Friday, September 18, 2009

A Baseball Quandary: Good Statistics, Bad Character, Broken Rules

There is perhaps no game as baseball that harmonizes so perfectly with statistical measurement. Virtually every aspect of the game is judged by a number or an equation: batting average (hits divided by at-bats), slugging percentage (total bases divided by at-bats), earned run average (earned runs multiplied by nine, divided by total innings pitched), strikeout-to-walk ratio, lefty-righty breakdowns, you name it, baseball probably has a stat for it. Statistics measure a player’s performance from week-to-week and year-to-year; they resolve salary arbitration disputes, help managers determine matchups and set lineups, and permit fans to debate the value of trades and compare players of different generations. When age and physical limitations finally betray a star player, his career statistics become his resume for future consideration at Cooperstown.

Thus, on September 11, 2009, when Derek Jeter slapped on opposite-field single into right field – marking his 2,722nd career hit and surpassing Lou Gehrig’s 70-year old record as the all-time Yankees hit leader – his future entry into the Hall of Fame was all but assured. That Jeter is a superb baseball player is not disputed, in large part because his statistics bear it out; a career .317 hitter, ten-time All-Star, three-time recipient of the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards, he is a genuine five-tool player, combining hitting, fielding, arm-strength, power, and speed. At 35, Jeter remains at the top of his game, approaching his sixth 200-hit season and leading the Yankees to what will likely be their 40th American League pennant. By all accounts, he also is a man of exemplary character and professionalism, an Ambassador of baseball, and a highly respected teammate. If Jeter retired today, he would deservingly be voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

It is of some irony, then, that Jeter’s record-breaking hit occurred exactly 24 years after Pete Rose surpassed Ty Cobb as baseball’s all-time career hit leader. Rose finished his career with 4,256 hits, the most ever in the history of major league baseball, and 1,500 hits more than Gehrig (and Jeter at present). In a career that spanned 24 years (1963 to 1986), Rose finished with more than 200 hits ten times (and 198 hits in two other seasons), the most of any player in history. He was a three-time National League batting champion, a 17-time All-Star selection, and over several seasons led the league in runs (1969, 1974, 1975, 1976), hits (1965, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1976, 1981), and doubles (1974, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980). Nicknamed “Charlie Hustle” because he always played hard – he sprinted to first base every time he was walked and broke up double plays as well as anyone who ever played the game – Rose also holds the all-time National League records for runs scored (2,165), doubles (746), and longest consecutive game hitting streak (44). He was no slouch defensively either, as he played five positions and twice won the Gold Glove (as an outfielder in 1969 and 1970). That Rose was one of baseball’s all-time greatest players is, statistically at least, difficult to refute. Unlike Derek Jeter, however, Pete Rose may never enter the Baseball Hall of Fame, not for lack of baseball merit, but for a lack of character, integrity, and contrition.

In 1988, the Director of Security for Major League Baseball received reports that Rose had placed bets on games played by the Cincinnati Reds while Rose played for and managed the team. If true, Rose would have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct prohibition, which originated in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when players from the Chicago White Sox disgraced the game by accepting bribes from big-time gamblers to fix the World Series. The rule is now codified as Major League Rule 21(d), and is posted prominently in every team clubhouse: “Any player . . . 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.” Betting on any other baseball game in which the bettor has no duty to perform results in one-year of ineligibility.

Rose denied under oath ever betting on professional baseball, but an investigation conducted in 1989 by John Dowd, a former mob prosecutor hired by the Office of Commissioner to investigate the gambling allegations, found otherwise. In his 225-page Report to the Commissioner (“The Dowd Report”), released on May 9, 1989, Dowd determined that “Pete Rose bet on baseball, and in particular, on games of the Cincinnati Reds Baseball Club, during the 1985, 1986, and 1987 seasons." Dowd found no evidence that Rose ever bet against the Cincinnati Reds (he bet on them to win), and there was no evidence of game fixing. Nevertheless, the report detailed overwhelming evidence that Rose violated the capital crime of Major League Baseball by betting on games in which he had a duty to perform.

