Email Exchange: Pete Rose Had a Gambling Problem, and That’s Not a Problem

pete rose

Today’s article: “Pete Rose’s Reckless Gamble,” Ryan Rodenberg, The Atlantic

Cameron Seib:

At Garfield Elementary School, where Mike and I spent our fledgling years, we had this thing called the Life Skills Program. It enlisted us to strive after certain qualities, or “life skills,” that our teachers and administrators found important — basic things like honesty, sense of humor, and courage.

Near the end of each month, we’d have a school-wide Life Skills assembly, where certain students were nominated and recognized for exhibiting a Life Skill. In third grade, I was honored in front of the school for showing “common sense.” I don’t remember what I did to earn the praise, but I do remember afterwards asking Mrs. Edwards, my teacher, why common sense was a Life Skill in the first place. As eight-year-old me saw it, a kid who had common sense shouldn’t be lauded for the fact; it should’ve been an expected virtue, and those who lacked it should’ve been condemned. I now see why I won the common sense award.

That specific anecdote has nothing to do with today’s article, but the Life Skills Program, and another personal story about it, actually does!

On one of the first days of fourth grade, Mrs. Reynolds gave each student a small person-shaped cutout and asked us to decorate the figures in a way that somehow represented ourselves. She’d brought in loads of scrap cloths, but the only one I thought fit paper-me was a piece that’d ostensibly come from an old Cincinnati Reds blanket. So I did my best to cut a mini t-shirt from the material (definitely fucked it up), and glued it onto my figure. I finished outfitting the guy with some grey pants, so he’d look like a baseball player. To finalize my masterpiece, though, I had to tattoo the cutout with a Life Skill. Arrogant old me found a slip of paper that said “Integrity,” and I glued it across Small Cameron’s chest.

A peachy-skinned Reds player, my paper figure was visually reminiscent of Pete Rose. Morally, though, it was anything but. As Ryan Rodenberg’s piece in The Atlantic reminds us today, Rose did NOT show integrity on the field.

If you were born yesterday, you can’t read, but here’s a quick primer on the history of Rose’s scandal for when you can. After a record-breaking career as a player for Cincinnati, Rose became the Reds’ manager in the mid-80s. He proceeded to bet on his team to win certain games. The MLB, after learning of this, in turn proceeded to ban Rose for life, because gambling is a big no-no for league employees. Most notably as a result, Rose remains outside the halls of Cooperstown, despite holding the all-time record for hits and generally being considered one of the best players ever.

Whether Rose deserves a plaque in the Hall of Fame has been an ongoing debate for years now, with many proponents specifically using Rose’s transgressions as a defense in his favor. I, at least before this morning, was in that group. Why was Rose ever punished, much less to such a great extent, simply for believing in his team?

As Rodenberg, an assistant professor of sports law at Florida State University, explains, Rose’s gambling really wasn’t so harmless. Aside from betting of any form violating the expressly written bylaws of the MLB, the big thing for Rodenberg is that Rose didn’t bet on every Reds game he managed. And that, Rodenberg argues, could’ve compromised the integrity of each Cincinnati game during Rose’s managerial career. For one, Rose’s decision to not bet on the Reds in certain games may’ve signaled something to his bookies, who then might’ve been inclined to put money on the opposition. Of course, Rose wouldn’t want to piss off his bookies, because they could’ve outed him to the MLB at any time, so he might’ve been weary of managing his team to victory when he knew doing so would cost those guys big bucks.

Second, and really more importantly, it seems certain that Rose would’ve managed in a way that allowed for the Reds to be at full-strength for the games on which he’d wagered. Maybe he burned the bullpen arms when money was on the line, even knowing it could limit Cincy’s ability to win their next game. Or maybe he sat his best players in games he hadn’t bet on, letting them rest up for match-ups that had the potential to bring back money.

Taking anytime at all to consider the implications of a manager betting on his team’s games, it’s hard to say it’s not a pretty damning act. Certainly, and I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, if the MLB allowed coaches to gamble on games, even just on their teams winning, the sport would collapse. No longer, as John Dowd wrote in his investigation of Rose’s betting, would winners “be determined by the best efforts of each player on the field.”

