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Sportsman of the Year
Baseball enjoyed its grandest season in years, culminating in a World Series that held a nation breathless with tension and anticipation. Saluting the sport as well as the man, we honor Cincinnati's Pete Rose, in whose person are combined so many of the qualities of excellence that merit his designation as Sportsman of the Year
By Ron Fimrite
The car, a torpedo-shaped Maserati, seems wrong, both for the man and the town. It is too fast, too fancy for Pete Rose and the streets of Cincinnati. But Rose in mufti, crouched behind the wheel of his futuristic auto and contemplating a dashboard as complex as a Boeing 747's, is not the primeval figure he appears to be in the stark uniform of the world champion Cincinnati Reds. He is wearing a chocolate pinstriped suit of indisputably modern cut and high-heeled shoes, which, in locomotion, propel his stocky body forward like a ship captain's. Rose's macho crew-cut days are behind him; his rich, reddish-brown hair is now banged as Clara Bow's. He is at his ease arrayed in these galactic togs as he prepares to launch his Italian rocket ship out of a restaurant parking lot in west Cincy.
"She asked me to do it and I said sure," Rose says, his head snapping back as the Maserati accelerates onto the highway. "Then she said they could only pay me $250. I laughed and told her what I usually get. But I knew this girl raised horses and my little girl, Fawn -- she's 10 now -- loves horses. So I said, 'Tell you what, I'll do it for a horse.' She said fine, so my fee is a horse for my daughter. Wait'll my agent hears about this. You know what 15% of a horse is?"
It is an uncommonly warm November day, about 70 degrees, and Rose, who was born in the Anderson Ferry neighborhood of Cincinnati and has since moved only a few miles away, but into a $135,000 house in a prestigious area, marvels at the spectacle of a wintry landscape basking in a spring sun. A workman on his lunch break sits alongside the road with his shirt off.
"Look at that," says Rose, whipping by the sunbather. "November in Ohio and a guy's sunning himself." Rose speaks as swiftly, as frenetically, as he moves, punctuating his remarks with bursting expressions of enthusiasm. He also examines his listeners for telltale indications of cynicism. He is street-smart, street-quick to beat an opponent to the put-on. "I come from a mean neighborhood," he will say. "I can be nasty when I have to." When he first became a professional baseball player in 1960, fresh from Cincinnati's Western Hills High School, brush-cut and with a wardrobe highlighted by alpaca sweaters, he was often ridiculed. Neither his teammates nor his opponents could fathom his rapturous manner, hit unbridled rah-rahism. "They couldn't believe he was for real," says Reds pitcher Jack Billingham, who played against Rose in the Florida State League in 1961. "They'd talk about him on buses. I'd hear all about this kid who runs out walks and never stops talking. Well, Pete's just the same now. He hasn't slowed up at all. "
There are those today who still do not believe Rose is for real, who suspect him of being some sort of horse-hide wowser. When he started playing they called him "Hollywood" or "Hot Dog," derisive expressions in baseball parlance that substitute for "show-off." When he advanced to the majors, he was shunned at first by his own teammates. The Reds were notably cliquish then, and the brash young hustler did not fit the accepted mold of professional nonchalance. Rose found his friends among the team's blacks, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, who recognized in him, if not soul, at least miles and miles of heart. "I'm laughing today at all those guys who called me names," Rose is now able to say as he hustles himself into the Hall of Fame.
The Maserati draws crowds of college youngsters at stoplights in Oxford, which is the site of Miami University. The car catches their eyes at first, then the driver. "Hey, Pete Rose ... All-riiiiight!" This is Pete Rose country.
The lodge where the convention is being held is an immense peak-roofed structure in rolling countryside above the little town. As Rose walks through the front door he receives an ovation from a crowd of kitchen workers and dining-room help, who have been awaiting his arrival in the lobby. "You're my boy," shouts one elderly woman in white. "What'll my mom say about that?" Rose rejoins as the old party dissolves in giggles.
When it is time for Rose to speak he tells familiar jokes, using delegates as characters in them. He kids the few women there -- "Don't you go inspectin' no farms all alone honey." He is a wow. The sanitarians, languid sorts before lunch, cannot ge enough of him.