I have studied the Dowd Report and, from my vantage point as a former prosecutor, there is no doubt that Rose violated Major League Rule 21(d). Although much of the evidence consists of the testimony of two convicted drug dealers – Rose’s former friend, Paul Janszen, and bookie Ron Peters – their testimony was independently corroborated by betting slips and Rose’s phone and bank records, which documented the flow of money and the activity described. Dowd also uncovered evidence of other “runners” used by Rose to place his bets (he did not place any bets directly), as well as various bookies utilized by Rose, several of whom had ties to organized crime (Dowd discovered hundreds of questionable financial transactions between Rose and these bookies). In his deposition, Rose admitted gambling extensively on college and professional basketball and football games (which did not violate Rule 21), and he acknowledged using runners to place the bets, so as to protect his privacy. He denied knowing many of the key witnesses against him (including Ron Peters), but when confronted with evidence that he had called them, or left tickets for them, or written checks to them, Rose came up with a variety of very weak explanations, such as failed real estate deals and sponsorship of card shows, none of which made much sense in context. With the assistance of an FBI gambling expert, who examined Rose’s financial records, Dowd showed that Rose placed nearly $15,000 in bets on a daily basis. Among the documentary evidence discussed in the report were three original betting slips in Rose’s handwriting (two of the betting slips also contained Rose’s fingerprints, although this evidence was withheld by the FBI and not made available to Dowd). In its totality, the evidence demonstrated conclusively that Rose bet on professional baseball games, including games played by the Reds.

That Rose, in fact, violated Rule 21(d) is thus not in issue for me, and I believe that his lifetime banishment from Major League Baseball was an appropriate sanction, necessary to protect the integrity of the game and to deter others tempted to repeat Rose’s mistakes. It is just and proper that Rose never again be allowed to participate in professional baseball in any official capacity – not as a coach, manager, hitting instructor, or motivational speaker.

Does Rose nevertheless belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame? I believe that he does, and that his plaque’s absence from the museum’s Gallery dishonors the game.

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, is an independent, privately funded museum, which operates under its own rules, independent of Major League Baseball. To be elected to the Hall of Fame, a player must have played at least ten seasons in the major leagues and have been retired for five years. Hall of Fame Rule 5 states that voting (by the Baseball Writers Association of America) “shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” If Rose’s entry into the Hall were determined strictly by these criteria, he would have been selected a long time ago. While his character and integrity are certainly lacking, a cursory glance at the plaques lining the museum Gallery suggests that these traits are accorded little weight in determining membership. Ty Cobb, who previously held the all-time hits record until Rose broke it, was an unabashed racist who once slapped a black elevator operator he deemed “uppity,” then stabbed the night watchman (who also was black) when he tried to intervene (the matter was settled out of court in 1912). On May 15, 1912, Cobb severely beat a handicapped fan who heckled him during a game; he routinely spiked opposing players, and regularly used profanity and racial epithets; and he was despised by his own teammates. But in 24 years with the Detroit Tigers, Cobb won eleven batting titles and retired with 4,191 hits and a career .366 batting average. On the field, Cobb was one of the greatest players in the game’s history – his statistics bear that out – and so he is appropriately in the Hall of Fame. In baseball, if not in life, on-field play and statistical accomplishment rule. Babe Ruth is in the Hall of Fame, not because he was a man of great integrity and character – he was a notorious drinker and womanizer – but because he ended his career with 714 home runs, 2,217 RBIs, a .342 batting average, and was one of the best players ever to play the game (he even won 94 games as a pitcher with a career 2.28 ERA). Gamblers, womanizers, boozers, insensitive rogues – there are many to be found among the men whose plaques fill the walls of Cooperstown. There also are many fine men among the list of Hall of Fame inductees, but all of them are there because of their on-field accomplishments.

