So how might we think about former baseball player Pete Rose, now that he has put out a new autobiography in which he admits having bet on baseball when he was manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1987 and 1988?
Having made this admission, after denying he gambled on baseball for years, should he be reinstated into the sport so he can be eligible to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown?
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig reportedly told Rose that if he came clean about gambling, the decision to ban him from baseball might be reconsidered. The issues are complex and emotional.
The first thing to remember is that Major League Baseball is a private organization that grants franchises to participate in the national pastime. As a private organization, it has the right to make its own rules, even though others might consider the rules unreasonable. Since baseball would be nothing without fan support, it has to take fans’ opinions into consideration, but it doesn’t have to be ruled by them. For various reasons, organized baseball has always viewed change with suspicion and cherished its traditions.
The rule against players, managers, coaches or anyone connected with the game betting on baseball has been in place forever and is posted in every clubhouse. It is vital to the integrity of the game. Organized baseball was almost ruined by the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919 when a group of Chicago players conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series for money.
Pete Rose as a player holds the record for most hits in a baseball career; nobody but the late Ty Cobb, whose record Rose broke in 1985, is even close. He hit .300 or better in 15 seasons and appeared in 17 All-Star games. He achieved all this with only modest natural ability, through desire, effort, heart and hustle.
On the basis of his career, he obviously deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. But in 1989 he agreed to a lifetime ban under the condition that he neither admit nor deny allegations of gambling — allegations detailed in an exhaustive report by attorney John Dowd, commissioned by then-baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti. Since he’s banned from baseball, he isn’t eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot, and under Hall of Fame rules his eligibility to be voted in will expire in two years.
Rose’s new book, then, looks like part of a calculated campaign to be reinstated. Trouble is, it involves admitting he lied repeatedly over the past 14 years and most likely isn’t telling the whole truth yet.
And his admission is hardly contrite:
“I’m sure that I’m supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I’ve accepted that I’ve done something wrong,” he (or his co-writer) writes. “But you see, I’m just not built that way.”
Rose still doesn’t seem to understand the harm he did to the game and wants to cast himself as a victim. He hasn’t stopped gambling. He might have burned so many bridges that even if made eligible he wouldn’t be voted into the Hall anyway. It’s hard to imagine he fulfills the “integrity” and “character” requirements of the criteria for entry.
But there’s that career as a player, also part of the criteria for entry. Some people still argue that a Baseball Hall of Fame — the archive of performance for the sport — that doesn’t include the all-time hits leader is a farce. And many players who were less than saints are enshrined in Cooperstown. Ty Cobb, for just one example, was a racist who repeatedly got into fights on and off the field and was widely despised. But he was a terrific player and one of the first five inducted into Cooperstown.
Is there a way to make Rose eligible for the Hall of Fame but continue to keep him out of active participation in the sport? That would mean changing rules or making an exception, something tradition-bound organized baseball doesn’t take lightly, or would likely do quickly.
In our minds, Rose has done nothing, said nothing, produced no new evidence to suggest he should be allowed to return to the playing field, the dugout or the management office. But should he be recognized for playing accomplishments that are real, demonstrated and tabulated? Baseball needs to give that some serious consideration.