Going for Broke
On August 24, 1989, Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose was declared permanently ineligible from Major League Baseball (MLB) after an investigation determined he bet on games. Rose had a deal with Commissioner Bart Giamatti that allowed him to apply for reinstatement after a year. Thirty years later, Rose remains banned from the game and has been denied consideration for the Hall of Fame, despite a 24-year career of immense accomplishments.
The reasons for the continued ban vary. Many point to his lack of contrition regarding his behavior and continued gambling. Others look at him through a modern lense and feel he’s overrated. More troubling, allegations of a different kind have surfaced in recent years to further tarnish his image.
You Talkin' To Me?
Rose’s detrimental behavior off the field was his biggest asset on it. His high-octane brand made him a legend; the engine that drove the Big Red Machine. Given the moniker Charlie Hustle, the pugnacious switch-hitter declared he would walk through hell to play baseball; it certainly seemed that way. He sprinted to first on walks, slid head first, started fights at the slightest provocation and ran over Ray Fosse in an All-Star game. Jawing with everyone during the game was his specialty: teammates, managers and opposing players. There was a constant buzz even in the visiting ballpark. No player in the late seventies, outside of Reggie Jackson, elicited that kind of response from opposing fans.
A Star is Born
Rose grew up in Cincinnati, a star athlete, but very poor student. He repeated his senior year of high school, then signed a pro contract with the Reds. After a couple of years in the minors, he was invited to spring training in 1963 and quickly became a starter at second base, one of the five positions he would eventually play. For the next 17 seasons, the Reds would average 90 wins, appear in four World Series, winning two. Rose became a 17-time all-star, won the ’73 NL MVP, the World Series MVP in ’75 and three batting titles. Much of that time, he hit lead off. In 1978, he electrified the nation with a 44-game hitting streak. He became MLB’s all-time hits leader on September 11, 1985 with 4,192, eventually reaching 4,256.
In addition to holding the hits record, he holds major-league records for games played (3,562), plate appearances (15,890), at bats (14,053), singles (3,215), and times on base (5,929). On top of that, he is second all-time in career doubles with 746. He had eight seasons with 200 or more hits, including the Reds' championship seasons.
During his first six seasons, he also served in the Army Reserves, mostly out of Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Along the way, he played second base, left field, right field, third base and first base, adding immense value to his team. During his tenure in right field, he won two Gold Gloves. Rose is the only player in major-league history to play at least 500 games at five different positions and finished with a career .991 fielding percentage. He even played 73 games in center field.
Pete excelled in the postseason. He appeared in 67 NLCS and World Series games, hitting .321. with 86 hits and 22 RBIs. During the 1975 World Series, he hit .370 with an on base percentage of .485. Even when past his prime, as he was in 1980, he could still lead a team to a championship.
Rose joined the Philadelphia Phillies as a free agent before the 1979 season. The Phillies had won three straight National League East titles, but lost three National League Championship Series (NLCS) in a row from 1976 through 1978. After a mediocre '79 season, the Phillies were back in the pennant race in 1980. With Rose playing first base, he appeared in all 162 games. The Phillies won 91 games, clinching the Division by just one game over the Expos.
During the NLCS against a surprising Houston team, Rose hit .400, as they beat the Astros in five games. While his average dropped during the World Series against the Kansas City Royals, his three hits in Game 6 along with his rescue of catcher Bob Boone’s muff of a foul pop, sealed the game..
Game 6, 1980
The Phillies, who were founded in 1883, won their first Word Series that night. At nearly 40 years of age, the former rival became a Philly hero. The legend continued to grow.
After leaving the Phillies in 1983, he spent part of the ’84 season in Montreal before being traded back to the Reds, where he finished up his playing days as a player-manager in 1986. The following season, he became their manager full time.
Like so many great players, retirement was a difficult transition, particularly to a managerial role. Teaching is a big part of being a manager. It requires patience, and Rose was always in short supply. Great players have an intrinsic drive and tunnel vision that sets them apart from the average player. Frustration sets in quickly. Guys seek new avenues to fill the adrenaline void.