It is not Rule 5’s references to integrity and character, then, which has kept Rose out of the Hall of Fame, but rather Rule 3e, which declares that “[a]ny player on Baseball’s Ineligibility List shall not be eligible for the Hall of Fame.” This rule did not exist, however, until 1991, just prior to when Rose first became eligible for consideration to the Hall. Following release of the Dowd Report, Rose sought to enjoin then Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti from disciplining him; when a federal judge dismissed his suit, Rose and Giamatti reached a settlement. Rose agreed to be placed on the list of those “permanently ineligible” with the understanding that he would be allowed to apply for re-instatement after one year, and that Giamatti would consider such a request in good faith. The Office of Commissioner agreed to make no findings or determinations on whether Rose bet on baseball, and the settlement agreement said that “[n]othing in this agreement shall be deemed either an admission or denial by Peter Edward Rose of the allegation that he bet on any major league baseball game.”

Nevertheless, at the press conference announcing the agreement, a reporter asked Giamatti if he personally believed Rose had bet on baseball. Giamatti replied, “In the absence of a hearing and therefore in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I am confronted by the factual record of Mr. Dowd. On the basis of that, yes, I have concluded that he bet on baseball” (as reported by James Reston, Jr., in Collision at Home Plate: The Lives of Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti, Harper Perennial, 1991, p. 307). Rose understandably was shocked and dismayed at what appeared to be a public retraction by the Commissioner and a breach of the settlement agreement, the precise language of which took several days to negotiate. Absent Rose’s understanding that Giamatti would make no formal findings, Rose never would have accepted “permanent ineligibility” status. As it happens, Giamatti died of a heart attack eight days later and never had an opportunity to clarify, correct, or expand on his comments.

Fay Vincent, who succeeded Giamatti as Commissioner until he resigned in 1992, apparently blamed Rose for Giamatti’s death and never forgave him. He has always been, and remains, publicly opposed to Rose’s re-instatement (see “The Confessions of Pete Rose,” by Fay Vincent, The New York Times, Op-Ed, January 2, 2004). In February 1991, 18 months after the Rose settlement and Giamatti’s death, and by some accounts at Vincent’s urging, the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors enacted Rule 3e, which forbids Rose’s selection as long as he remains on Major League Baseball’s permanent ineligibility list.

Rose applied for re-instatement in 1997, but Commissioner Bud Selig has sat on the application for 12 years. No formal hearing has ever been scheduled and Selig has stated publicly that he has not seen anything that would convince him to overturn the original agreement.

Many people contend, quite reasonably, that Rose is his own worst enemy, that if he would simply admit his wrongdoing and show genuine contrition, all would be forgiven. Rose has made an admission of sorts; on March 14, 2007, during a sports radio program, Rose reportedly stated, “I bet on my team to win every night because I love my team. . . I made a big mistake. It’s my fault. It’s nobody else’s fault.” Whether this was a contrite admission or a cynical ploy to win favor does not, in my mind, make much difference. No ruling ever was made that Rose bet on baseball – by either the Commissioner’s Office or a court – and the Commissioner expressly agreed not to make any findings, nor to require an admission from Rose. It is contrary to Major League Baseball’s agreement with Rose, and lacks basic fairness, for another Commissioner to now require a full admission and undefined acts of contrition by Rose, when the Commissioner’s Office specifically agreed to “not make any formal findings or determinations on any matter including without limitation the allegation that Peter Edward Rose bet on any major league baseball games.”

Lawsuits and disputes are settled all the time, for a lot of reasons, some good, and some bad. Settlements allow litigants to compromise and move forward. The Rose agreement avoided what was to be a long, drawn out court fight that would have harmed Major League Baseball. It allowed resolution of the case by reaching an acceptable compromise – banishing Rose from baseball for life – which was and remains important for the game’s integrity – yet allowing Rose implicitly the hope and expectation that he may eventually receive the Hall of Fame recognition that his play justly deserved. Changing the rules after the fact, which is precisely what happened in this case, made worse by the 1991 enactment of Hall of Fame Rule 3(e), smacks of unfairness and is a touch vindictive.

