BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
February 2, 2021
ORLANDO, FL – The Baseball Writers Association of America threw the first shutout of the year – two months before Major League Baseball’s regular season was even scheduled to begin.
In late January, the writers entrusted with electing members to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, decided that none of the 25 players on this year’s ballot were worthy of enshrinement. Not Barry Bonds, the greatest homerun hitter in MLB history; nor Roger Clemens, the winner of more Cy Young awards than any other pitcher; nor Curt Schilling, considered by many as one of the best clutch, postseason pitchers ever. None of this year’s class of players met the requirement of being named on at least 75 percent of the approximately 400 writers’ ballots.
It is the first time since 2013, only the third time in the last one-half century and just the ninth time ever, that no player was voted in to the Hall.
Let the debate – and there will be much discussion – begin on the merits of that voting. But, there was one name that wasn’t even on the ballot that a number of people feel belongs in Cooperstown: Pete Rose.
There’s no denying his credentials. He is MLB’s all-time leader in hits with 4,256. He led the league in hits seven times, 10 times collected at least 200 hits in a season, made an All-Star team 17 times, was an All-Star at five positions (first base, second base, third base, and left and right field), won one Most Valuable Player award, won three batting titles, and played on three World Championship and six National League pennant-winning teams.
Fourteen times in a 15-season stretch from 1965-1979, Rose batted .300; and he finished with a .303 career batting average. The man could flat-out hit.
To be fair to the writers, Rose has been out of baseball for so long (he retired as a player in 1986), his election would be determined by one of the Hall’s veterans’ committees, and not the writers. As with the writers’ voting, Rose would need named to be on at least 75 percent of the veterans’ ballots.
Yet, as it stands now, there is about as much chance of Rose being elected into the Hall of Fame as there is a QAnon rally endorsing Joe Biden as President of the United States.
‘Hit King’ Rides the Bench
Whether Pete Rose should be enshrined in baseball’s Hall is a question that arises every winter around this time as writers vote for that year’s class. Yet, baseball’s “Hit King” seems doomed to ride the bench.
Why is arguably the greatest hitter in history not in the Hall? Because, Rose is on MLB’s “permanently ineligible” list for gambling on baseball.
In 1989, an independent investigation by attorney John Dowd discovered that while Rose was manager of the Cincinnati Reds, he bet on a number of baseball games – including ones played by the Reds – over a three-year period from 1985 through 1987. On Aug. 24, 1989, Rose accepted an indefinite suspension from baseball.
Rose likely agreed to the deal thinking, “OK, I’ll be suspended for a couple years, then apply for reinstatement, and get my name on the Hall ballot.” But, what he didn’t – and couldn’t – know was that two years later, the Hall of Fame would pass a rule that excludes any player on baseball’s ineligible list from being on a Hall ballot. In effect, Rose was, and continues to be, persona non grata in baseball. His name has never appeared on a Hall ballot.
Three times over the years – the latest being February 2020 – Rose and his attorneys have petitioned for reinstatement. All three times either the baseball commissioner or the Hall of Fame’s officials flatly rejected that request.
To be clear, Rose is not looking to be reinstated so he can again play or work in baseball. At age 78, he just wants to be taken off the ineligible list so he can be considered for induction into the Hall.
Most experts doubt he ever will. Baseball does not seem inclined to lift Rose’s indefinite suspension, and the Hall almost certainly will not go against the league and change its rule banning suspended players.
Breach of a Sacred Rule
Baseball turned against Rose because he knowingly and willingly violated the game’s most sacred rule – No. 21. In part, it states, “Any player, umpire, 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.”
That’s pretty straightforward. Plus, it’s posted in two languages in clubhouses around the league, and has been for a century.
In the eyes of many, Rose violated the integrity of the game by placing bets while he was a manager. They also argue that even though Rose claims he always bet on the Reds to win, he could influence the outcome of games on which he wagered with, say, more aggressive use of his bullpen, or by resting his regulars in games on which he had no bet.
Rose’s detractors believe the indefinite suspension is just because he knew the rule and was aware of the consequences, and therefore should pay the price. As the old saying goes, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.
For his part, Rose hasn’t exactly helped his cause with his actions over the years. Maybe he could have helped himself if he had not lied about his gambling, had admitted his mistake from the start, had shown some genuine remorse, and asked for forgiveness.
But, humility and contrition are not Rose’s style. For years he denied any wrongdoing. He did not admit to gambling until 2014 when he published My Prison Without Bars – an autobiography that addressed, among other topics, his betting and his five-month prison sentence for filing false income tax returns -- and even then he rationalized it by claiming he always bet on the Reds to win. Plus, for years Rose thumbed his nose at baseball by setting up shop and selling autographed memorabilia just blocks from the Hall in Cooperstown during its annual induction ceremonies.
Such actions surely did not endear himself to members of the exclusive club he so desperately wants to join. So, why should baseball reinstate Rose and make him eligible for voting? Because failure do to so would make the league seem hypocritical. For MLB appears now to be embracing the very activity that has kept Rose on the outside, his face pressed against the windows of the Hall of Fame.
Gambling and Baseball
Ever since the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when eight White Sox players conspired to fix that year’s World Series with the Cincinnati Reds, baseball has railed against gambling with all the fervor of a fire-and-brimstone preacher talking about the dangers of sin. For decades, MLB looked upon gambling as an evil that could destroy the game.
Now that very same sin is being seen as part of the solution to help MLB recoup the estimated $3 billion that it claims it lost during the coronavirus pandemic-truncated 2020 season.
