Do we really need another book about Pete Rose?
I’m not so sure. Anyone who watched him play baseball already knows he was a marvel of hustle and intensity—a joy to study in action. Anyone who consults his records recognizes instantly that if play on the field were the only criterion, baseball’s all-time leader in hits would belong in the Hall of Fame. Anyone who knows anything about his personality understands that he was his own worst enemy: an impulsive gambler, a compulsive womanizer, a self-aggrandizing liar and meat-headed man of the people, devoid of prejudice and snobbery, but boisterous with sixth-grade witticisms about body parts and bodily functions.
Kostya Kennedy brings the story of this character up to date, and wraps it in a glossy package of highfalutin writing and literary artifice. We get plenty of jerking the reader back and forth in time, probably because a straight narrative would seem boring. We get some injections of historical context, particularly about Rose’s hometown of Cincinnati and race relations in the 1960s, when he was becoming a star. We get friends and relatives in abundance, because Rose himself either charges too much to talk or doesn’t have much to say that is interesting or trustworthy. We get painstaking descriptions of the places Rose signs his autograph for big bucks, and a protracted dissertation on the origin of the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog. We get splashes of clever writing: “He bounded into the big leagues like a golf ball on hot concrete,” for example. The dialogue between two of Rose’s thuggish acquaintances is described as “a dash of salted Runyon, a heap of Paulie Walnuts.”
But at the heart of this latest treatment is the nearly unbelievable hollowness of its central character, a man so swinish and self-centered that he almost seems inscrutable. Trudging down these familiar hallways, no matter how dazzlingly they are decorated, feels like a dreary journey, because we know exactly where they lead: to Rose’s callous and despicable betrayal of the game he loved passionately and did so much to serve as a player. His gambling on his own team’s games as a manager of the Cincinnati Reds is the primal crime against baseball, and his lying about it for years before fessing up in a transparent bid to win a place in the Hall of Fame makes him seem even worse. How many times must we revisit this American dilemma?
To be sure, Kennedy brings the man to life, bouncing us in and out of Rose’s career. As an 18-year-old at Boston College, I managed to see all four games of the classic 1975 World Series played at Fenway Park—albeit from the last row on the third-base side, deep under the roof—and the baseball played on those hallowed grounds (especially by Rose) was so compelling that I was able to forgive the Red Sox their heartbreaking loss. “This is the greatest game I ever played in,” Rose told Carl Yastrzemski, arriving at first base during Game Six. “You’d want the World Series to go on for 30 games if it could,” he later added, even after Carlton Fisk launched his legendary shot, waving his home run fair in the 12th inning, and the Reds lost. But as Kennedy deftly explains, it was Pete Rose who turned it around in Game Seven, breaking up a double play when the Red Sox were leading 3-0, thus shifting the momentum and leading to a Reds triumph.
With his eye for detail, Kennedy also introduces some classic Pete Rose moments from his post-baseball career: So greedy is he for cash that he is willing to autograph copies of Major League Baseball’s official report on his gambling—something that, I admit, made me laugh and feel a kind of fondness for the fallen hero. For his part, Kennedy remains agnostic about the central question of whether Rose deserves forgiveness and a place in the Hall of Fame.
After steroids-stuffed players have ruined the record books that made baseball so special, it is tempting to think that Pete Rose wasn’t so bad. Kennedy does fume about a rule change that kept those barred from baseball (namely Rose) out of the Hall of Fame, calling it an assault on the “democratic process” and “a direct rebuff to the spirit and intentions of the Hall of Fame’s founders.” Maybe. But gambling in baseball was understood to be a fearfully malignant cancer long before the Hall of Fame came into existence, even before the Chicago “Black Sox” threw the 1919 World Series. We don’t know if Pete Rose changed his managerial decisions because of the bets he had placed on games, but if baseball should draw a bright line on anything, it is gambling.
In my view, there is much to be said for the approach that National League president William Hulbert took after the Louisville Grays threw the 1877 pennant. When Louisville’s star pitcher, Jim Devlin, showed up at Hulbert’s office in threadbare clothes, pleading poverty and tearfully begging to be reinstated, Hulbert slipped him $50. “That’s what I think of you, personally,” Hulbert said. “But damn you, Devlin, you are dishonest; you have sold a game, and I can’t trust you. Now go; and let me never see your face again; for your act will not be condoned so long as I live.”
Baseball still requires that kind of tough love.
Edward Achorn, editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of The Summer of Beer and Whiskey and Fifty-nine in ’84.