There are a million Pete Rose stories, of course, but the one I think about now is the time Pete faced Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson in 1974. Gibson was a force of nature. He had been a boxer in his younger days, and he pitched like one—throwing with power, aggression, and controlled rage. He took every hit personally. He would not hesitate to knock a batter down for any reason, real or imagined. As Gibson’s catcher Tim McCarver said: Fear was one of his pitches.
By the time Rose stepped up to face Gibson the game was already lost. Gibson’s Cardinals led Rose’s Reds by seven runs, and teams did not come back on Bob Gibson, not ever. Rose still dug in—he wanted a hit. Rose always wanted a hit. Gibson fired a fastball inside, and it brushed Rose’s uniform. By baseball rules, the uniform is part of the body, so umpire Bill Williams yelled, “Ball hit him.” And then he pointed to first and told Pete: “Take your base.”
And this is what Pete Rose said: “The ball didn’t hit me.”
Williams was taken aback. “No, I heard it hit you Pete,” he said, and he pointed to first base again. But Rose would not go. Pete kicked his spikes into the batter’s box dirt and bent his body back into his familiar crouch, then motioned to Gibson to pitch. “You heard wrong,” he said. “Ball didn’t hit me.”
Well, they argued, Williams and Rose, and even when Williams made Rose go to first base, the argument raged on. “Ball didn’t hit me, Bill!” Rose yelled after he reached the base. It had to be one of the odder arguments in human history. Here was an umpire trying to give Pete Rose first base. And here was Rose, at the end of a lost game, pleading for the chance to get one more swing against the most intimidating pitcher in baseball history. That’s how much Pete Rose loved to hit. And that’s the Pete Rose I tried to find in the wreckage.
HERE’S A LINE often used by people who know Pete: If you want to get to Pete Rose you have to get to Pete Rose. That’s why I sat on a metal folding chair in the Field of Dreams sports memorabilia store at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, and watched for hours as he signed autographs for tourists who had come to sin and forget and see Celine Dion.
“I’m the best deal in Vegas,” Pete said. When I asked him how he figured that, Pete explained that for a hundred bucks, you could get an autographed baseball, your photo taken, and a chance to talk baseball with the Hit King. He said it just that way, too: Pete will sometimes refer to himself in the third person as the Hit King. This is because Pete Rose banged out 4,256 hits in the major leagues, more than anyone ever. This is also because there are a lot of kings out there: Rock and roll has a king (Elvis); auto racing has a king (Richard Petty); golf has a king (Arnold Palmer); pain has a king (Sting). It stands to reason that the act of hitting a baseball deserves a king as well. And who else could be the Hit King? If they gave Pete a crown, he’d wear it.
“That hit record is never getting broken,” he said in a quiet moment. This is the way to talk to Pete Rose—by showing up, and sitting down next to him, and waiting for quiet moments. He rarely returns phone calls, and he rarely sets up interviews. But he will talk if you get to him. I remember in 1994, when I worked for the Cincinnati Post, everyone wanted to write a story about Pete on the five-year anniversary of his permanent suspension from baseball. I placed dozens of phone calls to his people, sent a letter requesting a few minutes of his time, tried to work back channels with his friends. Every road was a dead end. Pete wasn’t talking, not to anybody. “He’s decided it’s best to say nothing,” I was told.
Then, on a whim, I showed up at his restaurant in Boca Raton. I had no expectation of talking to him; I just wanted to write about the atmosphere of his life. A waitress pointed him out and encouraged me to go over to him.
“I understand he’s not talking,” I said.
“Pete?” she said. “He’s always talking.”
I walked over, Pete kicked out a chair, and we talked for four hours.
“So,” Pete began in another quiet moment in Las Vegas—come to think of it, there were many quiet moments. It was a slow day. Pete said that some days hundreds of people show up, and the line of people who want to meet the Hit King can stretch all way to the talking statues several hundred yards away. This day, though, only a few people wander through, even while two promoters stand outside the Field of Dreams and bark “Come meet the Hit King!” It’s a good day to talk.