Though Pete was moderately successful as Reds skipper, many still felt he was not cut out for such a role. He frequently lost his cool. In 1988, he received a 30-day suspension for shoving umpire Dave Pallone. But no matter what happened as manager, permanent glory was just five years away. He would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The only question remaining was the percentage of votes he would receive.
Wins Above Replacement
Modern analytics can be fickle for players who have been deemed great. Adherents to the inexact science of sabermetrics have mixed reviews on Rose’s career. Many just see him as a compiler, one who hung around the game long enough to break records without contributing to a winning team. Those who scoff at his greatness point to one of the most common player-value measurements: Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
WAR is intended as a baseline measurement: how many wins the player added to their team above their prospective replacement. It measures a player's value in all facets of the game by determining how many more wins he's worth than a replacement-level player at his same position (e.g., minor leaguer or low-level free agent). The position played is actually very important to the calculation. If the center fielder has comparable offensive numbers to the first baseman, the centerfield will have the higher WAR because his replacement would have a lower level of production. Shortstop or catcher, like center field, would compare more favorably than other positions.
While it is currently calculated using many different factors, for position players, the most common formula is: The number of runs above average a player is worth in his batting, baserunning and fielding + adjustment for position + adjustment for league + the number of runs provided by a replacement-level player) / runs per win. This can be done over one season or a career
An excellent WAR would be a 7 or greater, which is considered MVP caliber. Great players are usually measured by how many of these types of seasons they had. Pete had one season that was a 7 and one that was an 8. Barry Bonds had 14 seasons where he obtained a WAR above 7. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron had 13, while Babe Ruth had 12. Mike Schmidt and Albert Pujols each had eight. Even Alex Rodriguez had eight. Mike Trout, the Angels’ centerfield slugger, who just completed his tenth season, has had a 7+ WAR seven times.
Joe Morgan, Rose’s longtime teammate, had a stretch in the 70s with a WAR over 8 for five straight seasons, winning back to back MVPs ('75 & '76).. During most of his time with the Reds, Morgan hit in the third spot. He ended his career with a 100.5.
Rose had a lot of very consistent seasons. From 1970 through 1976, when the Reds appeared in four World Series, Rose’s average WAR was 5.87, reaching 8.3 during his MVP season of 1973. But after that run, his average took a nosedive and by the 1980s, he was in negative territory. He finished with a 79.7 career WAR.
The stat has its critics, some of whom are part of the sabermetrics community. Their primary complaint is that it overestimates the accomplishments of guys who played a long time, while underestimating those with shorter careers.
Wins Above Average
Perhaps a better measurement would be Wins Above Average (WAA), which is part of the WAR calculations. WAA quantifies the performance of players (both pitchers and position players) in terms of wins contributed to the player’s team compared with an average performance. For example, if a player had a WAA of 8.2 for the season and an average player replaced him, it would mean eight fewer wins that seasons. It is hard to define “average player,” but like WAR, it is refers to a top minor league replacement, a guy that would cost you very little.
Rose’s WAA was once again solid, but not spectacular. His highest for any season was 6.1, his MVP season. He never reached 5 the rest of his career. From the 1970 through 1976, Rose averaged 3.74. Over that same period, the Reds team averaged a 12.8 WAA, surpassing 20 in their championship seasons of ’75 and ’76.
Joe Morgan, who joined the Reds in 1972, averaged 7.56 WAA from ’72 through ’76. With Morgan batting third, the comparison might be slightly unfair as there more chances to drive in runs and if you’re hitting with men on base, you might see different pitches. Joe was also lucky to have Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench hitting behind him much of the time. Bench averaged 4.52 WAA for the same period while Rose averaged 4.18 over that stretch. Morgan finished his career with a 63.4 WAA while Bench ended with 46.7. Rose played nearly 900 more games than Morgan and 1400 more than Bench, finishing with a career 29.2.
