fame includes cheaters. Tris Speaker was implicated in a game-fixing scheme, and Gaylord Perry admitted in his biography to doctoring game balls with spit, Vaseline, and other substances. Why is it okay to honor these scoundrels and cheaters of the game, but keep out someone like Rose for making mistakes off the field?

Still others acknowledge that while Pete Rose’s actions were wrong, they believe he has paid enough of a price. Rose has been banned from baseball for 26 years now, and some feel that is adequate.

Finally, other advocates for Rose argue that the Hall of Fame is not about the individual, and by keeping Pete Rose out of the Hall of Fame, baseball is hurting baseball much more than baseball is hurting Pete Rose.

Let Him In (The Bad Argument)

Each of the above arguments are quite persuasive, but there is one pernicious pro-Rose argument you will hear most often but is terribly weak. It goes something like this: “Pete Rose only bet on the Reds, and never against the Reds. That means he only worked harder to win, and what’s wrong with that?” A lot, actually.

First, we can’t be sure Pete Rose never bet against the Reds when he played on them. We are relying on Pete Rose for this information, and he has shown himself repeatedly to be a man who struggles with the truth. He appears to dole out the truth only when forced or when he thinks it will further his interests.

The most problematic aspect of the Pete-only-bet-on-the-Reds-winning argument, however, is that even if we assume Rose only bet on his team to win, keep in mind that he was the player/manager of the Reds during these years. He wasn’t just trying to win by playing harder himself, he was presumably managing each game like it had to be won, and that creates problems.

For instance, pitchers all have their pitches counted and tracked. When they reach a certain limit, they get pulled from the game regardless of how well they are pitching. This is done to protect the long-term health of the player and the team. If, however, you put a manager in charge who has a lot of money riding on a single game, would that manager keep the starting pitcher in too long if he was doing well? Would he force an injured player to come back too soon and risk a second injury? Or what about at the season’s end when a lot of teams will call up minor leaguers to help develop their farm system and rest season-weary veterans? Did Rose put these types of decisions off at the expense of his own organization to win a bet?

Truth is, we will likely never know how Rose’s gambling affected his managerial decisions, but they very likely could have put players’ health and careers at risk, and hurt the long-term development of the Reds organization. In some ways, gambling on your own team while you are a manager is worse than betting against them.

Now that we have heard from the Pete Rose advocates, let’s hear from the other side.

Keep Him Out

Baseball is a sport known for its many rules, but it has one rule that is more important than any other rule: Rule 21(d). It states: “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.”

This rule exists for a very good reason. When baseball players gamble on their sport, the sport loses the public’s trust. When the 1919 White Sox intentionally lost games of the World Series, the sport was rocked. When people do not believe they are watching a straight game, the public understandably loses interest and the league risks not just a financial loss, but potentially survival of the league itself.

This rule is so important that Major League Baseball decided almost 100 years ago that the consequence of breaking this rule was a lifetime ban from the game. And just to make sure everyone knows this, this rule is blown up and put on the walls of every major league locker room, and players are frequently reminded by their teams and managers of this rule. It is the equivalent of doctors being familiar with the principle of “do no harm.” It is ubiquitous. Every baseball player knows this rule.

By letting Pete Rose back into baseball or into the Hall of Fame, what message would that send to all would-be gamblers in baseball? Perhaps they may think it is worth the risk? Especially if they think baseball has gone soft (e.g., if Pete Rose got 25 years, maybe I’ll only get 10, and that’s only if I get caught). This rule only works when Major League Baseball has the fortitude to stand behind it. This is certainly a compelling argument.

The Solution

In listening to these arguments, it appears both sides fail to acknowledge the valid concerns of the other. Supporters of Pete Rose downplay the very real threat of gambling to the game, and Pete Rose detractors downplay the persuasive argument that the Hall of Fame should include the very best players. When that isn’t done, baseball, fans of baseball, and the Hall of Fame all suffer.

The middle ground here is to amend Rule 21(d) to read: “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 until the player’s death.” (Proposed new language in italicized bold).

This solution addresses the concerns of both sides: It puts in place a strong and tragic punishment for players that will expectantly provide players with a deep incentive not to gamble (a lifetime ban with no hope of ever seeing yourself work within the game or enter the Hall of Fame). Meanwhile, it does not sully the Hall-of-Fame by keeping out a player that unquestionably ranks among the greatest baseball players that ever lived.

The Pete Rose debate is a great microcosm of American society, and our challenges of addressing important issues in a meaningful way. Rather than finding solutions that address opposing sides’ concerns, we create two entrenched camps that hurl rhetorical grenades at one another with little thought of actually solving a problem in a way that addresses each side’s legitimate concerns. In the case of Pete Rose, a rather simple and peacemaking solution exists. Here’s hoping Major League Baseball can once again show the rest of America the way, and get the Rose matter resolved.


3 Responses to “The Pete Rose Solution: What To Do With Baseball’s Odious Hero”

  1. I happened to meet Pete Rose last year and see him give a brief talk and Q&A. It was an interesting insight to how his mind works and how much he continues to care about the game.

    • Sorry to say I have never met the guy. He is definitely a big, colorful personality. I find that when he is on TV analyzing baseball, I always stop.

      Your post also raises an interesting side note the article does not discuss–Pete Rose’s addiction to gambling. He undoubtedly cares tremendously for baseball (think “gasoline suit”), but he also engaged in what is very likely the single-most damaging action a player can take against the game. Having said that, he did so out of addiction.

      How fair is it to punish someone for an addiction? That is a complex question. Before I would support giving anyone leniency for addiction reasons though, I’d have to see some sense of genuine remorse and clear admission of the addiction and the extent of the mistakes. Pete Rose has not done these things, and in fact, still gambles, defends his past actions, and attacks critics. Under such circumstances, a think a lifetime ban seems proper (assuming the ban ends at death).

      – Dylan

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