This article originally appeared in the May 15, 1978 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
He had known it would come. He had even known approximately when it would come. And he had anticipated how he would feel when it did come. Pete Rose leaves little to chance. He even rubs his bat clean with alcohol before each game so that afterward he will know from the fresh stains on it where he has made contact with the ball. "Pardon me for not getting too revved up over this," he had been saying throughout what should have been a tense week. But when his 3,000th hit did come last Friday evening in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, Rose surprised himself for one of the few times in his life by nearly coming to tears. Achieving immortality will do that to a person.
Rose admitted being a little restive before the game that night with Montreal. Though cordial as always, he had avoided reporters in the clubhouse, where he normally holds court at considerable length, reasoning perhaps that he had nothing to say that he had not already said dozens of times during the week. He was also steeling himself for the task ahead. He needed two hits to reach the fabled number, and in Steve Rogers of the Expos he was dealing with a pitcher who had won 17 games in 1977. Rose decided he would be aggressive as usual, but that this time he would wait for just the right pitches, would take more pitches than he ordinarily does.
As he came to bat leading off the Reds' half of the first inning, the crowd of 37,823 rose in great waves to roar acclaim. Batting lefthanded against the righthanded Rogers, Rose, the game's most prolific switch hitter, lined a two-ball, one-strike pitch softly to leftfield, where Warren Cromartie dropped the ball and then threw it away for a two-base error. Rose belly-slid into second, only to remain there as the next three Reds went out in order.
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In the third inning, amid another standing ovation, Rose stepped up with Cesar Geronimo on second and one out. He hit Rogers' first pitch straight down onto the hard-packed dirt in front of the plate, producing a Baltimore chop. Rogers fidgeted impatiently under the high bouncer, and when he finally gloved it he tried to throw before he had a good grip on the ball. The ball slipped from his hand and rolled harmlessly behind the mound as Rose scrambled safely across first. Official scorer Earl Lawson of the Cincinnati Post did not hesitate to call it a hit—Rose's 2,999th. The crowd cheered its approbation of this decision, but in the press box, Lawson, the hometown writer, was subjected to some friendly gibing about favoritism. In truth, had Rogers thrown perfectly, Rose probably would have beaten the ball to the bag, because as he said later, "I have never run harder to first." And he always runs hard.
The skyscraper-high stadium message board proclaimed 2999—1 TO GO when Rose stepped up in the fifth with two outs and nobody on base. He watched Rogers' first pitch sail outside, following it with his eyes into Gary Carter's catcher's mitt and then swiveling his head upward for Umpire Jerry Dale's call, which was ball one. The next delivery was "a fastball," Rose would say later, "about this big around," and he would hold his hands far enough apart for a bowling ball to pass between them. He lined this fat pitch over the head of Third Baseman Larry Parrish and into leftfield for an untainted single.
It was 9:22 p.m., E.D.T., and for the next five minutes the fans set up a clamor of a magnitude not heard in Cincinnati since the 1976 World Series. Rose's teammates hurried onto the field to bear-hug him and grasp his hand. He hugged and grasped back and waved his red cap at the adoring crowd. Then he was alone for a moment, standing just off first base. The fans would not let up and the game could not resume. Rose stood there looking like a lost boy about to cry. Finally Tony Perez, Rose's old teammate and friend who is now the Expos' first baseman, nudged him playfully. Rose wheeled about and embraced him. He smiled and the moment passed. The game went on—anticlimactically, it turned out—to a 4-3 Reds loss.
Thus did Pete Rose join an exalted company of 12, the leader of which is his prototype, Ty Cobb. Of all baseball achievements, the accumulation of 3,000 hits is the surest indication that a player is extraordinarily talented, extraordinarily durable and extraordinarily consistent. And it is a feat that virtually ensures the achiever enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Of Rose's 12 predecessors, nine are in the Hall; the three who are not—Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Al Kaline—will be admitted the moment they become eligible after five years of retirement. Some of the game's most celebrated players. Hall of Famers themselves, have fallen short of the milestone Rose reached. Injuries and wartime service kept Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams from it. Four years as a full-time pitcher kept Babe Ruth from it. Fatal illness kept Lou Gehrig from it. Involvement in the Black Sox scandal and subsequent expulsion from the game most likely kept Shoeless Joe Jackson from it. A near-fatal beaning may well have kept Ducky Medwick from it. But there have been numerous other superb hitters who enjoyed full and relatively injury-free careers who have not gotten 3,000 hits. That list fairly glitters with the likes of Rogers Hornsby, Al Simmons, George Sisler, Sam Crawford, Wee Willie Keeler, Jimmie Foxx, Frankie Frisch, Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott and Frank Robinson.