For a modern comparison, Mike Trout has a career 56.3 WAA while Bryce Harper (9 seasons) has a current WAA of 18.6.
Pete was an essential cog in the Big Red Machine. He had the third highest WAA for a positional player on the ’75 team and the second highest in ’76. They don’t win two rings without him. But what about 1980? Rose’s WAR was -0.4 and his WAA was -2.8. Does Philly win a ring without Rose? Pete's leadership put Philly over the top. It is very hard to quantify the importance of attitude in accomplishing a goal. Every organization needs that guy who is a little over the top and slightly out of control.
Late in 1988, rumors began reaching the Commissioner’s office about Rose betting on baseball, some going back to 1985. Retiring Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and incoming Commissioner, Bart Giamatti, the National League President at the time, questioned Rose in February 1989. Pete adamantly denied the allegations, even filing a federal lawsuit against Giamatti. In April, Sport Illustrated published a cover story on Rose’s gambling and it blew the lid off the case. By the end of the month, the outcry from the article led Giamatti to hire Washington D.C. attorney John Dowd to lead an investigation
Unknown at the time, MLB had already investigated Rose as far back as 1978 for betting on games. He had been betting as a player, but now with more time on his hands, his hobby became an addiction. It reached unbelievable heights, signaling his bookie from the dugout. Some of Rose’s daily bets totaled nearly $10,000. Dowd obtained his betting book. The proof was undeniable. This was a frightening escalation of his problem.
Determining whether he bet against the Reds remains difficult. While the investigation determined that he had probably bet against the Reds, proving it in a court of law was another matter. In later years, Dowd would publicly disclose his belief that Rose bet against the Reds and accuse him of much worse. Giamatti was told by Dowd of his other conclusions, beyond what was in the report, but kept it quiet. It would not matter as the betting was enough to get him banned.
This was one of the most serious violations of the MLB’s gambling ban in the game’s history. Rule 21, Misconduct, was born out of the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series at the behest of gambler and racketeer Arnold Rothstein. The Black Sox scandal, as it became known, nearly destroyed the game. Every player and team employee since then has understood the consequences. Rule 21, section 2, is posted in clubhouse and 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.
There is even a passage on the use of a bookie in Section 3. It cannot be any clearer than that.
The public was robbed of future guidance by Giamatti when he died of a heart attack on September 1, 1989. The stress of the investigation must have played a part. While many saw Giamatti as the ultimate antagonist, his premature death actually hurt Pete. Giamatti was a true fan of the game, a lover of history and an academic by trade. He had a leadership style based on consensus. Many believed he would have been able to reach out to Rose and convince him to change his ways. Giamatti’s concerns about the integrity of the game might have assisted in attempts to reform Rose. His successor, Fay Vincent, was a different personality. An attorney, he shared Giamatti’s love of the game, but was somewhat irascible and had no patience for guys like Rose.
In 1992, the board of the National Baseball Hall of Fame changed its policy, deciding that anyone on the permanently ineligible list could not appear on a ballot. This angered many of the writers who felt a decision on Pete Rose had been taken out of their hands. No one is sure if Giamatti would have wanted to make Rose ineligible for Cooperstown. Most baseball writers believe that was not his intention. They felt the board had taken this decision to honor Giamatti’s intentions prematurely, The members of the BBWAA guard their voting rights as sacred. Moral questions about members were up to them. The hard feelings would reverberate for years to come. Even Bill James, the godfather of Sabermetrics, has been a big defender of Rose, questioning the veracity of Dowd’s witnesses.
A Sad Spectacle
After the ban, things got worse. He was convicted of tax evasion and served five months in a federal prison. Gruff as ever, he has often said of his ban, “I would have been better off beating my wife.” He later admitted to an affair with an underage girl in the 70s without acknowledging her age. The statutory rape allegation was apparently uncovered by Dowd and many now believe that played a role in Giamatti’s decision. After Dowd went public with his findings in 2015, Rose filed a lawsuit against him. The suit was dismissed after both sides reached a settlement.
