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Kostya Kennedy went looking for the once and future Hit King and brought back a deep, nuanced portrait of a fallen sports hero stuck in limbo. A conversation with the author on what we think of Pete Rose now.
Kostya Kennedy is telling a small gathering of people at the Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Norwood about the first time he met Pete Rose. It was in Las Vegas, where the Hit King spends the majority of his time these days, at one of his many autograph sessions. People line up all day—locals, tourists, baseball fans, gamblers—to pay upwards of $50 for Rose to sign a baseball or a bat or the iconic picture of him pointing to the crowd at Riverfront Stadium after collecting his 4,192nd hit on September 11, 1985. As Kennedy relates in his fresh and insightful new book Pete Rose: An American Dilemma (Sports Illustrated Books), Rose will sign just about anything as long as it doesn’t disparage Bud Selig or Major League Baseball. He’ll put his name on a ball that reads “I’m sorry I bet on baseball,” or “I’m sorry I shot JFK,” or “I’m sorry I broke up the Beatles.” He will even sign copies of the famous Dowd Report, the very document that led to his banishment from the game 25 years ago. Though as Kennedy, a contributing editor at Sports Illustrated, tells the crowd, the experience isn’t just about getting Rose’s autograph. “You’re paying in part for a moment in time with him.”
And he always makes it worthwhile. He will graciously listen to your story or offer a quick joke. He’ll pose for a picture with your kid and look you in the eye as he sincerely thanks you for saying he should be in the Hall of Fame. Regardless of how much has changed since the hometown kid debuted for the Cincinnati Reds in 1963, one thing, Kennedy notes, has always remained true: “Pete gives good Pete.” After spending more than two years working on this book, the end result is an exhaustive and absorbing biography of baseball’s most notorious living player. I spoke with the author prior to his appearance at Joseph-Beth about what drew him to the tragic tale of Charlie Hustle.
First, the question that I’m sure everyone has asked you: Why do a book on Pete Rose now?
I did my previous book on Joe DiMaggio, called 56, and for that I went and spent a day with Pete [in 2010]. Pete knew DiMaggio a bit and he had hit in 44 straight games in ’78, and that was what I wanted to talk to him about, not anything else. But I sat with him while he was signing in Vegas, and there was something kind of unresolved about Pete that day. He seemed more layered, just in that brief time. Looking at the issue around the Hall of Fame and the whole steroid era in baseball, that has changed people’s thoughts and values about what we expect and how we judge our baseball heroes. It seemed that there was more than just a story about a ballplayer. And it turned out to be much more.
One more thing about that day: Pete was betting on the horse races, and at the end of the day, he said to me, “That’s all the betting I do. I don’t bet on baseball anymore.” And that struck me, because I didn’t ask him, but it’s inside him. He can’t get away from it.
You obviously talked to and spent time with Pete while reporting this. What was his reaction to you writing the book?
Pete did not cooperate with this book, but he didn’t block it. I spent some time with him in Cooperstown in 2012 [during the induction ceremonies]. Barry Larkin was being inducted, so there were a lot of Reds fans, and that was where the book kind of took off. I got near and around Pete on a few other occasions. He certainly was not hostile toward me, and to his credit, he didn’t shut anybody down that I’m aware of. When you get with Pete, he can be pretty expansive. He would never withhold information.
A lot of the book revolves around Pete’s life off the field, but also on what he did on the field. Was that an important part for you, reminding people about Pete Rose the player?
He was such a special and singular player. Not just for what he achieved, which was tremendous, obviously, but the way he played. I already had that feeling of reverence toward that, but in speaking to other players, hearing the degree to which they honored that, it was very important. Let’s remember that Pete loves to gamble, he loves money, he has people in his life who are important to him, but number one in Pete’s life is baseball. That is the love of his life. To tell the story of this man’s life, a lot of it takes place around what he did on the field. And that’s how he would tell his own story.
You also write a lot about Pete and his relationship to Cincinnati, how he’s still such a revered and at the same time infamous figure here. I’m curious if that is specific only to Cincy.
