Rarely are there headlines about baseball that overshadow the on-field theatrics of the Boys of Summer. But, last week, the final humiliation of a hero and the growing problems of one of the game’s popular villains diverted the attention of fans, at least momentarily, from the sport itself. In a crowded Cincinnati courtroom, U.S. district court Judge Arthur Speigel sentenced major-league all-time hit leader Pete Rose to five months in prison for income tax
evasion. And in New York City, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent deliberated in seclusion over whether Yankees owner George Steinbrenner should be disciplined for paying gambler Howard Spira $40,000 (U.S.).
Both cases grew out of investigations by the commissioner’s office. In New York, where the once-powerful Yankees have been in last place in the American League's East division since late May, the commissioner’s investigation of the high-handed Steinbrenner has provided a lightning rod for the frustration of New Yorkers, some of major-league baseball’s most unforgiving fans. But in Cincinnati, where Rose’s hitting skill helped the National League Reds become a powerhouse team in the 1970s, the predominant attitude appeared to be hurt acceptance. Said 83-year-old Melvin Aicholz: “He’s a liar and he really did a great disservice to his fans.”
The final inning arrived for Rose on Thursday, when he showed up in court limping from a knee injury suffered during a ball game at a family reunion the previous weekend. While his wife, Carol, sat behind him, the 49-year-old former manager of the Reds, who had 4,256 hits during his playing career, told Speigel, “Your honor, I’m very shameful to be here today before you.” The worst part, said Rose, was that “my wife will have to tell my five-yearold son that ‘your daddy is a jailbird.’ ” Re-
plied Speigel: “There are two people here: Pete Rose, the idol of millions, the living legend, and Pete Rose, the individual convicted of cheating on his taxes. Today, we are not dealing with a legend.”
For Rose, whose playing style earned him the nickname Charlie Hustle, conviction brought an immediate penalty with the prospect of another, perhaps more demoralizing one. In addition to handing down the fivemonth jail sentence for failing to report income of $354,968 (U.S.) from memorabilia sales, autograph appearances and gambling earnings between 1984 and 1987, Speigel also fined Rose $50,000 (U.S.), and ordered him to spend three months in a halfway house after his release and to perform 1,000 hours of community service among inner-city Cincinnati youngsters. Rose reached a settlement in April with the Internal Revenue Service under which
he paid $366,042 (U.S.). But the conviction, and his lifetime banishment from baseball last Aug. 23 for gambling, may bar Rose from the Hall of Fame, baseball’s highest honor. No major-league player who served time for a felony has ever received the accolade.
After surgery for the knee injury, Rose will report to a federal prison camp in Ashland, Ky., on Aug. 10 to begin serving his sentence. His future, when he is released in January, is unclear. He is eligible to apply next month for reinstatement in the game, but he has said that he will not. Vincent said in an interview that public interest in the case appeared to be diminishing. Said the commissioner: “I think most people feel baseball did what it had to do, and life goes on.”
But, in the Steinbrenner affair, interest was growing rapidly. The commissioner’s office released the transcript of hearings on July 5 and 6 in which the Yankees owner provided conflicting explanations for why last January he gave $40,000 (U.S.) to Spira, who was charged with extortion three months ago because of a complaint filed by Steinbrenner. Originally, Steinbrenner said that he gave Spira the money to help him make a fresh start in life.
At the hearings, Steinbrenner gave another explanation. First, he said that he gave Spira the money to prevent him from divulging information about the gambling habits of former Yankee manager Lou Piniella and about two former Yankee executives who were forced to resign when, Steinbrenner alleged, they sold promotional merchandise left over from Yankee home games and kept the money. He also offered a third reason: he and his children were “scared stiff” of Spira. Responded commissioner Vincent: “You might have called me. If I were in your shoes and I was worried about my family, I God damned well would have gotten some law-enforcement people aware of the threat.”
Piniella, Rose’s successor at the helm of the Reds, angrily dismissed the suggestion of impropriety and said that he had never bet more I than $25 to $50 (U.S.) during occasional visits ^ to a race track. Said Piniella: “I am disturbed by this, I really am.” He added: “[Steinbrenner] is always talking about how much he likes me and likes my family. This sort of raises some doubts, believe me.” Vincent swiftly exonerated the Reds manager. Said the commissioner: “I am satisfied that Lou Piniella did not engage in any activity warranting further attention from my office.”
At week’s end, Vincent had retired to his summer home in Cape Cod, Mass., to weigh the testimony and decide whether the payment to Spira was in conflict with “the best interests of baseball”—the standard against which controversial behavior in the game has traditionally been measured. Steinbrenner could be cleared—or he could be banished from the game and forced to sell the Yankees. As Yankee great Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” But New York ball fans seemed to feel that Steinbrenner’s career was just as much “over” as Pete Rose’s day in court.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.