FOR PETE’S SAKE
Now that the Cincinnati Reds have admitted Pete Rose to their Hall of Fame, it’s time to say something about a once tabu subject.
Pete Rose is not a criminal. He’s a victim.
For 30 years baseball has criminalized him, ostracized him, punished him, and castigated him. It has done everything but answer his unspoken cry to help him.
Yes, what he did was sleazy, sordid, repulsive, wrong, immoral, and dangerous to the game.
But as John Bunyon said, watching a condemned man being driven to the gallows: “There, but for the grace of God go I.”
Thank God I have never been seized by the hell that seized Pete for 30 years or more. It’s called ludomania, a word that may not even have existed in 1985, when Rose’s gambling first came to light. But it’s now diagnosed and recognized as a medical and psychological condition as real as Josh Hamilton’s drug addiction or Mickey Mantle’s alcoholism.
Up to 15 million Americans may suffer from ludomania. You can visit any casino and find them hypnotically pulling the handles of the slot machines hour after hour. That’s as many as suffer from depression, which kills as many people as cancer. By contrast, there are only 1.6 million cocaine addicts, another killer.
We could include Bill Cosby’s sex addiction, which afflicts almost every good-looking, broad-shouldered – and wealthy – athlete, rock star, movie star, and politician.
Historian Gabriel Schechter disagrees passionately with my conclusions about Rose and Cooperstown. But he penned the most searing, eloquent, and touching discussion of the problem I’ve ever read:
I’ve heard (read) that Rose piled up six-figure gambling debts by the mid-70s and that it was the reason the Reds were willing to let him hit the road when he filed for free agency in 1978.
Rose didn’t recognize that his gambling was a sickness. But it is a sickness, whose psychological origins are the same as those which fuel alcoholism and drug addiction. I lived a long time in Las Vegas and saw many people who were afflicted by all three. Gambling was the most difficult for them to overcome. Giving up drugs came first and was the easiest – and you can save all that drug money and use it for gambling. The drinking cure went smoothly, too. Gambling was the toughest to give up. I worked with one guy who went through it – three times. As far as I know, Pete Rose has never considered “taking the cure” for gambling, because he still doesn’t think he has a problem. Instead, he took the addict’s instinctive course – denial, lying, and avoidance.
There’s a big difference between Rose and Barry Bonds and other PED users. They make a calculated decision to take, and continue to take, steroids. But an addict faces a super-human demon. Ask any smoker who has tried to quit.
Another huge factor:
Pete’s sin was off the field. He has never been accused of altering the outcome of a game. And every one of his 4,000-plus hits was fairly earned. By contrast, perhaps 200 of Bonds’ homers were not genuine, and he deliberately altered the outcome of more than 100 games, including the World Series.
I don’t know what baseball has done to help Hamilton or former pitcher Steve Howe with their drug addictions. I don’t think it did anything to help Mantle, old-time Hall of Fame pitcher Pete Alexander, and the game’s countless other alcoholics in the last century or more.
Even the players’ union never raised a finger to help its members – Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin – and others.
And as far as I know, baseball has never done anything to help Rose conquer his demons.
Commissioner Bart Giamatti, a lifetime chain-smoker, who banished Pete, probably didn’t know that gambling is a disease. Baseball did nothing. The Reds did nothing. The National League (under Giamatti) had done nothing. The press did nothing. Giamatti washed baseball’s hands and his own and blamed the whole problem on Rose.
If Schechter is right, and the Reds also kept their mouths shut and simply shipped the problem to the Phils – then they are guilty of a crime against baseball, greater than any wrong-doing by Rose. If anyone should be barred from baseball for life, it would be the Reds.
MLB also did nothing to prevent future Roses. Is banishment from Cooperstown a deterrent? Only if a player has a hope of being elected. What about the other 99%?
Take a life-time .215-hitter, age 33, in the final year of his contract, making $2 million a year. He is told he can make $2 million more if he “just misses” a hot ground ball in a certain situation in October. Is he going to recoil in horror and exclaim, “What?! And lose my dream of going to Cooperstown?!”