Pete is a big deal everywhere. My feeling in Cincinnati was that most people loved him, some people felt disappointed or betrayed by him, but pretty much everybody acknowledges and feels like he is “one of us.” And if they feel betrayed it’s because he’s their crazy uncle who betrayed them. But he’s one of the very few players who stood out from the game a little bit. People know him who aren’t baseball fans. He’s a huge, larger-than-life figure outside of Cincinnati. I really think Pete is an original American. If there’s a character that he’s like, it’s a character in fiction. There is not an American life that I think is parallel to his.
There are so many great anecdotes peppered throughout the book: the bet between Pete and Tony Perez on who would be the first to “christen” the new locker room toilets at Riverfront Stadium; Pete being late to his own wedding reception so he could attend the Cincinnati baseball writers’ awards ceremony. Do you have a favorite?
There were a lot of great ones. There was the one when he was in Philadelphia. This guy was heckling him in the crowd down the third base line, and before Pete goes up to bat he turns to the dugout and says, “Watch this.” And he hits a foul ball right at the guy. And then he did it again a couple of pitches later!
When Pete was banned from the game in 1989, you wrote about how his decision to sign the statement banning him from baseball was such a bad one—
Biggest mistake of his life.
So why did he do it? Why deny all of the accusations, but then sign the statement, and then continue denying the crime for all those years?
I really think he just thought, I’m Pete Rose. I’m bigger than the game. You can’t touch me. Too big to be brought down. The other thing I believe—and it was an epiphany for me—[was] that Harry [Rose, Pete’s father] would not have been proud of what happened. I think there is a part of Pete that felt he needed to be punished for what he had done.
You included a quote in the book from Reggie Jackson, about him wanting to see Pete get in the Hall of Fame. He said, “Pete Rose diving into second base is more important than Pete Rose the man.”
Isn’t that a great quote? There’s Pete Rose the guy, and then there is the idea of Pete Rose. Him diving into second base and him being the persona that he is, it does have value.
Isn’t that quote kind of the case for Pete being in the Hall of Fame, because of how important he was to the game?
To some people, yeah. I totally understand that point. The message in that sense—what he meant to baseball—is larger than Pete himself.
Late in the book, you compare and contrast the sins of Pete Rose against the game’s steroid users. Was that the “American dilemma” you refer to?
The dilemma of what to think of him when measuring the man works on different levels. What do we make of Pete now? Is there a hierarchy of sins? Baseball had no choice but to ban Pete Rose, that was no dilemma. If you’re a caretaker of baseball, gambling has to be the most serious crime. But if I’m a fan, sitting in my seat? I love baseball. Pete’s sin against me—I have a hard time finding it. I know it could have been there but it didn’t show itself. Whereas what the steroid users did, that did show itself, and it changed the record book and impacted pennant races and all that.
Is that comparison—what Pete did versus, say, what Barry Bonds did—something you were pondering when you started the book?
It bothers me that Pete was taken off the Hall of Fame ballot the way that he was. I don’t spend a lot of time on it, but I make that point in strong terms that it was unfair. Whatever happened to Pete, the person to blame for it is Pete. But taking him off the ballot was sort of this flouting of democracy in a way. So now there are these players [steroid users] who are getting a chance to be on the ballot, and Pete wasn’t. I understand both sides, but Pete should have been on the ballot. It’s a crime that he wasn’t. But even if he had been, there’s no guarantee that he would have gotten in.
Where do you come down on that?
I don’t really have an opinion on whether he should or should not be in the Hall of Fame. I’m leaving that for other people to decide.
So much of Pete’s current identity is built around the idea that he’s not in the Hall. Is there any part of him that actually worries what might happen if he got in?
I think he’s at the point where he’s monetized not being in the Hall of Fame pretty well. But I don’t think Pete gets up every day and says, “How am I going to get in the Hall of Fame?” I think he says, “How can I get as much cash as possible?”
What do you hope is the main takeaway from your book?
That’s a hard one to put on the head of a pin. Just that people would feel this was truly an original American life, and an original American story. There is nothing like it.
Illustration by Jesse Lenz
Originally published in the June 2014 issue.