So what happened to turn betting on baseball from sin to salvation? MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred cited a “huge change” in public opinion in recent years regarding sports gambling. But, in reality, it primarily comes down to money.
For years, baseball has had advertising and partnership and sponsorship agreements with sports books, and daily fantasy sports sites such as FanDuel and DraftKings, which are essentially gambling websites.
The baseball-gambling relationship escalated after a May 2018 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that found unconstitutional the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a federal law that prohibited states from authorizing sports betting. That finding by the Supreme Court gave states the power to authorize and regulate sports betting. (As of this writing, 26 states and the District of Columbia have approved sports betting. Another 18 have legislation pending.)
In the eyes of baseball, there’s a mother lode of gold “in them thar gambling hills”, and the league is determined to stake its claim and start mining in states with legal sports betting.
Eventually, Major League Baseball would like for fans across the country to be able to place bets in sports books and via cellphones from their seats at stadiums, or while watching games on TV at home.
MLB already is taking steps to make that happen. For instance, it’s been reported that the Chicago Cubs this year will become the first team to have a sports book at Wrigley Field, and that the Washington Nationals are close to a similar arrangement at its ballpark. In a copycat league such as MLB, other teams are sure to follow as more state legislatures approve sports gambling.
Fans being able to bet while watching games from home is considered the next big thing. Sinclair Broadcasting Group took a step in that direction in late 2020 when it announced plans where, in states with legal betting, fans can use an app to place wagers on games it televises over its 23 regional sports networks. (No date has been set on when that will happen.) Sinclair also announced that it is rebranding those sports networks under the name of the Bally, the casino company.
All of that potential action – from partnership/sponsorship agreements, advertising revenue, and royalties from monies bet on games -- is expected to bring north of $1 billion annually to MLB, according to a June 2018 study by the American Gaming Association.
Ten years ago, the idea of baseball being so involved with gambling would have been considered heresy. This just reminds us that baseball is, above all else, a business, and all revenue streams may be considered fair game.
Appeals to fans
Baseball also is betting that such action will help grow the game, appealing to a generation that has grown up on video games. It sees wagering as a means to draw in new and younger fans, a demographic that MLB very much wants to attract as the core of its fan base ages. (According to a survey by Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal, the average age of a fan that watches a MLB national telecast is 57 years old.) “We have to take advantage of every opportunity to drive engagement by the fans,” Manfred has said.
Baseball often has been criticized for its languid pace of play. Yet, those idle moments are perfect for placing in-game bets. Now, instead of betting just on which team wins, or if it covers the spread, fans will be able to wager, say, on whether a certain player gets a hit, whether a pitch will be a strike or ball, if the manager will pull his pitcher for a pinch-hitter, etc.
“There definitely are some positives to come from legalized sports betting, including engagement of our fans in more diverse ways and reaching out to people who might not otherwise be fans who are fans of betting,” Bryan Seeley, MLB’s deputy general counsel, told Lindsay Berra of Baseball America in a June, 2019 article. “Imagine a game that’s not competitive in the late innings but continues to attract people’s interest because they can engage with that game through sports betting.”
And, in case you’re wondering, commissioner Manfred has said that legalized gambling will not change Rose’s chances of election into the Hall. “There always will be a rule that prohibits betting on baseball…that’s the rule that Pete Rose violated,” Manfred told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
One reasonably might ask how MLB and the Hall can continue to keep Rose at arm’s length because he dropped some bets on baseball when he was manager of the Reds, while at the same time the league uses its other arm to rake in mounds of cash from gambling-related sources.
At best, it is bad optics for baseball. At worst, it smacks of a double standard.
That Double Standard
In their latest petition for reinstatement last February, Rose’s attorneys made that very argument: that Rose is being held to a double standard. They contend that his discipline has been far more severe than the punishment given to players who reportedly used steroids, and to the Houston Astros’ players involved in the electronic sign-stealing scandal during the 2017 World Series.
For instance, Rose’s legal team pointed out that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who reportedly have been linked to (and have vehemently denied) use of PED, have been on the Hall of Fame ballot for nine years. Meanwhile, Astros’ players involved in the sign stealing have gone unpunished. Yet, both of those actions, the attorneys argue, represent far more serious breaches of conduct than Rose’s gambling.
As reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today, that petition read in part, “In recent years, intentional and covert acts by current and past owners, managers, coaches, and players altered the outcomes of numerous games, including the World Series, and illegally enhanced both team and player performance.
“It has never been suggested, let alone established, that any of Mr. Rose’s actions influenced the outcome of any game or the performance of any player. Yet for the thirty-first year and counting, he continues to suffer a punishment vastly disproportionate to those who have done just that.”
Let Veterans Decide His Fate
Some people say Rose should not be reinstated because he broke the game’s most sacred rule by gambling, and that betting represents some type of moral failure.
But, the Hall of Fame is a museum of baseball, not a shrine to saints. Among the players enshrined are racists, gamblers, cheaters, womanizers, steroid users, and drunks. Not exactly all the perfect gods that baseball makes them out to be.
Baseball’s Hall should tell the story of the history of the game, its greatest moments, and the achievements of its greatest players. Rose certainly was among its greatest players.
Plus, it should tell the whole story. Should Rose, and players like Bonds and Clemens, get elected, put an asterisk and an explanation on their plaques.
Are you opposed to gambling in general? Don’t like that Rose bet on games, or his lying, or his smug attitude, or his lack of contrition? That’s fine. But, let members of one of the Hall’s veterans’ committees determine whether Rose should stand alongside baseball’s other greats at Cooperstown.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.