I was four years old when Rose got his first hit in the Major Leagues, and I was 28 when he retired from the game; I grew up and became a man during the baseball career of Pete Rose. Although I never particularly liked him – he was far too brash and cocky for me – I always respected his ability, talent, and competitive spirit. And he was sure fun to watch. He may have acted foolishly, and I am certain he bet on baseball, but his play on the field was never compromised. Rose holds the major league record for most winning games played (1,972) not simply because he played for 24 years, but because he was all about winning. There may have been wagers placed, but there was no game fixing by Rose – his Hustle, on the field if not off, was all “Charlie.”

Over the years, Rose has remained bitter and unrepentant. It is hard not to feel some sadness, though, for there are few American figures that have achieved so much and fallen so far. Rose’s story is full of peaks and valleys – he achieved greatness and glory on the baseball diamond and became a national celebrity and a hero to thousands, only to throw it all away, by senseless greed and stubborn pride. Rose has many personal failings – the list is long – but his baseball performance on the field from 1963, when he won the Rookie of the Year Award, to 1986, when he finally set aside his glove and cleats, was not one of them.

Peter Edward Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. To ignore his accomplishments, to treat him as a pariah forever, is to ignore a significant piece of baseball history. Keeping him out of the game of baseball is necessary to protect the game’s integrity; keeping him out of the Hall of Fame devalues the historical record. As James Reston, Jr., asked rhetorically in Collision at Home Plate, “If Cooperstown truly represents the history of baseball, how can it overlook the game’s all-time hit leader and the game’s all-time tragic figure?” Include a permanent exhibit about why gambling is baseball’s capital crime. Museums, after all, should educate and entertain. Explain why Rose’s gambling damaged not just his integrity, but that of professional baseball. But let us once and for all properly recognize and celebrate Rose’s on-field play, which was never compromised by his gambling activities. Don’t dishonor the game by excluding from the Hall of Fame one of its greatest and most accomplished players.


  1. Mark, Great article. I have always thought Rose should be in the Hall of Fame. If he had ever gambled against his team I would not have this opinion. Bill G

  2. Thanks for the comment Bill. I agree with you -- had Rose ever been part of fixing a game, or betting against his own team, it would be a different story. He still should not be involved in baseball in an official capacity, but his play on the field for 24 years deserves official recognition.

  3. Mark,

    Regarding your desire to see Pete Rose in the Baseball Hall of Fame, I confess that I wanted to disagree with you, if for no other reason than to battle you on your own turf. Baseball is clearly your passion and up until May 7, 2005, when my oldest son got his first base hit, I had believed baseball to be the most excruciatingly boring game ever invented. But since that perfect day in May four years ago, and more so since my son has begun pitching, I have been reevaluating its merits and have come to view baseball as chess-like, requiring a surprising amount of strategy (I know: Duh!). But still, I am as close to a blank slate as possible regarding having an opinion on the matter at hand, and much of your post is news to me, but your logic seems solid. So sadly, I must report that after reading your post I agree with you.

    Now Mark, I swear that’s what I wrote. And I meant it. But... there were, however, two things that stuck out. The first was the “defining deviancy down” moment when you suggested that because the voters in the past have ignored some of the Hall of Fame’s stated criteria in judging a prospective inductee, specifically, “integrity” and “character,” that those traits should be ignored today. What we need now are higher standards, not lower, and just because they got it wrong with Ty Cobb is no excuse not to get it right today.

    The second was the idea of the Baseball Hall of Fame “banning” someone. Being a blank slate, that conjured up images of Pete Rose’s picture hanging in a guard shack, with standing orders to shoot on sight. It was this idea that made me visit the Hall of Fame web site and that’s when it all started going down hill. But before I delve into the meaning of “ban,” let me summarize what I have learned from your post and other sources.