"I never would have gotten a Reds contract if my uncle hadn't been a scout for the team," he tells them. "He convinced them my family matures late. My father weighed only 105 when he was 21. He played semipro football at 185. Played until he was 42. I was a little guy, too, when I first came up, and I play at 200 now. The first scouting reports on me said something like, 'Rose can't run, can't throw, can't hit left-handed, but he has a lot of enthusiasm.' I'm still just as enthusiastic about my job. Why shouldn't I be? For me, playing baseball for $3,000 a week is a license to steal. ... This last World Series you didn't have to be a Cincinnati fan or a Red Sox fan or a fan of any team. it was just a great baseball Series. Game Six was the most exciting I've ever played in, and I've played in more than 2,000 games. We lost it and I still said so at the time. 'Some kind of a game,' I said to Carlton Fisk. I'm just happy to be a world champion now. I look like a world champion, don't I?" he fingers the flared lapels of his fancy suit jacket as if such apparel were foreign to him. "Got to have this suit back by 2:30."
He answers questions for another 30 minutes. He was happy to move to third base, he says, because the move helped the team. Now he does not ever want to go back to the outfield. There are more people to talk to at third. Better class of fan there, too. "The only talkin' I did in the outfield was hollerin' at those people throwin' bottles at me in left field down at Dodger Stadium." Does Transcendental Meditation represent a psychic wave of the future to professional athletes, he is asked by a contemplative sanitarian. "I've hit .300 10 times and I can't even say the damn words," he replies.
He sums up his own philosophy: "I give 110%. I don't give just 100% because some guy opposite me might be giving that much. If you have a guy equal in ability to me, I'm gonna beat him because I'll try harder. That guy ain't got a chance."
The sanitarians all agree it is the best talk they have heard. Rose spends another 15 minutes or so signing autograph books and baseballs and chatting with the delegates. He is exhilarated, as he usually is, by this contact with his followers. "What gives me the most pleasure in this game is just seeing people's faces," he says, "seeing how excited they get about us winning the World Series, having people come up to me saying, 'Thanks.' That's what this is all about." He smiles as he climbs into the car. "My little girl's gonna love that horse." The Maserati explodes forward. Rose's head snaps back.
To many knowledgeable baseball fans, Pete Rose is the most exciting player in the game. He does not hit home runs often or steal many bases or field and throw exceptionally well, but he plays the way ancients tell us the game should be played -- scientifically, yet with abandon. Even his contemporaries look upon him as something of an anachronism. "Pete Rose is a throwback to an earlier generation," the Mets' Bud Harrelson once said. Harrelson may have had Ty Cobb in mind, since it was Rose's mad charge into second base during the 1973 National League playoffs that precipitated their famous bout and that, for one season at least, gave Rose an unwarranted reputation as a bully. That play also recalled another Cobbian effort, Rose's stampeding of Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game. Ted Kluszewski, the former Reds slugger and present batting coach, says he feels Rose's style is nearer that of Enos Slaughter, the erstwhile Cardinal gamecock who still intimidates infielders in oldtimers games.
The emotional side of Rose's game tends to upstage the technical, which is in itself imposing. In 13 major league season, all with his hometown Reds, Rose has accumulated 2,547 hits, an average of 196 per season. He has had seven 200-hit seasons and has led the National League in his five times. His announced goal is 3,000 career hits, a figure he should achieve by 1978, when he will be 37. He should surpass Frankie Frisch's record of 2,880 hits by a switch hitter a year earlier. He has led the league in both doubles and runs scored the past two seasons, has scored more than 100 runs in eight seasons, including the last four, and has hit .300 or better 10 times, including nine times in succession from 1965 to 1973. He is alleged to have slumped in 1974, when his average fell to .284, but he walked 106 times that year, more than in any other season, so his on-base average was approximately the same. This year Rose "came back" by hitting .317 in the regular season and .370 in the World Series. He has won three batting championships and two Gold Gloves. He was the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1963 and its Most Valuable Player 10 years later. And, to repeat, he was the Most Valuable Player in this year's World Series.
Rose's contributions to the Reds' drive to the world championship are incalculable. He willingly risked embarrassment at a new position by agreeing to play third base, a sacrifice few athletes of his stature would make without complaint. The Reds were faltering at the time, early May, because their power men, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, were slumping. Manager Sparky Anderson reasoned that if he could move hard-hitting George Foster to left field and shift Rose to third, the Reds could take up the slack for the temporary sagging sluggers. Anderson was aware that in 1966 Rose had objected to a transfer to third because of his unfamiliarity with the position and his newly discovered confidence at second. "It didn't make sense to me at the time," Rose says. "Besides, Don Heffner [then the Reds' manager] ordered me over there. Sparky asked me. I proved myself right the first time. Tommy Helms ended up playing third in '66 and won Rookie of the Year. This time Sparky was right and I knew it made sense." With Rose at third and Foster in left for the rest of the season, the Reds swept to the pennant and the world championship.
