With the current baseball season at the halfway point, I’m reminded how fickle the game is. So much so that the man with more hits than any other in history is in the eyes of those who run the game still a pariah not worthy of being in the hall of fame.
Why? Because everyone interested in what some persist on calling the “national pastime,” despite football’s unchallenged dominance, understand that Pete Rose has committed an unpardonable sin. He bet on his sport, the mistake that overshadows every other indiscretion, including cheating through drug enhancement. It’s now believed he bet on games while a player as well as while a manager, although there seems to be no evidence that he bet on his own games in either case.
The fact that until now Rose lied through the years of banishment from the sport he so dominated only to confess later hasn’t helped his cause. Every time the man they still call “Charlie Hustle” has appealed his extended severance from baseball, the ugly specter of the 1919 World Series scandal rises from the ashes to hover menacingly over his efforts. It is as though gamblers like Arnold Rothstein were still lurking, waiting to fix the series. Never mind that it’s almost 100 years later and players now paid millions upon millions of dollars are pretty much immune from that temptation.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, but the probabilities are lower than the chances of a prospect who can’t hit the curve ever making it to the pros.
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The betting seems to be that Rose will remain on the sport’s morally disabled list even with a new commissioner. But that’s beside the point when it comes to honoring him officially as the best hitter so far to ever play the game. His record of 4,256 hits surpassed Ty Cobb’s 4,189. Cobb had held the record for generations.
Cobb is mentioned here because he was the most vicious, morally corrupt star in baseball or any other sport in the early part of the 20th century. He was virulently racist and utterly despised by his colleagues, opponents and half the players, owners and managers in the game. Even members of his own family disliked him.
Having said all that, he still was the first man voted into the sport’s Valhalla, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Whether he ever gambled on baseball is not known. But a good guess would be that betting on the sport by players, managers and owners was common place in the days before and after 1919.
The point here is that Rose deserves to be honored for his enormous abilities on the diamond. Certainly Cobb was. Hitting, base running and fielding should be all that matters in the hall of fame, which measures not a guy’s niceness but his statistics.
Besides, those who rule Major League Baseball continuously looked the other way when it came to chemical cheating.
Should the home run kings of the ‘90s and early 2000s be admitted to the hall? Of course they shouldn’t and hopefully won’t be. Their performances were bolstered by artificial, illegal drugs. Whatever records that chicanery produced should be stricken from the books.
Rose, on the other hand, relied on natural ability. The syringe as a means to fame came years after he had left the game. He was a pure player with a competitive attitude and skill like few others. He clearly belongs in the Cooperstown palace that honors and treasures its best. It would be easy to portray this street kid as an unrepentant utterly undeserving roughneck hooligan. But one could say that about half of those already installed in the hall.
Bart Giamatti, the former Yale president and then baseball commissioner, banned Rose from the sport in 1989 and then died a few days later of a heart attack. Whether the stress of it contributed to Giamatti’s early demise is sheer speculation. Roses’ lies obviously fueled his decision. Would Giamatti have been more compassionate had Rose told the truth? Who knows.
But isn’t 26 years of solitary confinement enough punishment? Isn’t it time for baseball to purge the ghost of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and consider at least opening the door at Cooperstown to Rose based on his playing record?
Contact Dan Thomasson, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers, at email@example.com.