    There seem to be three protagonists in this drama. The first is the Baseball Hall of Fame and its two relevant rules, one vague and the other unequivocal, that are at the heart of the issue. The first, as alluded to above and reflected in your blog, is Rule 5, which states that “Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Those traits, it can be argued, are up for interpretation by the individual voter and explains why a despicable man like Ty Cobb might find his plaque hanging between Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. The other rule, Rule 3e, is not up for interpretation and states clearly that if a player is on Baseball’s ineligible list, that player is not getting into the Hall of Fame. As you note, this rule was added in 1991, but it is hard to argue with the logic: if you’re not good enough for baseball, you’re not good enough for baseball’s Hall of Fame. But even if the logic was faulty, the Baseball Hall of Fame, as you point out, is an independent and privately funded museum, and until they accept a government bailout they can deem all players wearing briefs instead of boxers ineligible, if they so choose.


  4. This leaves only two ways for Rose to make it into the Hall of Fame. Rule 3e must be changed or the Office of Commissioner, the second protagonist in this baseball trinity, must re-instate Rose. But their rule, Rule 21(d), is likewise unequivocal: “Any player... 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.”

    Rose, the star protagonist, has seen this rule at least 3,500 times; he may have even been staring at it while on the phone placing his bets (“Peters recalled one occasion in which he received a call directly from Pete Rose to place a bet five minutes before game time.” Dowd Report). An investigation that should not have been necessary proved Rose had gambled on baseball. Rose admitted as much by accepting the ban and then spent the next 15 years denying that he had gambled on baseball. For Rose to be eligible for the Hall of Fame the Commission must reverse the ban. But why? What has Rose done to deserve this reversal?

    Rose, a baseball player, gambled on baseball games. If he were a lawyer, he would have violated the attorney-client privilege. If a cop, he would have committed perjury. If a teacher, he would have seduced a student. If a politician, he would have been caught with a dead girl or a live boy. If an actor – well it’s too bad he wasn’t shooting for an Oscar ‘cause what could an actor do to ruin that chance?

    If I understand the chronology, it is this:
    February 1989: Rose was called before Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent. Ueberroth asked Rose, man-to-man, if he had gambled on baseball. Ueberroth did not present “hard evidence” against him, so Rose decided to lie.

    April 1989: Rose denied under oath that he ever gambled on baseball.

    May 1989: The Dowd report documented that Rose gambled on baseball.

    August 1989: Rose accepted lifetime ineligibility in exchange for no formal finding that he gambled on baseball. Giamatti told Rose that if he “rehabilitated” his life, the ban might be lifted.

    1989: Rose wrote an autobiography in which he denied gambling on baseball.

    1992: Rose applied for reinstatement.

    1997: Rose applied for reinstatement.

    1999: Rose denied gambling on baseball during a national TV interview by Jim Gray.

    November 2002: Rose admitted to Commissioner Bud Selig that he bet on baseball. When asked why, Rose replied, “I didn’t think I’d get caught.”

    2004: Rose wrote another autobiography, in which he admitted to lying in the first book and admits finally to gambling on baseball.

    So now Rose finds himself stuck between the rock of the Commissioner of Baseball and the hard place of the Hall of Fame. These potentially immovable forces did not ambush Rose; he pushed and wiggled his way between them, until he was stuck beyond his own ability to break free.


  5. What is strikingly apparent in Rose’s behavior is how at home he would be in the world of the common criminal. Imagine the Dowd Report as an indictment and his admission in his book as a confession in which he is trying to gain favorable consideration from a judge, by being honest. You Mark, have seen it before. The criminal tries to get brownie points by admitting to only those wrongs documented in the indictment, even though every indictment contains only a fraction of the criminal’s wrong doing. In fact, John Dowd, in a 2002 interview, stated that he believed Rose may have bet against his own team, but time constraints had prevented him from completely investigating this charge. By the time he was betting on baseball, Rose was deeply in debt. What in Rose’s conduct suggests that he would not have rigged a game? Talent is not a character trait, nor is “love of the game,” so what moment in his life can we point to as, if not proof, at least an indication that, although he may have broken the most important rule in baseball, he didn’t break it “that” way?