In the 1990s, Rose began setting up autograph signing sessions annually in Cooperstown on the weekend of Hall of Fame induction. It was classic Pete; thumbing his nose at authority. His attitude did not endear him to the Commissioner’s office, even the sympathetic Bud Selig. Though the majority of fans remained on his side.
MLB has allowed Pete back into the fold a couple of times. Rose was selected for the All-Century Team and during the 1999 World Series, was allowed on the field for the ceremonies. The crowd went wild when he was introduced. After the ceremony, he was interviewed by NBC’s Jim Gray, who challenged Pete to admit his gambling. He angrily refused. Many players later refused to speak with Gray for post-game interviews.
In 2002, his record-breaking hit was voted as one of the game’s greatest moments and he was allowed once again to be on the field before a World Series game. This led to a meeting with then Commissioner Bud Selig in 2002. Hopes were raised of a reconciliation. But it was not to be. In 2004, after the publication of his autobiography, Rose finally admitted to betting on baseball. He issued strong denials that he ever bet against the Reds. It was too little, too late.
That hasn’t stopped the adulation in Cincinnati. In 2016, the Reds inducted him into their Hall of Fame and retired his number. Then the following year, they built a statue to him outside their present home, The Great American Ballpark.
Supporters are now angrily pointing at the MLB Commissioner for embracing gambling while still enforcing the ban. In 2018, MLB cut a deal with MGM Resorts for exclusive rights for betting on the games. Other sportsbooks are allowed to advertise and some have become sponsors of individual teams. Call it hypocrisy or just a good business deal, gambling is now accepted like hot dogs, popcorn, and beer.
Rose will never be reinstated in his lifetime. That much is clear. Baseball was his life; yet he chose to ignore the most important rule in the history of Major League Baseball, such were the depths of his addiction.
Everyone is left to wonder what would have happened if Pete had just come clean in 1989, gone to rehab and acted contrite throughout the 90s. There’s no doubt he would be in the Hall of Fame today. Whether one believes Rose is a tragic figure or a self-appointed victim, probably depends on your age. There are very few memories that compare with watching him play baseball. It was excitement, tension and inspiration all rolled into one. The game desperately needs that today, but it is unlikely we will ever see it again.
His former teammate and Hall of Famer, Mike Schmidt, put it succinctly, “There will never be another Pete Rose.”
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CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on November 22, 2020:
I would agree that Rose should not be reinstated but now that they signed the MGM deal and the clubs can be sponsored by the betting operations, it's rank hypocrisy. It's like telling the players you can't drink Coors Light but it's the official beer of MLB or forbidding them from opening up a Bank of America Visa yet they get millions from BOA for the sponsorship. Rose will go in probably 20 years or so. Like Bonds and Clemens.
I put the WAR and WAA stuff in to be balanced. I know there are hard core analytics guys who will read it and throw the data at me:) Nolan Ryan is a good comparison.
Thanks for reading.
Andrew Harner from Ohio on November 22, 2020:
I don't believe Rose should be reinstated to the game. The rule was pretty clear, and despite his known addiction, he knowingly broke it. I understand the argument, espeiclaly given the changes in current landscape. Similar to this topic, I've always said Shoeless Joe should be in the Hall of Fame because his lifetime is over, but I know my interpretation of the rule is against the "spirit" of the rule.
I don't particularly care for SABRmetrics, but I did find your portion on Rose's WAR to be interesting. He's like the Nolan Ryan of hitting when it comes to SABRmetrics.
CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on November 22, 2020:
Ultimately, it's a story of addiction. Someone who did not get help. Mantle had alcohol, and Pete had gambling. Sad.
Thanks for reading.
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on November 22, 2020:
It is a shame, but he was aware of what he did was wrong, and then his blatant denials and attitude sealed his fate. His records were astonishing, but he will never get his just due. Prices have to be paid for wrongdoing,