While Rose is the fifth player to get his 3,000th hit in the past decade, joining Aaron, Mays, Roberto Clemente and Kaline on the list of recent inductees, most members of the 3,000 club were in their prime before the New Deal began. Rose reached 3,000 one month into his 16th season—sooner, in point of service, than any other member of the elite. Cobb did not get his 3,000th hit until his 17th season but at the time he was only 34, three years younger than Rose. Aaron was 36, and Stan Musial and Tris Speaker were, like Rose, 37. Cap Anson was the oldest when he reached 3,000; he was 46 when he did it in 1897.
Rose is convinced that Cobb's career total of 4,191 hits, the major league record, is beyond his grasp, so he has set his sights on Musial's National League record of 3,630, a figure he could attain in as few as three years. Aaron's 3,771 hits (171 in the American League), the majors' second-highest total, also seems within Rose's reach, barring the sort of serious injury he has thus far escaped, or an unlikely capitulation to the infirmities of middle age. Rose passed Clemente's total of 3,000 hits last Saturday and should whiz past Kaline's 3,007 in a matter of moments. If he bangs out his usual 200 hits this year, he will also pass Anson (3,081) and Paul Waner (3,152) and finish the season ninth, behind Napoleon Lajoie (3,251), who, with Mays (3,283) and Eddie Collins (3,311), should fall in '79. That would leave Rose trailing only Honus Wagner (3,430), Speaker (3,515), Musial, Aaron and Cobb.
This is heady stuff to ponder, but though Rose is keenly aware of his figures, he would prefer to let his hits accumulate without further ado until Musial's record comes into view. Except for the final moment Friday, he wasted little mental energy on his 3,000th, a blow that engendered tremendous excitement despite its inevitability. Rose knew that he needed only 34 hits to reach 3,000 this season and that, as he so pithily advised Cincinnati's Insiders Club at a luncheon early last week, "It would be a lousy year for me if I went 33 for 650."
Indeed it would. Only Cobb had as many 200-hit seasons as Rose has—nine—and, lest anyone think Rose is tailing off, he has had 200 in the last three years. He has batted over .300 in 12 of his 15 big league seasons; has won three batting titles, topped by a .348 performance in 1969; and is a .311 lifetime hitter. Hit No. 3,000 raised his '78 average to .324.
It was a difficult week for Rose only because his every step was dogged by media hordes and because, through a vagary of scheduling, the Reds had two weekdays off. Playaholic Rose detests off-days—"I might get hit by a train," he says. He met the press crush with characteristic bonhomie, though he did complain that "some guy in New York nearly knocked out one of my teeth with a microphone." His sole concern was that the egos of his almost equally famous teammates might somehow suffer from the attention lavished on him. It was an unfounded fear, because his mates' attitude, as expressed by Ken Griffey, was "Pete deserves it." However, Reds Manager Sparky Anderson was miffed one night last week when he heard raucous laughter issuing from the vicinity of Rose's locker while Tom Seaver sat nearby bemoaning his third straight pitching loss. One of Rose's profane jests had elicited guffaws from the assembled newsmen, most of whom were unaware of Seaver's unhappy presence. Seaver made no mention of the incident, but Anderson, who apparently is of the opinion that a pitcher's defeat is an occasion for last rites, took the press to task for a tasteless display. "Hey," said Rose later, "you guys got me in trouble with your laughing."
Even the days off were not as wearisome as they might have been. During one of them, Rose made a commercial with Perez; on the other, he visited the John Foster Dulles elementary school, where his son Peter Edward II attends third grade. Little Pete, as he is known, was ill that day and absent, but his father showed up nonetheless to hold court for nearly two hours with a dozen youngsters from grades one through five. Unlike most adults, Rose is never condescending in the company of children, perhaps because he is essentially one of them. His concerns—How'm I doing? What d'ya think of that? Am I the best?—are theirs. He engaged in a particularly sprightly dialogue with a fourth-grade enchantress whose very name, Happiness Amanda Gill, added new dimensions to the discourse. "Money can't buy happiness," Rose solemnly proclaimed and then giggled, "and I don't mean that girl over there." Some other exchanges:
Happiness: Do you know, you're the first athlete I ever met?
Rose: Well, honey, you started right at the top.
Happiness: Do you have any tips for my little brother, Jason? He throws the ball over the catcher's and the umpire's heads. Then everybody starts yelling, "We want a pitcher, not an underwear stitcher." I say, "What're you throwing at—the Eiffel Tower?"
Rose: Underwear stitcher?
Happiness: What are those rings you're wearing?
Rose: World Series rings. I worked hard for those rings. All you have to do is go to college and marry some rich guy, and you'll get all the rings you want.