"When Rose moved to third," says Connie Ryan, former manager of the Atlanta Braves, "he made that team."
Anderson was not surprised at his star's unselfishness. When he first took over as manager in 1970, Rose came to him and, to his complete astonishment, said, "I make the most money on this team. I'll do anything you want me to."
This season Rose did not merely put in his time at third base, he worked tirelessly to master the position. "He's an inspiration to younger players," says Kluszewski. "They see him out there busting his butt and they say, 'Hey, maybe this is how it's done up here.'"
Rose's influence extends to older players. In Billingham's opinion, Rose has helped change Joe Morgan's approach to the game. When Morgan, the new National League MVP, and he were traded to the Reds from Houston in 1972, Billingham says, "Joe and I had gotten to the point where we were probably thinking more about ourselves than about our team. But Pete helped us get out of that. Pete might go 0 for 4, but if we'd win the game, he'd be the happiest guy in the clubhouse. You notice things like that.
Morgan himself has said, "When I played against Pete, I assumed nobody went that hard all the time, that he did that just against us. You can't judge a player when you see him only a few games a season. Now that I have seen him day in and day out, I find him amazing."
The sheer force of Rose's personality was felt most compellingly, perhaps, in the sixth inning of the final game of the World Series. The Reds has closed an early 3-0 Red Sox lead to 3-2 on Perez' home run in the top half of the inning. There was someone on base for Perez to drive home only because Rose, sliding with typical fury into second, had intimated Denny Doyle into throwing wildly to first on what would have been an inning-ending double play. Now, with the Red Sox about to come to bat, Rose gave an astonishing performance. He set about rousing his teammates, as if they were troops on the fornt line. he bellowed encouragment, pounded his fist into his glove and bounced about the infield width enthusiasm that was contagious. He seemed to grow physically in stature, to tower over the situation. Even in the stands, his will to win could be felt. Though they still trailed in the game, it seemed inevitable the Reds would win. It was a highly charged moment of a kind rarely, if ever, seen in a major league baseball game. Rose had stirred his teammates, hardened professionals, to a collegiate pitch. The Reds won, of course, with Rose driving in the tying run and Morgan the finisher.
Peter Edward Rose is the third of four children born to Mr. and Mrs. Harry Francis Rose. He has a younger brother, David, 27, and two older sisters, Jackie, 37, and Caryle, 39. Jackie, Mrs. Albert Schwier, still lives in the Rose family home, a rambling, 85-year-old, two-story wooden structure on a hill commanding the Ohio River. It is the same house in which her mother, her older sister and she were all born. Rose's father was called "Pete," a name he liked well enough to poass on to his first son.
"Daddy wanted a boy real bad," said Mrs. Schwier, a small, black-haired, handsome woman. "That's why my name is Jackie. My father loved sports and when Pete finally came along, he was tickled. He started taking him to ball games when he was only two. Pete was the waterboy on the semipro football team Daddy played for. He'd go everywhere Daddy went. It's a funny thing, I used to feel sorry for Pete. He'd come home having done these terrific things in sports and Daddy would concentrate only on the bad things he'd done. He never wanted Pete to get too self-satisfied, to get to the point where he wasn't always trying to do better."
Harry Francis (Pete) Rose began working for the Fifth-Third Union Trust Bank as a messenger when he was 15. He eventually became assistant cashier, laboring over figures for so many hours that he developed frequent headaches. He played Sunday baseball and football, and was a member of the original Cincinnati Bengals football club of the late 1930s, a semiprofessional team that played in the tough Ohio-Kentucky league. "Pete's dad was quite an athlete," recalls Whitey Willenborg, a former teammate of the father's and a business partner of the son's. "It sounds funny to say it, but he had the instincts of an O.J. Simpson."
Says Rose himself: "My dad was tough, man. He had more guts than any two guys I've ever known. But he was mild-mannered. There are three things in my life I never saw. I never saw my dad smoke, take a drink of hard liquor or argue with my mom. I like to think my relationship with my son is the same as my father's was with me. I want my boy to be an athlete, too. He's Peter Edward Rose II -- none of that Junior stuff -- and he's a strong little kid, only six, but he weighs over 60 now. Big hands and feet. I'm built like my dad. Stocky, strong -- my body is my best assest. My dad was really something else. There I'd be, a hundred-thousand-dollar ballplayer, and he'd be waiting for me outside the clubhouse to let me have it for not hustling enough."
