Pete Rose hardly seemed the stuff of Aristotelian poetics. ordinary in appearance and demeanor, sometimes crude, occasionally even vulgar, he certainly didn't reflect the Greek ideal of the Great Man. But through a combination of unabashed enthusiasm, sly intelligence and unshakable self-confidence, he did, in fact, achieve a form of greatness. And he had within him the Aristotelian "fatal flaw" that led inevitably to his tragic fall.
Rose knew there were players of greater skill. He also knew no one could outplay him. "If you have a guy equal in ability to me, I'm gonna beat him, because I'll try harder," he once explained. "That guy ain't got no chance."
His ballplaying contemporaries, wealthy businessmen disguised in baseball apparel, regarded Rose with amusement. They called him, derisively, Charlie Hustle. Rose took the insult as a commendation. He seemed to have come from an earlier time when professionals always played hard, and out of joy, not greed. Playing ball for money, he said, "is a license to steal. I'd play this game for nothing...if I could afford it." He retired as one of baseball's highest-paid practitioners.
On and on he played, 24 years in all, remorselessly surpassing the achievements of the mortals until finally, on Sept. 11, 1985, before an ecstatic hometown crowd in Cincinnati, he lined a single to left center off San Diego pitcher Eric Show to succeed Ty Cobb as the game's most prolific hitmaker. The fans cheered him, a Cincinnati native, for a full seven minutes, and so did millions of television watchers across the country. Rose wept openly standing on first base after this, his 4,192nd hit, as his son, Pete Jr., rushed onto the field to embrace him. Looking heavenward, Rose claimed he could see both Cobb and Pete's beloved father, Harry Francis Rose, applauding from celestial box seats. "Cobb was in the second row," he observed. "Dad was in the first."
Rose would play one more season. He would finish his career with more hits (4,256), games played (3,562), times at bat (14,053), singles (3,215) and seasons with 200 or more hits (10) than anyone who ever played major league baseball. He is the only man to have played more than 500 games at five different positions—first base, second, third, leftfield and rightfield. But it wasn't so much the record-busting that made Rose such an appealing national icon; it was the sheer gusto with which he played the game, the belly-sliding, glove-banging intensity he brought to the ballpark every day. And at a time when plutocratic athletes were just beginning to distance themselves from the paying customers and the working press, Pete Rose was there for everyone, signing autographs, delivering extemporaneous speeches, tirelessly submitting to interviews. He was as genuinely popular a player as the modern game has known. It remained only for the Hall of Fame to put the final seal of approval on his remarkable career.
Alas, he remains that sanctum's most conspicuous absentee, for Pete Rose, who would have played baseball for free, was also a compulsive gambler. He made no secret of his habit. He was often seen at racetracks, and, like millions of Americans, he bet openly on football games. But his gambling, like his relentless pursuit of Cobb's record, became an obsession, soon involving him with unsavory characters, quickly placing him heavily in their debt. At first the baseball hierarchy was content to turn a blind eye, but late in Rose's career, commissioner Peter Ueberroth and his successor, A. Bartlett Giamatti, regarded his malefactions far less tolerantly. Ueberroth ordered an investigation in 1989, which was concluded under Giamatti and which revealed that Rose was betting on baseball, quite probably on the very team he was managing, the Reds. The purist Giamatti banned Rose for life and then, playing out his own role in this neo-Greek tragedy, died of a heart attack only nine days later.
Rose survives. After serving five months in a federal prison for tax evasion, he left Cincinnati for Boca Raton, Fla., where he operates a restaurant and hosts a radio talk show. He has not yet applied for reinstatement to baseball, and because of either his indomitable spirit or a defective conscience, he has refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Rose has never been one to complain, to accept defeat or to admit error. But to the rest of us, he seems that most forlorn of characters, in life as in dreams: a fallen idol.
WALTER IOSS JR., 1968