“So,” Pete said, “you’re writing a book, huh? What’s your angle?” There have been dozens of books written about Rose—biographies, autobiographies, children’s books, diaries, tell-alls, baseball instruction books, picture books. There’s one book that features the letters fans sent him. Pete Rose knows the angles.
I told him that this book is about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, the team I consider the greatest ever. So, at heart, yes, it is about that team, the way they came together, the great World Series. But even more it is about the great characters from that year. It is about how Joe Morgan became the best player in baseball; it is about Johnny Bench dealing with the fame he had craved; it is about the true leader in the clubhouse, Tony Perez; it is about a young player named George Foster who did not drink, smoke, or swear, and read the Bible every day. It is about a comeback pitcher named Gary Nolan and a group of wild relief pitchers and the white-haired manager, Sparky Anderson, who put it all together.
But mostly, I told him, the book is about Pete Rose. It is not about Pete Rose the man who was banned from baseball, the man who was jailed for tax evasion, the man who lied continuously about gambling on baseball, the heavy-set man who sits behind a card table and signs autographs day after day in Vegas. I told him I wanted to recapture the Pete Rose who played the game with unchained passion. I wanted to find the player that much of America has forgotten, the player who showed up to the ballpark early, took batting practice until his hands bled, ran out every walk, stayed at the ballpark late and then went home, parked the car in his driveway, and listened to West Coast games on the radio.
Pete nodded. “That was Dad,” he said, and he didn’t say anything else about it.
PETE ROSE PLAYED every single game in 1975. The reason that’s telling is that the Reds won the National League West Championship by 20 games that year—they clinched the title on September 7, the earliest champagne celebration in baseball history. So, the last three weeks of the season were basically meaningless; it was a time for players to rest, recharge their batteries, get healthy, and so on. Joe Morgan missed 16 games in 1975, Johnny Bench missed 20, Tony Perez missed 25....
Pete did not miss a single game. Not one. Sparky Anderson pleaded with him to take a day off. Then Sparky tried to order him to take a day off. Pete would not have any of it.
“Well, who do we play Thursday?” Pete would say.
“Nobody,” Sparky said. “Thursday is an off-day.”
“Fine,” Pete said. “Then that will be my day of rest.”
Nobody saw anything unusual about it. That was Pete Rose. He played every game in 1974, and every game in 1976 and ’77, too. He didn’t just play every game, though; he took the field with a fanaticism that left his teammates awestruck. “Pete always wanted one more hit,” Joe Morgan said. “If he had three hits, he wanted four, and if he had four hits, he wanted five. It never stopped with him.”
Nobody ever doubted that Pete learned that from his father, Harry Rose, called “Big Pete” around town. Big Pete worked days at Fifth Third Bank and spent weekends playing ferocious semipro football games. He had been a boxer and a ballplayer; everyone said that Big Pete was the toughest man in Cincinnati. His son idolized him. And when it came to fighting and living, Big Pete gave his son one bit of advice: Hit first.
Little Pete always hit first—in the lineup and in life. You have no doubt heard of the (perhaps apocryphal) screen test report on Fred Astaire: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” The words might have been a little different, but the scouting report on Pete Rose amounted to the same thing: “Can’t run. Can’t throw. Can’t field. Can hit a little.” And he became a star—the first $100,000 singles hitter, as he called himself—by hitting first and caring more. He broke up double plays. He hustled for doubles. He was always aware of what needed to be done on the field. And it was that way off the field, too. He gave reporters the best quotes. He signed every autograph. He tossed baseballs to the fans who booed him the loudest. He was the ultimate teammate. Just about every single player I talked with on that 1975 team had some great story about Pete buying them dinner or giving them shoes or passing along advice at precisely the time they needed it. This quote from Will McEnaney, the left-handed relief pitcher who finished Game 7 of the ’75 World Series, is representative: “I’m sad about what happened to Pete later in life because the Pete Rose I knew was the greatest guy in the world.”
