Few baseball players were as exciting to watch as Pete Rose. Mr. Rose earned the sobriquet “Charlie Hustle” when he ran to first base. After a walk. In spring training. He was an early adopter of the headfirst slide and made its use mandatory if a player wanted to be perceived as going “all out.” No one in baseball history has appeared in more games, had more at-bats or had more hits than Mr. Rose. Yet, 28 years after he last took the field, Mr. Rose remains banned from baseball and ineligible for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame for gambling on his own team.
With a new commissioner set to debut next year, there will be likely be a fresh debate over whether Mr. Rose should be reinstated. Kostya Kennedy’s “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma” is a well-researched and written introduction to Mr. Rose’s life, career and legal troubles, bringing his story up to date. At the same time, however, it ultimately fails to deliver a satisfying analysis of the “dilemma” — what Mr. Rose’s place in baseball should be today.
Mr. Kennedy begins slowly with some obligatory background on Mr. Rose’s grandparents and late-19th century Cincinnati. However, the story takes off the moment we meet Mr. Rose’s father. A superb athlete himself, Harry Rose would persistently analyze little Pete’s mistakes, ignoring his staggering success, and when his father passed away, so did the one force that could counteract Mr. Rose’s impulses.
For although Mr. Kennedy refers to Ty Cobb when comparing Mr. Rose’s on-field playing style, his off-field persona more closely resembled Babe Ruth’s in some respects. Although Mr. Rose mostly abstained from alcohol and kept a strict bedtime, he enjoyed women, gambling, exotic automobiles and the company of shady characters. None of this was in the smallest way hidden. Not from his wife, baseball officials or the public.
Mr. Kennedy uses well-told anecdotes strategically, each helping us to better understand Mr. Rose — how he was so successful at the game despite having less natural ability than others (many even thought his brother Dave the better athlete), and why he was so beloved by the Cincinnati fans in a way that arguably even better players, such as Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan, were not.
Still, like most, Mr. Kennedy has trouble getting a grip on Mr. Rose. “He may be one of the most honest people you ever meet,” he writes of a man who lied to baseball investigators (and nearly everyone else when it came to whether he bet on baseball) and served jail time for tax evasion.
Mr. Kennedy shows how Mr. Rose’s value to a team went well beyond even his gaudy statistics. As a rookie, he embraced his black teammates in the clubhouse and in public, unusual in a town just north of Kentucky in the 1960s. All through his career, he built up fellow players, whether they were journeymen or All-Stars. Phillies’ Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt is unambiguous about Mr. Rose’s vital contributions to his own success, noting that his best years came when he and Mr. Rose were teammates. It is hard not to admire that Pete Rose.
If the first half of the book focuses on Mr. Rose’s baseball career and family life, the second half shifts to the world of baseball executives and their lawyers. As his gambling debts grew, the league could no longer ignore the mounting evidence that Mr. Rose’s betting was not strictly on the ponies or even on other sports. John Dowd, the lawyer brought in to run baseball’s investigation of Mr. Rose, Commissioner Bartlett Giamatti and his successor Fay Vincent, and some colorful witnesses to Mr. Rose’s gambling push baseball players, coaches and fans gently offstage.
As Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, has written, gambling was not “a latter-day pestilence brought upon a pure and innocent game, but instead the vital spark that in the beginning made it worthy of adult attention and press coverage,” without which it would have remained forever a children’s game.
Yet, after the 1919 World Series, in which the favored team threw the World Series after being paid off by gamblers, the ban on baseball personnel gambling on baseball itself had become a cardinal rule. When the evidence accumulated that as Reds’ manager, Mr. Rose had bet on his team (always to win), he chose to enter into a voluntary agreement by which he would leave baseball indefinitely, but be eligible for reinstatement after one year.
However, baseball’s gates have remained shut to its all-time hits leader and so have the Hall of Fame’s. In an act of perfidy that Mr. Kennedy recounts well, the Hall of Fame changed its rules ex post facto to bar election of anyone indefinitely suspended from baseball. That same year, it admitted one player who had been suspended for cocaine possession and another who had openly acknowledged that he routinely cheated.
Mr. Kennedy makes some curious editorial decisions. There are multiple chapters on Mr. Rose’s oldest son, Pete Jr. At the same time, Mr. Kennedy largely neglects Mr. Rose’s managerial career, the success of which merits a closer look. More importantly, though, his examination of the primary question on readers’ minds — whether Mr. Rose should be reinstated — is treated in a desultory manner. Mr. Kennedy does not venture his own opinion, merely presenting those of others, both pro (steroid users were worse) and con (Mr. Rose broke the rules).
Mr. Rose has now been banned from the game he loved and made others love so passionately for 25 years. Whether the game’s integrity requires that he remain so is a complicated question that itself could be the subject of an entire book. “An American Dilemma” is excellent for those new to the Pete Rose story or wishing to refresh their recollections and be brought up to date on the latest developments of his post-baseball career.
However, it is not the final word.