Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 17, 2015

Pete Rose Strikes Out

Next August, as the longest season rounds the turn of high summer and heads into its home stretch, a full three decades will have passed since Pete Rose last stood in a batter’s box as a major league player. It has been more than a quarter-century since his stint as manager of the Cincinnati Reds came to an abrupt end in 1989. Yet as the vociferous response to this week’s decision by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to deny Rose’s bid to have his lifetime ban for gambling on the Great Game lifted makes clear, Charlie Hustle remains in equal parts one of baseball’s most famous and infamous stars. In both traditional media and across a host of online outlets sportswriters and fans lined up in roughly equal numbers to either decry or applaud Manfred’s decision and in so doing defend or attack Rose. As is often the case with an issue about which fans feel strongly, the commentary generated far more heat than light.

The facts of Rose’s case are well known. Through a twenty-four year playing career with three different National League teams, but principally the Reds, he was one of the greatest pure hitters ever to pick up a bat. Decades after his retirement Rose still holds the major league records for career hits, singles, at-bats, plate appearances and games played. He was a 17-time All Star who won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1963 and NL MVP honors a decade later. He won three batting titles and a pair of Gold Gloves while spending significant time at no less than five different defensive positions. Rose was an intense and fierce competitor who seriously injured Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse when he barreled into home plate to score the winning run at the meaningless exhibition that was the 1970 All-Star Game.

After all that Rose achieved as a player, including being a member of three championship teams and running a hitting streak to 44 games in 1978, in 1989 he faced persistent reports that while managing Cincinnati he had been betting on baseball. In February of that year Rose met with outgoing MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and his chosen successor, Bart Giamatti. Rose denied the allegations and the issue briefly appeared closed. But upon taking office Giamatti retained attorney John Dowd to investigate the claims against Rose and in early April a Sports Illustrated cover story provided the first public details of Rose’s gambling activities.

On August 24, 1989, three years and one week after his last at-bat and while still serving as Cincinnati’s manager, Rose voluntarily accepted a lifetime ban from the game. In exchange no formal finding on the gambling allegations was issued. While Rose continued to vociferously deny that he had ever bet on baseball, his acceptance of the deal spoke volumes. The Great Game’s Rule 21(d) stipulates that “Any player, umpire, or club, or league official, or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.”

In 1992 and again in 1998 Rose applied for reinstatement, but Commissioners Fay Vincent and Bud Selig in turn never acted on either application. A decade ago, Rose finally admitted to having bet on baseball in his autobiography, but he continued to insist that he bet only while managing the Reds and never against his team. Within the past few years records surfaced showing Rose bet during his playing days, and the rule makes no distinction as to the nature of the gambling.

Two years after his placement on the permanently ineligible list, the Baseball Hall of Fame board of directors adopted a policy prohibiting anyone on that list from appearing on a Hall of Fame ballot. Thus the name of the Great Game’s career hits leader never appeared on a ballot during his fifteen years of eligibility.

In denying the reinstatement request Manfred wrote “Mr. Rose has not presented credible evidence of a reconfigured life either by an honest acceptance by him of his wrongdoing, so clearly established by the Dowd Report, or by a rigorous, self-aware and sustained program of avoidance by him of all the circumstances that led to his permanent ineligibility in 1989.” Rose’s years of denials and his admission to Manfred that he continues to bet on baseball surely did the hits king no favors. But Manfred also made clear that Rose’s absence from the Hall of Fame was a product of that organization’s decision and was technically unrelated to the lifetime ban.

Rule 21(d) is a fundamental tenet of baseball, one that so goes to the very core of the game’s integrity that to this day it is posted in every clubhouse and hammered home every spring training. A sport that was nearly undone in its youth by the Black Sox scandal will likely always be unyielding when it comes to enforcement of this cardinal rule. Though given that fact, MLB itself might want to reexamine its decision to aggressively partner with the fantasy sports contest provider DraftKings. But whether baseball executives have the good sense to do that or not, it remains certain that Rule 21(d) guarantees but one possible outcome for any individual who gambles on the game as Rose did and does.

Yet as Manfred pointed out, the Hall of Fame is another matter. That organization’s board could rescind its 1991 policy tomorrow if it chose to do so. And that really seems to be the crux of the matter for many of the Rose defenders. How can the Hall be the Hall, they ask, if the most prolific hitter in history doesn’t have a plaque? They point most frequently to Ty Cobb as proof that not everyone in Cooperstown is a saint.

In making that argument Rose’s supporters ignore both context and reality. It is likely that if Cobb were on the ballot today, for all his greatness some voters might pause before checking off his name. But it’s the tragic context of the time Cobb was elected that many of those casting ballots likely shared his racist views.

The reality is that the Hall of Fame directs its voters to consider not just accomplishments on the field but also a player’s “character.” That clause has been front and center recently, as the stars of the Steroids Era have moved onto the ballot. Their experience is instructive. Baseball’s single-season and career home run leader is on the ballot, as is the only pitcher to win seven Cy Young Awards; accomplishments that should have made Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens certain first ballot inductees. But both are widely assumed to have cheated with PEDS, and both have so far won barely half the votes needed to gain admission to the Hall.

Cooperstown as a museum seeks to display the full history of baseball. To that end it should from time to time include exhibits on the Great Game’s less inspiring periods, like the ugly crime of segregation or the sad tale of the 1919 World Series and baseball’s subsequent abhorrence of gambling, or the collective guilt we all share in looking the other way while steroids skewed results. But as a Hall of Fame it has its own very specific criteria and an electorate that applies those guidelines as each individual voter sees fit. Pete Rose’s advocates assume that if his ban were lifted he would immediately be voted into the Hall. Based on recent results, one can only conclude that they haven’t been paying attention.


  1. I doubt, whether or not The HOF ever changes its rules, that Pete Rose will ever be inducted into The Hall, nor should he. As you point out, as a museum, an exhibition about the history of gambling in baseball (starring Pete Rose and the 1919 Black Sox) would be appropriate. Rewarding Rose with a plaque all his own would not be.
    Excellent analysis.

    • Thanks Bill. Obviously I share your opinion, though I continue to marvel at the number of people, including many sportswriters, who believe Rose should have a plaque. Hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas.

      Thanks again,


      Michael Cornelius


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