Here’s another story from 1975: On May 3, Rose rather famously moved from left field to third base because Sparky Anderson asked him to. The Reds had been scuffling along, losing as often as they won, and Sparky knew that he had to shake things up. Rose’s move allowed Sparky to find a place in the lineup for George Foster, who hit 174 home runs the next five seasons; along with a few other well-timed events, it turned the Reds from a good team into a legendary one.
But consider what Rose did. He had been an All-Star left fielder. He won a Gold Glove out there for outstanding defense. He was one of the most famous athletes in America and one of the highest-paid players in baseball. He was an icon. Then, a manager asked him to move to third base, one of the toughest positions on the field, in order to help the team.
Rose made the move on one day’s notice. One day. Sparky asked him to move to third, Rose ran into the dugout to get a protective cup (“I’m not going to risk my family’s future for you!” Pete yelled at Sparky), and then went to practice taking ground balls...and that was that. The next day, he played third base without making an error, and he played there the rest of the season, and the next, and the two seasons after that.
“I wasn’t a great third baseman,” Pete said all those years later while signing autographs in Vegas. “But I worked my ass off. I don’t know if people realize how hard I worked. I used to be criticized because I played the game so hungry.
“That’s the thing that makes this whole thing so tragic,” he added. “Nobody loved the game of baseball the way I loved it.”
PETE SAID IT might have been different if his dad had lived. Harry Rose went to work one December day in 1970, felt sick, took the bus home and collapsed. A blood clot reached his heart and stopped it. Pete was having his hair cut at the time, and when his sister called to tell him the news he was so shaken and certain that Harry Rose would live forever (they had just played basketball the day before), he said, “You mean Mom? You mean Mom died?”
After Harry Rose died, Pete said he lost whatever control he once had on his passions. He was just 29 then, and while he was still unleashed on the field, he was also unleashed off it. He gambled. He lived wild. “I’m not making excuses,” Pete said quietly. “But my Dad wouldn’t have let it happen this way.”
He was talking at length about gambling and his suspension from baseball, even though I had not asked him about it. A billion words have been written about Pete Rose’s gambling problem, his suspension from baseball, his years of denial (“I’m telling you this, and you can write it down, I did not bet on baseball,” he told me in that interview in Boca Raton back in 1994), and finally his admission that, yes, he did bet on baseball, and he bet on the Cincinnati Reds while he was manager (though he insists it was always to win). A billion words, and still Pete Rose is suspended, he’s ineligible for the Hall of Fame, he is a symbol of baseball pain.
When he talks about gambling, he’s at times contrite and other times defiant. That’s Pete. “I don’t know how many different ways I can say I’m sorry,” he said one minute. And then a minute later he said, “If you think I’m the only guy since 1919 to bet on baseball, you are pissing up a fucking rope.” He talked about his story as tragic, and then he said that he’d been railroaded. It’s a hard way to live.
“What would it hurt for the commissioner to give me a second chance?” he asked. “I mean, nobody’s going to say I got off easy. It has been 20 years. Sixty-five million dollars this thing’s cost me. Sixty-five million dollars.”
I didn’t ask him how he came up with that figure. But I’m certain he could break it down to the last nickel.
I tried to get him to talk again about the old days, when he was not only a great baseball player, but the very essence of what a baseball player could be—the guy fathers pointed out to sons. (Joe Morgan used to kid Pete by saying that his fan base was 80-year-old women, because “you’re like the players they grew up watching.”) But that moment was gone. He ranted about how players who took steroids got second chances but he did not. He asked me again and again if I thought he was being treated fairly. A store employee walked over with a baseball and said, “Need an apology ball, Pete. We just sold the last one.” Pete took the baseball and carefully wrote on it: “I’m sorry I bet on baseball.” Then he signed it.
And then the man who would not stop to rest, who changed positions to help the team, who brought teammates home for dinner, who listened to baseball games on his car radio, who refused to take his base against Bob Gibson, that man slammed the baseball down on the table.
“I’m in jail,” he said.
Originally published in the July 2009 issue.
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