All that sentimental purist shit aside, I still think Rose should be in the Hall of Fame. No question. I don’t care how immoral you convince me his behavior was. Cooperstown is not a place to enshrine good guys that also happened to be able to swing the bat. It’s where we honor the players who were the best on the field, nothing more. Ty Cobb was a proud racist, and as Al Stump claims in his biography on the Tiger, once beat a man to death. Tony La Russa hates immigrants, loves Glenn Beck, and was arrested for driving drunk. Both Cobb and La Russa were no-doubt selections into the Hall.

Maybe you come back and say, “Well, that’s just an argument that Cobb and La Russa shouldn’t be in, either.” Okay, theoretical dude, let’s take out all the guys who screwed up at some point in their life and erase tear down their plaques. Sound like a good idea? Of course it doesn’t, because when you follow that logic to the end, you realize the Hall really isn’t about only accepting real-life saints, or else it’d be near-empty.

Pete Rose fucked up. Big time. As did many of his peers, before and after. They are in Cooperstown. He is not. Change that, I say.

Mike, how bad do you think Rose’s gambling really was? And do you think he should be in the Hall of Fame?

Michael Rosen:

Seems you mostly covered it all, Cam. While we were discussing this topic in our Gchat right after you started writing, I wanted to check in where you fell on this issue to see if my response would be similar in any way. Turns out, your take is pretty much exactly in line with what I planned on writing.

I did once fall in line with the hypothetical student’s line of thought in Rodenberg’s piece. I, too, was guilty of thinking that betting on your team to win games doesn’t seem like a conflict of interest in any way. Obviously, you’re trying to win every game you manage — what’s the big deal here? But Rodenberg’s piece did get me thinking about the counterargument to that sentiment in a more nuanced way than before, and his points do make sense.

I disagree slightly with the counterfactuals proposed by Rodenberg — unless there’s concrete evidence of Rose committing the hypothetical acts he proposes Rose may have committed in the piece, then they remain hypotheticals. It might have been as simple as Rose betting on the days his ace pitched. But that’s an argument I’m not comfortable taking very far, so I’ll leave it alone. Like you said, Pete Rose definitely fucked up.

But I come down pretty strong on “the Hall of Fame is a museum to commemorate the best players” side of things. Again, like you said, Ty Cobb and countless others in the Hall today are gigantic pieces of shit douchebags. It is not the Hall of Morality, nor the Hall of Character Judgment. And that doesn’t even get into the idea that these are baseball writers making these “moral” calls — professional baseball writers, so obviously among the great moral arbiters of our universe, passing down their judgements on these baseball players. Fact of the matter is Pete Rose is one of the best 25 or 30 or 50 players of baseball of all-time, and therefore deserves a shrine in the museum that ostensibly honors, uh, baseball playing.

To be honest, and maybe I’ll come off sounding like a dipshit, but my gut instinct is to think Rose’s gambling didn’t really affect the outcomes of games all that much. I can see the slippery slope argument about allowing one type of gambling and then that leading to more serious types of gambling, etc. And I can see how it potentially could lead to grave consequences for the game in general. But in a vacuum, I don’t think what Rose did was all that bad. /ducks

CS:

They remain hypotheticals, but the conclusions drawn are sound. If you bet on one game but not another, it stands to reason that you’ll care more about winning the game that’ll bring in money. Because people, Americans especially, are selfish and ALWAYS put their own interests before others’. If Thomas Jefferson had to rewrite the Declaration of Independence to reflect the sentiment of today’s citizens, it’d read “We hold this truth to be self-evident: I got mine, and don’t give a fuck about you.” So, even if it would require an explicit confession to prove that Rose managed his team to be at full-strength for the games on which he’d wagered, we can still safely assume he actually did so, because, how could he have not? Even if he didn’t realize it, or denied the idea to himself, Rose was going to be inclined to go all-in when there was a potential reward awaiting. Because humans want to better themselves no matter the cost, Rose is a human, and Rose stood to better himself by tanking in certain games.

I guess that’s all a way of saying that even if you can’t prove what Rodenberg suggests, his arguments don’t lose weight for it. You can never prove a person at fault unless there’s recorded evidence of the act, or the person in question admits guilt, but when all the evidence points in one direction, we don’t let those constraints hold us back. That Rose compromised his team’s ability to win some games isn’t empirical fact, but it’s the sad truth.

Still, who cares? Baseball came down so hard on Rose that his example is not likely to ever be replicated. The lesson was learned, so put him in the Hall of Fame.

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