    Before you answer, consider this: while doing a short stint in Club Fed for tax evasion, Rose convinced his wife to smuggle in contraband for him. He exposed his wife to arrest because he couldn’t go five months eating prison food.

    Or this: In perfect “GoodFellas” vernacular, he described the man who ran all of his “sports action” and later decided to tell the truth and cooperate with investigators as someone who “turned stool pigeon – the worst kind of scum.” Commissioner Vincent captured Rose’s own version of Omerta when he observed “(Rose is) consistent: He’s all about the money. He lied in 1989 because he thought it was in his best interest financially. He thought he’d be ruined if he told the truth. Now he feels he needs to tell the truth because it’s in his best interest financially.”

    Add to all of this one other piece of information, that alone should merit his picture hanging on the guard shack wall: When other ball players are being honored for their accomplishments by being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Rose can usually be found setting up shop across the street to sell his autographs. How small a man is this who must impose himself on another man’s day, especially when it is the same day he feels is unfairly denied him?

    We should never forget that baseball, at its heart, is a boy’s game, and the players blessed with the ability to earn a living playing a boy’s game owe it to those playing t-ball, little league and high-school ball to honor the game that has given them so much and to set the example for those who aspire to be like them. As Rose himself admitted (or his co-writer did) in a rare moment of non-criminal thought, “I was aware of my privileges, but not my responsibilities.”


  6. And what of this ban? Fathers and sons can go to the Hall of Fame and see that Rose’s accomplishments are given their due. His stats can be looked up and his memorabilia can be looked upon. What is missing is a plaque. Have we really gotten to the point where this is considered too high a price to pay for violating baseball’s most important rule?

    Because it took so long for Rose to do the right thing, he has now created a situation in which his only possible path to the Hall of Fame is through the approval of the Veterans Committee. But in 2008, just after Rose was technically eligible to be voted in by the Veterans Committee, they adopted their own version of Rule 3e. To a “blank slate” this suggests a very loud message was being sent. In this day of steroid scandals, it may be all too appropriate for the players themselves to take a stand and demonstrate through their votes the weight they give to each of these words: records, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions.

    Until that day, it would be fitting to see an empty space on the gallery wall, between two plaques, where a father can point and explain that it is not enough for his son to be a great athlete; that he must also be a good man.

    Rich R.

  7. Rich,

    I do not disagree with a lot of what you said -- indeed, it is pretty much the case made by Fay Vincent, Bud Selig, and others who want to keep Rose not just out of baseball but out of the Hall of Fame as well. But I stand by my primary point: "Keeping him out of the game of baseball is necessary to protect the game’s integrity; keeping him out of the Hall of Fame devalues the historical record." 4,256 hits, 17 All-Star appearances, 2,165 runs, etc. I simply cannot ignore the statistics -- his performance on the field. He deserves to be banned from baseball forever for all of the reasons you cite. And I agree that, due to Rule 3e as enacted in 1991, he cannot enter the Hall of Fame unless he is removed from the permanent ineligibility list. But that is where I have a problem. It is as if they created the rule for the purpose of keeping Rose out of the Hall, which smacks of vindictiveness. Of course, you are right, as a private institution, they can determine their own rules. It is just that I don't have to agree with them. Either kick Cobb out, and all the rest who lack "character," or put Rose in. But ignoring his on field accomplishments is absurd.

    You ask, "What in Rose's conduct suggests he would not have rigged a game?" For one, how he played the game -- someone who is trying to rig a game does not play as hard as Rose did every day. Second, John Dowd found absolutely no evidence that Rose ever bet against his team (and he was looking for it). Finally, another statistic: 1,972 -- the number of winning games Rose played in -- a major league record.