Neither the fastest nor the most agile of baseball players, Pete Rose usually managed to beat the odds anyway. On Sept. 11, 1985, the switch-hitting Cincinnati Reds batter broke Ty Cobb’s career record of 4,191 hits. That night, as the home-town crowd wept, fireworks exploded and a Chevrolet Corvette was driven onto the field as a gift for Rose. The then-44-year-old athlete had finally become, after 23 seasons of dogged determination, an American folk hero. But since he retired from the field in 1986— with a still-standing record of 4,256 hits—and became the Reds’ full-time manager, Rose’s star has burned less brightly. In the past four seasons, the four-time World Series champion Reds have managed only second-place finishes in the National League’s West Division. But by far the toughest blows have come in the past month, with a flood of allegations that the man nicknamed “Charlie Hustle” is a compulsive gambler who may have broken one of baseball’s most stringent rules by betting on his own team.
Reports published in two Ohio newspapers last week—along with earlier allegations— said that Rose has wagered large sums on baseball. Articles in The Cincinnati Post and the Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted an unidentified U.S. government official as saying that Rose was a bettor identified by the code name “G-l” in an Internal Revenue Service (1RS) court affidavit. The affidavit was filed in Dayton, Ohio, in support of a search warrant for the home and restaurant of alleged bookmaker and cocaine trafficker Ronald Peters, of Franklin, Ohio, 64 km north of Cincinnati. Peters pleaded guilty last week to charges of trafficking in narcotics and making a false statement on an income tax return.
The Post said that, according to the affidavit, “G-l” made baseball bets with Peters of between $9,500 and $19,000 a day during the 1987 season through a mutual friend, Paul Janszen, a body builder currently serving a sixmonth sentence in a Cincinnati halfway house for tax evasion involving the sale of steroids. According to the Post, Janszen also placed a standing bet of $240 on the Reds to win with Peters in April, 1988. The Plain Dealer said that court records showed that Janszen became an informant for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation in the spring of 1988 and began wearing concealed recording equipment.
For his part, Rose has flatly denied ever having bet on anything but horse races, an activity that is legal under Ohio law. As Rose told a reporter in his characteristically flippant way, “I’d be willing to bet you, if I was a betting man, that I have never bet on baseball.” Still, if the allegations are true and proven, Rose will be in serious trouble. If he bet on any baseball game, that fact alone could result in the sixtime World Series player being suspended for a year by newly appointed baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. If Rose also bet on his own team, the suspension could last for the rest of his life, and Rose’s electability by American sports writers to the National Baseball Hall of Fame could be threatened.
The latest reports fuelled suspicions about Rose that first emerged last month when the New York City Daily News reported that outgoing baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth was conducting a “full inquiry into serious allegations” about Rose. Subsequently, an article in the March 27 issue of the American weekly magazine Sports Illustrated identified Peters as Rose’s “principal bookmaker” and quoted a weight lifter who sometimes worked out with Rose and Janszen as saying that he had overheard Janszen placing baseball bets by telephone on what he understood to be Rose’s behalf.
Later reports in Sports Illustrated and other U.S. publications said that Rose may have bet as much as $15,500 a day on horse racing. The reports added that federal investigators were examining “tax and gambling issues” involving the Reds’ manager.
(An 1RS spokesman in Cincinnati last week refused to confirm or deny reports that Rose was being investigated.) According to newspaper reports, Rose, who earns $600,000 a year as the Reds’ manager and who once made $1.4 million in a single season as a player, has been building up gambling debts for at least 10 years and currently owes bookies between $600,000 and $900,000. “I would classify Rose’s betting as an obsession,” a former friend was quoted as saying. “I think it’s a sickness.”
At the same time, Rose’s standing as a sports hero was assailed from other directions. In the latest issue of the magazine Gentleman’s Quarterly, Rose’s son Peter, a 19-yearold minor-league baseball player, described his father as a boorish womanizer who was too busy playing baseball and entertaining mistresses to spend any time with his children. In the same article, daughter Fawn, 24, who has a university degree in psychology, called Rose “the world’s worst father.” And ex-wife Karolyn, 47, recalled how her 1980 divorce from Rose came in part because she discovered that her car was being driven by Rose’s mistress, Carol, a former barmaid who is now Rose’s wife. “What made him such a success as a ball player,” Karolyn once said, “was what made him fail—in my opinion—in our marriage. He never grew up.”
Despite the attacks on Rose’s reputation, an overflow crowd of 55,385 turned out at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium last week for the Reds’ season opener against last year’s World Series champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the warm spring sunshine, the Reds won by a score of 6-4. Banners draped from the stadium walls in the outfield said “Free Pete” and “You bet we back Pete.” After the game, journalists surrounded Rose in an effort to get him to comment on the gambling allegations. One reporter referred to the opening of the baseball season as “a great American tradition.” Rose, half grinning, shot back: “Yeah, I’ll tell you another great American tradition: innocent until proven guilty.” In the coming weeks, Giamatti’s office will decide one way or the other. In the meantime, the future of the middle-aged boy whose reputation, for better or worse, exemplifies much of the spirit of baseball continued to hang like a slow curve ball.
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