Happiness: I can't help it if my brother got in a fight.
Rose: How could you get in trouble if he got in the fight?
Happiness: I beat him up.
Rose told Cobb stories, many of them deliciously violent, and deplored the fact that too few youngsters nowadays have heard of "the greatest baseball player who ever lived." And he unabashedly worried out loud about his upcoming contract negotiations with the Reds, fearing that if matters are not properly settled, he, the homegrown star, the Western Hills High flash, might be forced to leave Cincinnati for greener pastures. Rose's two-year contract expires in October, and its renegotiation is of genuine concern to him, because his dealings with the Cincy management have been less than amicable during previous encounters. The children said they did not want him to leave town. He said he did not want to go.
The session at the school was taped for inclusion in one of a series of books on adult-child relationships to be published by Doubleday. The publisher's representatives, Thomas G. Aylesworth and R. Smith Kiliper, declared Rose to be the champion adult to date, funnier even than Vincent Price, certainly more at ease than Senator Charles Percy and a more skillful respondent than the astronaut who dithered over the question of how men in space go to the bathroom.
That Rose should have raised Cobb's name before grade-school children who had never heard of Cobb is entirely in keeping with Rose's character, because he has emerged as something of a propagandist for the Georgia Peach. More and more, Rose seems to identify with Cobb, and not merely because Cobb heads the hit parade Rose so recently joined. He sees in Cobb a kindred spirit, a scrapper who played the game to a standstill. Rose, himself perhaps as exciting a player as Cobb, has none of his prototype's avowed viciousness, but it is hard to believe that even Cobb put more of himself into baseball than Rose does. "I've had to scramble and scratch for everything I've got," Rose told a group of onlookers last week, most of whom regard him as one of the privileged few. Then he added, "But I've enjoyed the scratching and scrambling."
Those who have never seen Rose up close tend to think of him as a small man. In fact, his smallness is a matter of style, not physique. He is a muscular 5'10½" 200-pounder with a body so durable that he is seldom injured. His 3,000th hit came in his 676th consecutive game, the 11th-longest streak in baseball history. It ended at 678 Sunday when, despite taking "every pill there is." Rose was knocked out of the lineup by illness. Rose is a big man who plays like a small man—he goes for line drives not home runs, he hustles continuously—for the logical reason that for much of his life he was small. He weighed only 130 pounds during his first year of high school football and was a mere 155 at graduation, too small for big league baseball in the judgment of many scouts. He developed the habit of playing hard when he was small because it was his only means of attracting notice. As a result, he knows no other way to play. "I didn't start growing until I was 19," he says. "My whole family matured late." And, he adds, stayed young longer than most people; his father played semipro football in Cincinnati when he was in his 40s. Now that Rose has established that he is a big man, his next project is to convince people that he is a young one as well. In a telephone conversation with Reds Vice-Chairman Bob Howsam after No. 3,000, Rose advised his boss, "Now, Bob, don't you go out and sign no young third baseman for a couple of years."
To Rose's good friend and teammate Joe Morgan, it is neither statistics, age nor size that is the true measure of Rose. It is the man's spirit. "The statistics are not that important to me when I think of Pete," Morgan said on the epochal Friday. "You have to think first of what he is, what he has meant to baseball. I have never seen anyone come to the park with his enthusiasm, determination and desire. It's like every day is opening day. I don't know of anyone else who's like this. I know I'm not. Pete is something special. He has everyone's respect. And he'd have it even if he hit only .220. Maybe that's why I'm not so enthused over this 3,000 thing—and, hey, 3,000 hits are a lot. Heck, I've been enthused over Pete Rose for the seven years that I've been here. He deserves fanfare for 3,000 hits, but he has deserved fanfare long before this."
The clubhouse was empty after the great event, except for Rose, who was finally changing out of his uniform, the last question answered, the last congratulation acknowledged. His wife Karolyn and 13-year-old daughter Fawn were being interviewed by a television person in the family waiting room adjacent to the Cincinnati clubhouse. Outside, a small boy in a miniature Reds uniform, complete with No. 14 and ROSE stitched on the back of the jersey, was playing a solitary game of catch against the stadium's cement wall. He threw and chased the ball with a familiar verve, straining to reach for the crazy bouncers that the wall's irregularity created. He never stopped, never tired.
"How do you feel about what your dad did tonight?" he was asked.
Little Pete turned, and his face lit up with a smile that was also familiar. "Happy," he said. And he threw the ball again, running it down after it popped out of his glove, happier playing than talking.
Call Bob Howsam. There may well be a young third baseman out there ready to take over. When the old man finally runs down, that is.