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PETE ROSE, WARTS AND ALL
Ron Fimrite
December 03, 1990
The diamond star emerges as a badly flawed man
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December 03, 1990

Pete Rose, Warts And All

The diamond star emerges as a badly flawed man

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The Pete Rose story is not a pretty one, and though it has certainly been told often enough over the past year, never before has it been exposed to such painstaking scrutiny as in Michael Y. Sokolove's riveting Hustle—The Myth, Life and Lies of Pete Rose ( Simon & Schuster, $19.95). The Sokolove version is a cautionary tale. Here, in Rose, was a hero in the classic American mold, an athlete who, lacking natural talent, became by dint of honest labor one of the greatest players of all time, the man who surpassed Ty Cobb's supposedly unbeatable record of 4,191 hits. Yet, Sokolove advises, a good player is not necessarily a good man, no matter how badly we want him to be one. And Rose, he writes, was not a good man.

He was, even by ballplayers' standards, an outrageous philanderer who kept a woman in every National League city, including his own Cincinnati. As Sokolove describes him, Rose was routinely disloyal to friends and, in his sad last days in the game, surrounded himself with gofers and sycophants, as well as with dope dealers who could supply him with the cash he needed to pay off his gambling debts—not that Rose ever completely paid off those debts, for he was also a notorious welsher. According to Sokolove, Rose took amphetamines while he was a player but lied about it, even in court. He was a compulsive gambler who, Sokolove is convinced, bet on baseball and on his own team. And he cheated on his income tax. For that and his gambling, Rose paid a heavy price—banishment from baseball and five months in federal prison.

And yet, because Rose was the sort of hero Americans most admire, he was allowed to get away with his various malfeasances for a quarter of a century. His employers, in both Cincinnati and Philadelphia, knew of his gambling and the bad company he was keeping; the Reds, Sokolove claims, knew as early as the late 1960s. But Rose was an invaluable drawing card. "He was our bread and butter," Phillie president Bill Giles told the author. Even though the baseball commissioner's office knew Rose was a big bettor, Henry Fitzgibbon, an investigator for then commissioner Bowie Kuhn, declined to take any action beyond counseling the player to clean up his act.

The fans, of course, knew none of this until the story finally broke in 1989. To them, Rose was the local boy who made good, the embodiment of the work ethic. He did work hard at his game, but it is not true that he had no natural talent. Rose had been raised by his father to be an athlete. Young Pete was not required to work after school or do much in the way of household chores. His only obligation was to be good at games. And he was. He was a star running back in high school football and a speedy base runner on the diamond. He was always strong, and he grew from a runtish youngster into a solid 195-pounder. But Rose was never the best player of his time or even the best on the Big Red Machine. His lifetime batting average of .303 was only 117th on the alltime list when he retired, far below Cobb's leading .367. Rose, Sokolove claims, was merely a good player who—because of his remarkable durability—accumulated loads of records. And in his final pursuit of Cobb, when Rose was a mediocre player, he actually hurt his team by keeping younger, better players on the bench so he could get his at bats.

The ultimate conspirators in the perpetuation of the Rose myth were we of the media. Rose learned early on that cooperating with the press—an attribute shared by few professional athletes of his time-had its rewards, and he reaped them. "It does not take much to charm a writer," writes Sokolove, a newspaperman who covered Rose and the Reds in 1987 for The Cincinnati Post. "The player who shows the simple courtesy of addressing him by name scores points."

There were sportswriters who knew of Rose's gambling, says Sokolove, but they repaid his kindnesses with their silence. Not until the extent of his involvement was made public—in no small part by this magazine—did they come forward to say they had known about it all the time. It was a form of complicity, and it was hardly a shining moment for sports journalism. Now many of these same writers will decide in 1992 if Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. Sokolove thinks he does, for "a man can belong both in the Hall of Fame and in federal prison." We cannot expect all athletes who live in "terminal adolescence" to grow up, but we the fans can. "We should honor and admire great athletes for what they do, not what they are," because, Sokolove writes, "we really don't know what they are, do we?"

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