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September 14, 2010

Another Look

Reconsidering Pete Rose

by Bob Hertzel

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On Saturday night, given special dispensation by Commissioner Pope Bud I, the Cincinnati Reds honored their hometown hero, Peter Edward Rose, on the 25th anniversary of his 4,192nd career base hit, which made him Major League Baseball's all-time hits leader.

To honor Rose, who had been disgraced by his own actions and then by Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, the only commissioner who was in and of himself the answer to a multiple choice test, was nothing really that significant.

Baseball teams honor their own all the time, but to allow Rose to participate in the ceremony was a step that if played out correctly might lead to some kind of at least partial lifting of the lifetime ban laid upon Rose by Giamatti for betting on his own team.

That Rose’s actions were reason to be banned from the sport cannot be denied. Nor was it in any way totally unexpected, considering that anyone connected with baseball knew that Rose was either a compulsive gambler or one who gambled often enough on horse racing, football, and basketball that it bordered on a compulsion.

The question is and always has been whether Rose’s suspension was too harsh and whether it was so harsh because of some vendetta Giamatti had for Rose.

Certainly there is evidence that Giamatti had been out to get Rose ever since the days he left the Ivy League setting of Yale to enter the real world and sport that he worshipped more for its poetic beauty than in any real-world sense.

Rose, if you were, was a rap song playing in a game Giamatti viewed as a sonata.

This is the way Giamatti saw the sport in the first paragraph of his essay “The Green Fields of the Mind”:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.

There is no room in that description of the game for a tough “river rat” out of Cincinnati who played the game to win at all costs and was willing to do anything to get there. Their views of baseball were diametrically opposite, the game being a Sunday afternoon polo match to Giamatti and a Friday night barroom brawl to Rose.

Rose was, in many ways, the anti-Giamatti. There was the time when Rose broke Stan Musial's National League career hits record when he received congratulatory phone call from President Ronald Reagan and, upon being told that it was Reagan on the other end of the line, Rose grabbed the phone and said, “How ya doin’?”

Not since Babe Ruth had greeted President Calvin Coolidge by saying, “Hot as hell, ain’t it Prez?” had another come on to a President like that.

When Giamatti banned Rose for life after he had been proven to have gambled on baseball, it was not the first time he had suspended Rose, nor was it the first time when the suspension could be viewed as excessive.

In 1988, when Giamatti was National League president, Rose was managing the Reds and got into a confrontation with umpire Dave Pallone that escalated into something more than your normal argument, ending with Rose shoving Pallone. No one doubts or denies that Rose shoved him, just as no one doubts or denies that fans began throwing objects onto the field and Pallone had to leave the game.

Interestingly, during the 1973 NLCS, Rose slid hard into second base in Shea Stadium, popped up and began fighting with Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson. New York fans bombarded him with debris, a situation that didn’t calm down until that noted ambassador of good will, Lawrence Peter Berra, then manager of the home team, ventured into left field to negotiate peace with the fans. Rose was not suspended for that incident.

Yet when the smoke cleared following the run-in with Pallone, and Giamatti had his say, Rose was suspended 30 days.

This is what Murray Chass, the New York Times baseball writer at the time, wrote:

The suspension, imposed by A. Bartlett Giamatti, the National League president, was the most severe ever levied against a manager for an on-field incident. Leo Durocher, then the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was suspended by Commissioner A. B. (Happy) Chandler for the entire 1947 season for ''conduct detrimental to baseball,'' but the action had nothing to do with on-field activities.

“The most severe”? Was that called for? Bill Madlock of the Pittsburgh Pirates had shoved his glove in the face of umpire Jerry Crawford in 1980 and been suspended for just 15 days.

Lenny Randle of the Texas Rangers had also gotten a 30-day suspension, but that was for beating up his own manager, Frank Lucchesi, in 1977. In 2005, Texas pitcher Kenny Rogers was suspended 20 games for an outburst that sent a television cameraman to the hospital. And another Texas pitcher, Frank Francisco, would draw a 15 game suspension for throwing a chair at a fan in a lower box seat near the bullpen in Oakland during a 2004 game.

But Rose got 30 days from Giamatti for his actions against an umpire, actions that did not maim or scar him.

With that as history, is it not fair to assume that there was some agenda that Giamatti had when he nailed Rose for gambling. Certainly he had precedent in the Black Sox scandal of 1919, but those White Sox players were fixing a World Series, not betting on his own team to win.

The National Football League had given Paul Hornung and Alex Karras only a year’s suspension for gambling on NFL games and associating with gamblers, but all parties apparently kissed and made up as Hornung is now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Is it now time for baseball to come up with some kind of compromise on its position with Rose, to at least open the doors to the Hall of Fame to him? Certainly he is no lock even if he is given a special election by the Baseball Writers Association of America, which never had a chance to vote on him, or by a committee chosen for the purpose of deciding if he belongs in the Hall of Fame. But it seems only the right thing to do, considering the circumstances and the accomplishments of the man involved.

Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bob's other articles. You can contact Bob by clicking here

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