Rose frowns. His rock-featured, open face is a window to his changing humor. "I was actually better in football than baseball in high school. If I'd been eligible my senior year, I'd probably have gone on to college. I was a halfback, captain of the freshman team. At that point in my life, football was a big thing to me, my dad being a football player and all. The thing was, when you were a sophomore you had to be invited to try out for the varsity. Well, I was a little, only about 130, but tough, like my dad. But they said I was too small and I didn't get invited. That hurt me, hurt me real bad. You can imagine how my dad felt. I lost all interest in school. I flunked, and not because I was stupid. It's just that I didn't want to go to school anymore. I had five years of high school because of it. I played both baseball and football my second sophomore year and my junior year -- I'd grown a little by then. But I was ineligible as a senior. No one could ever know how hurt I was back then unless they knew me and my dad."
On a December day five years ago, Harry Francis Rose left work at the bank early. He was feeling ill, and it was more than just the headaches. He took the bus home rather than go directly to the doctor. He'd be O.K. at home. As he entered the old house above the river, he staggered and fell face forward on the steps to the second floor. He was dead at 58 of a blood clot in the heart.
"It was the biggest blow in Pete's life," says an old friend, Karl Hauck.
"When you lose somebody you're close to," says Pete, recalling the day, "you can cry call you want. But my dad go to see me win batting titles, play in All-Star Games and in the World Series. The way I look at it, I repaid him."
Pete Rose met his wife, the former Karolyn Englehardt, in 1963, his rookie year, at a racetrack. Through binoculars he spotted her standing in a crowd near the rail. With the help of a mutual friend he maneuvered an introduction. "Don't you play football for a local tavern?" she inquired of the National League's Rookie of the Year, only mildly flustering him. They were married in January of 964. Rose was several hours late to the wedding reception, however. He had first to accept a Rookie of the Year award from the Cincinnati baseball writers, a conflict of priorities that only mildly flustered the new bride.
Karolyn Rose is bouncy, curly-haired brunette who, in an earlier time, might have been called a "kook," a lively as her husband and even more puckish, although she has had the role of mother superior to the younger baseball wives thrust upon her by virtue of her husband's seniority on the roster. Indeed, she is writing a book on the plight of the baseball player's wife, a work she trusts will be invaluable to future generations of the suffering sisterhood. She has also conducted her own sports radio show and joshingly entertains notions of being discovered by movie talent scouts in a soda fountain.
The Roses, man and wife, never enter into any project halfheartedly, and their two children have inherited their energy and directness. Fawn Rose once asked Sparky Anderson why her father was not permitted to take a summer vacation like all the other fathers in her neighborhood. "Because," the manager replied meekly, "I need him."
We are all merely extensions of ourselves as children, but when a man plays a child's game for his living, he seems removed only a slight distance from his former self. From afar he still could be a child at play. But he will tell you he approaches his job with the same seriousness as, say, a chiropractor or an airline pilot. It is grown-up stuff. So where is the joy?
No baseball player dedicates himself to his craft with more zeal than Pete Rose. His knowledge of pitchers is encyclopedic. He is a veritable savant on the subject of hitting a baseball or fielding it. He knows base running the way Pythagoras knew geometry. He is a competent baseball historian, able to quote columns of figures and recall pivotal situations without recourse to reference works. He earns more than $160,000 a year, funds he entrusts primarily to the keeping of an attorney, an agent and an accoutant.
Ah, but we do not care about his money. His familiarity with the intricacies of his craft is moderately diverting, but of no lasting consequence. No, we are drawn to him for a quality he exhibts in greater abundance than any other athlete in sport today -- the joy of participation. When Pete Rose says, as he will, "I'd play for nothing if I could afford it," it is impossible not to believe him. The pleasure he gets out of playing his game is infectious. "Hollywood?" "Hot Dog?" Who cares? Pete Rose is for real.
The experts come acropper when they grope for comparisions. Ty Cobb? Hardly. Enos Slaughter? Not really. Batting coach Kluszewski has finally abandoned his own quest for a likeness. "Pete Rose," Kluszewski says, "is an original. You won't see another like him in a thousand years."
Issue date: December 22, 1975