|Cover of Hustle, by Michael Sokolove, updated 2005 edition.|
|Pete Rose, after breaking Ty Cobb's all-time hit record. Padres first baseman Steve Garvey is behind him.|
|Pete Rose during his brief tenure as a Montreal Expo, 1984. Seeing him in an Expos uniform is just weird.|
Pete Rose is a jerk who bet on baseball. That’s the conclusion I’m left with at the end of Michael Sokolove’s excellent 1990 book Hustle: The Myth, Life, and Lies of Pete Rose. Although Sokolove’s book is nearly twenty five years old, and appeared just a year after Rose was handed down a lifetime ban from baseball, it’s still an impressive piece of journalism. Sokolove did his homework, as he interviewed 112 people in the course of writing Hustle, and the book thoroughly covers Rose’s life and career. Hustle was reissued in 2005 with a new introduction, which covers Rose’s 2004 admission that he did bet on baseball. Sokolove writes of Rose’s behavior in 2004, “In the broadcast interviews he gave to promote the book, he could barely bring himself to express what sounded like true remorse. Sometimes he complained that he just wasn’t very good at saying he was sorry-a trait common in people who actually aren’t sorry.” (p.7)
I recently read Kostya Kennedy’s excellent 2014 book on Rose, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, and while Kennedy’s book takes Rose’s story up to date, Sokolove’s Hustle is a more in-depth look at Rose’s gambling on baseball. Hustle is essential reading for any baseball fan.
Sokolove is tough on Rose, but the book is by no means a hatchet job. With that being said, I don’t know how anyone could read Hustle and still be on Rose’s side. Looking back, it’s rather ridiculous that Rose kept denying he bet on baseball until finally admitting it in 2004.
One of the best chapters in Hustle is “Playing the Press,” which details how Rose was able to keep sportswriters writing positive stories about him until the gambling scandal broke in 1989. Rose’s friendliness with sportswriters might have been a reason why sportswriters never wrote about Rose’s gambling problem until after the scandal began to break. Sportswriters loved Pete Rose, and even a baseball writer as smart as Bill James was an apologist for Pete Rose. In his 2001 book The New Bill James Historical Abstract, James spends six pages attacking the Dowd Report and casting doubt on the evidence that Rose bet on baseball. Of course, read today, it makes James sound foolish. It also makes it clear that James didn’t read Hustle.
Sokolove also details that major league baseball knew that Rose had a gambling problem long before 1989. Baseball had been investigating Rose since the early 1970’s, and while their investigation didn’t show that Rose was betting on baseball, it was clear that he was a big racetrack gambler. As Sokolove writes, “Before Rose was even halfway to Cobb’s hit record, the office of baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn had identified him as a problem gambler-and a probable violator of the game’s rules against gambling ‘associations.’” (p.199) For whatever reason, major league baseball didn’t want to touch Pete Rose, perhaps because of his standing as one of the most popular players in the game. However, Bowie Kuhn, commissioner of baseball from 1969-1984, was very tough on star players connected to gambling, as he handed down a three month suspension to pitcher Denny McLain in 1970 for associating with gamblers. Kuhn also handed out lifetime bans to living legends Willie Mays in 1980 and Mickey Mantle in 1983 for merely being greeters at casinos. Mantle and Mays were both reinstated by new commissioner Peter Ueberroth in 1985, perhaps the most popular decision any commissioner has ever made. So why wasn’t Kuhn tougher on Rose? If baseball was willing to act against Denny McLain, who was coming off of back to back Cy Young Awards, why didn’t baseball act against Pete Rose? There’s no easy answer to that question.
Throughout Hustle, Sokolove details the many ways in which Pete Rose didn’t expect the rules of life to apply to him. Rose lived a selfish life, with little regard for what the consequences might be. When those consequences never came, Rose was further emboldened in his bad behavior. One of the most shocking revelations of Hustle was the fact that Rose would never fully repay his gambling debts. When he began losing too much, he merely moved on to another bookie. Rose was lucky he never ended up with a broken hand from an irate bookie. Sokolove writes about Rose: “Rose continues to rail against the Dowd Report and major league baseball’s treatment of him because he truly believes he was treated unfairly. He wasn’t. He was treated, for the first time, like an adult, which was so unfamiliar to him that he mistook it for unfairness.” (p.291)
Sokolove also understands the contradiction of Pete Rose, and other athletes: that a man can be a great baseball player and at the same time be a terrible human being. Rose went to jail in 1990 for income tax evasion, and Sokolove writes in the afterword of the book, “What Pete Rose leaves to the game he loved, his legacy, is not romance but a disquieting reality: A man can belong both in the Hall of Fame and in federal prison.” (p.292)
I used to be more ambivalent about Pete Rose. I was 8 years old when he was banned from baseball. I knew that he was a great player, but I didn’t really have an opinion on whether or not he bet on baseball. As I got older, I assumed he probably had because why else would he have accepted the lifetime ban? When I was in college, around 1999 or 2000, I remember reading an article on Sports Illustrated’s website about the Dowd Report, and wanting the evidence that Rose had bet on baseball to be more compelling. Then when Rose finally admitted in 2004 that he did bet on baseball, I was disappointed in him for lying for so long. I remember watching Rose on “The Tonight Show” in 2004 and thinking to myself, “He just doesn’t understand that he did anything wrong, he doesn’t get it.” I softened a little on Rose when I watched his stupid reality show, “Hits and Mrs.” in 2013. But reading Hustle has made up my mind firmly on Pete Rose: he doesn’t deserve to be reinstated and let back into baseball. If and when Pete Rose ever truly changes his ways, maybe he can get back into baseball. But until then, he will remain on the outside looking in.