Yet baseball has no other deterrent in its arsenal.
Manfred, like his predecessors, says he is opposed to admitting Rose to Cooperstown. But he has almost no say in the matter. Major League Baseball has no power to ban anyone. Only the Hall of Fame board of directors has that power, and Manfred has only one vote among 15.
The Singer sewing machine heirs may own the brick building, which is the Hall of Fame. But do they own the abstract concept of the Hall as baseball’s Camelot? One might argue that that belongs to the fans.
Anyway, there has been an almost complete turn-over in the membership of the board. Back in the ’70s, when I was arm-wrestling with the Hall over admitting Negro league stars, the board was made up primarily of prominent citizens of the village. They literally shouldered me and three black players aside.
Today 14 of the 15 members are new. There are no local citizens. In fact, 11 of its 15 members are baseball people:
7 baseball executives, including Manfred.
4 others: chairman Jane Forbes Clark, whose family founded and funds the Hall; her attorney, a U.S. Olympic official, and a Hollywood mogul.
I urge that they appoint a panel of medical experts on ludomania. Their report should be followed by a public discussion – calm, thoughtful, based on the new information.
How difficult is it to kick a habit? If I were the lawyer for Rose 30 years ago, and it had been a court of law, I would have called as my first witness A. Bartlett Giamatti:
Dr Giamatti, are you familiar with the addiction of nicotine dependence?
Do you smoke?
How long have you been smoking?
How many packs a day do you smoke?
Are you aware that smoking causes lung cancer and heart attacks that can be fatal?
Are you aware that second-hand smoke can harm your wife, your children, and your colleagues at work?
Has a doctor ever advised you to quit smoking?
Have you ever tried to quit?
But still you continue to smoke?
Two days later:
Your honor, I’d like to recall Dr Giamatti to the stand.
I’m sorry, he is not available.
Oh? Why is that?
He died yesterday of a heart attack at 51.
Note: letters may be edited for length, but I hope not for content.
Josh vs Babe
Good article once again.
My only issue with reviewing old days and comparing the players, black or white, is there are many shades of differences from parks, to pitching, to bench strength, to travel methods, to hotels, to how much did Ruth party last night, etc. etc. Don’t get me wrong, I like your articles. They are interesting food for thought, but it’s like comparing Chevys and Fords: Who knows which was best in those days? Keep up the good work. You inspire me to get interested in the history of the game. John Bushman
Thanks, John, eloquently put. I call it the Theory of Baseball Relativity. If Rogers Hornsby could be magically reincarnated in 2016, he would not bat .424. He might not even make a major league team. And if did, he’d probably be the smallest man on it. In the 1920s, .400 hitters came along every other year. But it’s been 75 years since the last one. That’s the subject for another post – or a book.
That doesn’t mean that today’s batters are inferior. Quite the opposite. Players are 30-40 pounds and six inches bigger. They are much better coached. And the population base is much greater – expansion hasn’t caught up. Hitters used to face Walter Johnson once a series, four times a year. Now they face someone like him three times every game! Your great grand kids will watch players even bigger and better than today’s, including Chinese, Russians, and Africans. And everyone will weigh 300 pounds and stand seven feet tall. They’ll have to move the fences back 100 feet.
To sum up: The 1920s statistics were what they were, and Negro league statistics were what they were. Enjoy them all.
(Warning: I may do a post on Sadaharu Oh some day.)
Good stuff John; especially the Red Sox pennant drive [The Broken Bat]. You do have a few typos and editing to correct. Larry Backus.
Read a Great Book
The improbable story of Charles “Victory” Faust, a real-life Forrest Gump who wished himself on the 1911 New York Giants. Though he had no baseball talent, he became the Giants’ mascot and nearly infallible good-luck charm. He did lead the Giants to the pennant, and got himself in the record books with two games pitched. Schechter’s account of Faust’s adventures is both hilarious and poignant.
Price $25, signed, postage paid. Available at charlesapril.com.
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