Baseball stardom, however, was not enough. As his fame and numbers grew, Johnny sang in nightclubs. He went to Vietnam with Bob Hope. He hosted his own television show. He became friends with stars, like the singer Bobby Goldsboro, who hit it big in 1968, during Bench's rookie year, with a song called Honey. He dated models and a Playboy centerfold. He was 27 years old, and he had everything. And then, on this April afternoon in Cincinnati, everything changed. Fifth inning, scoreless game, San Francisco's Chris Speier singled to leftfield with runner Gary Matthews on second base. Johnny stood at home plate and waited for Rose, who was playing left, to get the ball and throw it home. Pete did not have a strong arm. The ball slowly made its way to the plate, and so did Matthews, who was 6'3", weighed about 190 pounds and was called Sarge. Johnny could see that the baseball and Sarge were going to get to the plate at almost the same time. He wanted to catch the ball, get out of the way and tag Matthews as he rushed by—nobody pulled that bullfighter maneuver better than Bench. But he did not have time. Instead, he stood in front of the plate, and he leaned forward to catch the ball, and he tried to protect himself. Sarge crashed into Johnny and sent him flying backward.
That's when Johnny Bench felt a sharp and biting pain deep inside his left shoulder. He groaned. Then he got up—nobody, not even the people who hated Johnny Bench, ever questioned his toughness. He stayed in the game. He waited for the pain to go away. Only it did not go away. And what Johnny Bench did not know that day in Cincinnati is that the pain would subside a little, but it would not go away. He would play the rest of the 1975 season in agony.
CINCINNATI, MAY 3, 1975
You were born at the wrong time, Pete," Tom Callahan told Pete Rose. Callahan understood that feeling of being from a generation not quite your own. Callahan wrote a sports column for The Cincinnati Enquirer, and he was still young, just 27. He felt older. He felt as though he should have written columns long before, when sports titans walked the Earth, when Babe Ruth hit colossal home runs for sick children, when Luis Firpo knocked Jack Dempsey through the ropes of the boxing ring, when Red Grange scored five touchdowns and passed for a sixth against Michigan. Maybe that's why Callahan felt drawn to Pete. Rose played as though he belonged to another time—he ran to first base on walks; he brazenly slid into second base to break up double plays; he showed up every day with this feverish enthusiasm that came right out of the 1920s.
"You know who loves you, Pete?" Joe Morgan would say all the time. "Women who are in their 80s. Those are your fans. Because you play like the ballplayers they used to watch when they were young."
Of course, lots of guys played baseball like the old-time players. But Pete, he lived like an old-time player. He seemed to come from that simpler time when ballplayers ate steaks every night (Rose had his medium rare with a baked potato and iced tea) and signed autographs for kids (Bench would grow tired of signing autographs; Rose never did) and sneaked girls up into their rooms (Pete was never especially coy about it) and loved the game unconditionally. Whenever Callahan wanted to find Rose after a game, he would go to Pete's house and Pete would be sitting in his car listening to a West Coast game on the radio. Whenever Callahan wanted to find Pete on an off day, he would just go to the track: Pete always loved going to bet on the horses and the dogs. Pete loved the action, sure, but beyond that he seemed to revel in the smoke and haze and whiskey and shady characters and old gamblers. Pete didn't smoke or drink—fast cars, fast women and fast horses were enough vice for him—but he still liked being around the smoke and gin.
He ate up old stories. Waite Hoyt was a hard-drinking former Yankees pitcher who'd known the Babe and Ty Cobb and all the rest of those old baseball greats. He had also been a radio announcer for the Reds in the 1960s, and Pete would talk to him for hours. Pete would ask him to repeat the same stories again and again. Later, Callahan would hear Pete tell those stories, word for word, facial expression for facial expression. It was eerie. Several years later, when Rose was chasing Cobb's record for most hits, New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson asked Rose how much he really knew about Cobb. Rose, being Rose, indelicately answered, "I know everything about Ty Cobb except the size of his c---."
Of course, The New York Times—the Gray Lady—could not report it quite that way. So the quote was delicately repackaged like so: "I know everything about Ty Cobb except the size of his hat." Rose was furious. He knew damn well that Cobb's hat size was 7 5/8.
On this third day of May in 1975, before the Reds' game against the Atlanta Braves, Sparky considered calling general manager Bob Howsam to tell him that he would play Rose at third base, taking him out of leftfield, where he had played for the previous three years. He decided against the call. For one thing, he was the manager of the team. He had to be allowed to run the team the way he knew how. As the old line goes, it's always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.