have always thought keeping Pete Rose out of the Baseball Hall of Fame because he bet on games was one of the more-noteworthy injustices in recent history. Before I discuss why, let me engage in some full disclosure. I grew up in Cincinnati in the heyday of the Big Red Machine. The first celebrity name I can remember knowing is Pete Rose. The most interested I have ever been in baseball was during the 1975 World Series. Sure, Game Six was historic and all, but the image I recall most vividly is when Carl Yasztremski flied out to Cesar Geronimo to end Game Seven and give the Reds the pennant. And this without benefit of continuous replay like those endless images of Fisk's homer. (Note that by 1986, I was a Bostonian and had to suffer the ignominy of that Series, so I've seen both sides.)
However, I am not a baseball fan. I took an interest when I was younger; it was pretty much required in Cincy back then. These days I don't follow baseball at all. The most exposure I get is through friends and colleagues, some of whom are true devotees. One of my buddies knows everything you could ever want to know about the Cardinals; and in an office decorated with pictures of him with the various presidents and vice presidents he has worked for, the most noticeable is a personally autographed color photo of Stan Musial, in which he describes my amigo as "a great Cardinals fan." I have another friend who is a respectable, accomplished conservative lawyer, very mild-mannered and bookish, who will forcefully hurl breakable objects when bad things happen to good Mets.
I should also say that I do not gamble. I have only placed one sports bet in my life, on last year's Super Bowl. I'm not a football fan either, but I had my reasons.
In the Pete Rose case, he was banned from baseball in 1989 for betting on ball games, including contests in which he participated as a manager. Rose has never admitted culpability. (If you want to read the details, check out the 1989 Dowd Report.) Under Professional Baseball Rule 21(d), the penalty for placing a bet of "any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible." The reason he is not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame is Rule 3(e) of the "Hall of Fame Rules for Election," adopted in 1991 (the year before Rose became eligible for induction), which states that "any player on Baseball's ineligible list shall not be an eligible candidate."
Should Rose be in the Hall of Fame? Well, he has more hits than anyone, the most singles, he's second in doubles, fifth in runs scored, was rookie of the year, a 17-time All Star, and probably has as much of the requisite fame as any living baseball player. Fan polls regularly give him overwhelming approval margins, and when he appeared before Game 4 of the 2002 Series at a ceremony honoring to his record-breaking 4,192nd career hit as #6 on the list of the 10 most-memorable baseball moments, the crowd went wild. But Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has sat on Rose's 1997 application for reinstatement to eligibility. Reading some of the recent editorials on Rose you get the sense that baseball is not so much a sport as a brotherhood established to protect a rarefied morality. Witness Rose's horrible crime he gambled. He committed the ultimate sin. He attacked the game's integrity; he "called into question the moral core of an entire industry."
Man, get over it. So he gambled. So what? Betting is synonymous with sports, and has been since ancient times. It is often a crime increasingly less so these days but also socially acceptable, within reason. For spectators, betting makes the game more interesting. It gives the outsider a chance to participate, to have more riding on the outcome than local bragging rights.
Granted that when athletes bet on games, especially games in which they are involved, there is a clear potential for corruption. Athletes can control the outcome of a contest by under-performing, and place bets to profit thereby. College basketball has periodically suffered point shaving scandals, most famously in the 1947-50 seasons, which led to the conviction of 32 players from seven schools, who shaved points in a total of 86 games. Point shaving is a particularly attractive scam because one's team can still win, but if the score can be kept within the point spread, the shaving player can also win the bet. Throwing a fight is another example of an outcome being within the athlete's control. And the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series scandal established gambling as baseball's third rail, and produced another Hall of Fame martyr, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.
However, in the examples noted above the corruption arises from the linkage between personal gain and underperformance. The player bets against himself or his team, and then behaves in a way to ensure the outcome. The result is a dishonest and unfair match. But suppose the player bets in favor of his team or himself? Can he intentionally over-perform to influence the bet? Does the prospect of personal financial gain which is always present for winners in sports alter the prospective outcome, or perceptions of the player's desire to win?
This is what has always bothered me about the Pete Rose case. He was suspended for gambling on his team but there is no evidence to suggest, nor has it been charged, that he ever bet against his team or himself. Given Rose's personality, his dogged pursuit of achievement, his legendary single-minded focus on the game, it is impossible to believe that he ever would. It is true that a manager could change the way his team won in order to win a bet, but Rose has not been charged even with that. His bookie Ron Peters, stated that "Every time [Rose] called, he'd bet on the Reds if they were playing," which suggests that Rose was not betting on the Reds strategically and manipulating victories, but doing so all the time as a matter of course. This was his team, and he wagered his money in the same way he wagered his skill. For him, betting was just another arena of competition, another test of his ability and manhood. It was an act of arrogance, the monetizing of hubris. It was not particularly admirable behavior, and probably illegal, but it did not affect the game.
The standard anti-Rose line is that he is being kept out for the good of baseball, that his actions were an insult to the integrity of the game. Integrity? At these ticket prices? You're kidding me. Endorsements, free agency, television markets, licensed souvenirs and trinkets, skyboxes, not to mention multimillion-dollar contract negotiations and players strikes the game is all about money. I have nothing against the profit motive, but let's not pretend baseball is some kind of morality play enacted for the benefit of a needy society. It is a business. And if MLB really wants to cleanse itself, I'd like to see some proof that no current Hall of Famer ever placed a bet of any kind that violated rule 21(d). Perhaps a full-scale investigation would restore the moral core of the industry. Or maybe the commissioner could just admit that Rule 21(d) is outdated and its punishment provisions are disproportionate. A lifetime ban? The average sentence for murder is 15 years.
Ironically, Rose wasn't a very good gambler. He wound up in debt, threatened by loan sharks, selling his personal property just to stay in one piece. His gambling seemed compulsive and it is to his credit he has not used that fact to seek forgiveness by ducking responsibility, claiming he was an addict who had no control over his actions. No, he has just flat out denied the charges, which is probably why he is still in exile. The conventional wisdom among the sports writers is that if Pete confesses, if he owns up to what he did, he will be let back in. Moreover, they want him not just to confess, but to be penitent. He has to exhibit shame. If this is what it takes, he should probably just get it over with. Admit what he did, say he was sorry, maybe undertake some community service speaking out against the dangers of gambling. Clearly, he can't play everyone for suckers and expect to get a walk. And if he gets the truth out into the open, no one will think any less of him. Peoples' minds are made up. Then the onus will be on Commissioner Selig to recognize that the good of the game may be best served by allowing the ultimate recognition of one of its most exceptional players. The bottom line is Pete Rose may be a flawed human being who isn't? but he sure could play ball.
James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.