For Pete’s Sake

REVIEW: ‘Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball’ by Keith O’Brien

May 12, 2024

The line between role model and reprobate runs through the middle of every human heart. Eighty-three-year-old Pete Rose, banished from baseball in 1989 for betting on sports, now signs baseball cards in half-empty exurban shopping malls to scrape a bit of extra income together. Even quite well-informed people born after the Carter administration may have only a vague idea who he is. Well, here’s who: Pete Rose is one of eight men in the century-and-a-half-long history of baseball to have scored 2,000 runs. He once hit in 44 consecutive games. He became an All Star at five different positions. He was the MVP in what many fans consider the greatest World Series ever played (1975). He has more hits—4,256—than any player who ever lived. A native Cincinnatian, he spent most of his career with his hometown team, the Reds.

Rose achieved these things largely through strength of character. He neither drank nor smoked—an unusual thing for a ballplayer in the middle of the last century—and went to bed early. He played hard and he played hurt, introducing the head-first slide to big-league ball. He had a powerful baseball intellect—watch any interview and you’ll see it. His ability to remember and recall the tendencies and tricks of hundreds of pitchers and to size up situations was matched in his era only by his Reds teammate, the second baseman Joe Morgan. Pete Rose was almost certainly the athlete of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s whom fathers most often called on their sons to emulate. The journeyman outfielder Dave Collins told sportswriter Keith O’Brien that he had "never seen a man so focused on hitting, so obsessed with his job." Everyone called him "Charlie Hustle"— the title of a new book by O’Brien that rehashes the story of Pete Rose for 21st-century readers.

For all his on-field virtuosity, Pete Rose had a terrible off-field problem: He was a gambling addict, and this in a sport that professed zero tolerance for gambling. The game’s best pitcher, Denny McLain, had been suspended in 1970 for consorting with bookmakers. By then Major League Baseball was already investigating Rose. It proved hard, though, to develop a wide-ranging case against him.

Michael Sokolove, in his riveting 1990 account of Rose’s fall, Hustle, explained why Rose was easily caught in the 1980s for conduct that had been allowed to slide in the 1960s: Basically, he stiffed the people who took his bets. When Rose got on a string of losses, he would make only partial payments, or pay nothing at all, then move on to a new bookie. This was okay as long as he was betting with sports-loving Good-Time Charlies who had known his father on Cincinnati’s West Side. Rose even managed to avoid a comeuppance when, having worn out his hometown welcome, he turned to a Dayton bookie named Dick "The Skin Man" Skinner, who was tougher but scandal-averse. Eventually, though, he wound up dealing with people who were less stable and more desperate. A young gym rat from Massachusetts named Tommy Gioiosa placed his bets for a while, before Rose turned to Paul Janszen, the Cincinnati bodybuilder who was Gioiosa’s steroids dealer. This was the late 1980s, high point of the War on Drugs—and though Rose was not suspected of using steroids or other chemicals, his betting had drawn him willy-nilly into a drug investigation. When Gioiosa and Janszen were arrested, Janszen was in a dispute with Rose’s agent over $40,000 he said Rose owed him. The agent told Janszen Rose wouldn’t pay. That turned out to be a mistake: Janszen called Sports Illustrated.

O’Brien’s book cannot match Sokolove’s. There are not as many people around to interview as there were 35 years ago, memories are not as sharp, and O’Brien has focused his reporting on Rose associates who were young then—primarily Janszen and Gioiosa. The result is a familiar and zing-less story that often drifts to more contemporary preoccupations. What were those Big Red Machine teams like back in the day? "Cincinnati hardly had a reputation for diversity and inclusion," we learn.

O’Brien’s book does show us how society changed in the course of the Cold War. Rose was macho, and just the right age to participate in the piggery that marked American culture after its manly victory in World War II. Sokolove tells of a night in the 1960s when several Reds attended a live-sex act in Mexico City and Rose "jumped up on stage and became part of the show." (The question How? is, mercifully, not raised.) Rose cheated a lot, and his wives and mistresses literally battled over his affections—ripping a necklace off another’s neck, driving off with another’s car, slugging another in the face, and so on. The Reds were swingers in more ways than one.

After the early 1970s, when a labor court ended the "reserve clause" that had limited athletes’ salaries, Rose suddenly found himself with millions to spend on sports cars, broads, and other indulgences. You can judge how well he spent it from the photo on page 175 of O’Brien’s book, which shows Rose in a leather jacket, big tinted glasses, shaggy bangs, and rings, with the Michelin-Man neck of one who is no stranger to the Skyline five-way.

(Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

The 1980s brought a societal revulsion from the disorder of the 1970s. That’s basically what Reaganism was, even if a lot of athletes were slow on the uptake. In 1989 A. Bartlett "Bart" Giamatti, the 51-year-old Yale president who is today best known as the father of the actor Paul, became commissioner of Major League Baseball and pushed the scandal to a climax, banning Rose from baseball that August. Giamatti struck a Wilsonian tone: "I will be told that I am an idealist," he said. "I hope so." Then, eight days later, just as the public seemed to be tiring of this kind of grandstanding, Giamatti did something that would put his decision beyond appeal: He died of a heart attack at his summer house in Martha’s Vineyard. It has been difficult to revisit the Rose case ever since, although Commissioner Rob Manfred suggested he might do so in 2015. In late April of this year, the Ohio House of Representatives proposed petitioning Manfred to give it another look.

The case for disciplining Rose was a strong one back in the 20th century. The case for continuing to persecute him is absurd. It was not conclusively shown in 1989 that he had bet on baseball, and there has never been any credible allegation that his bets influenced his play. There is, to be sure, a powerful theoretical case against sports betting: A player who gets too deep in debt to his bookie could be blackmailed into throwing a game. But the problem here is debt, not gambling. You can be bribed to throw a game without being a gambler—that’s what happened in the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

In the last five years, the argument that Major League Baseball should continue to hold Pete Rose’s wagering against him has come to sound outright hypocritical, now that those who sat in judgment on him "partner" with online gambling corporations to hook teenagers and young men on sports betting. When conduct that once occupied vice squads ceases to be illegal, the punishments doled out for it lose their legitimacy. We don’t torment gays who were in relationships before the sodomy laws were repealed, nor do we blacklist people who smoked weed during the Summer of Love.

This is a sad story about a man who was great and miserable at the same time and who was one of the first tragedies of a period when American hypocrisy was just beginning to dress itself in the woke raiment it wears today. He was not inherently malign—just obsessive, too focused, and unprotected by a bourgeois superego. In his heyday Pete Rose belonged to those whom Kerouac called "the ones that burn, burn, burn." He once said, in fact, "I would walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball." There was nothing phony about him. He lived for baseball in the same way certain artists live for art, ignored major problems until they were too complicated to manage, and was ultimately broken on the wheel of his obsession.

Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball
by Keith O’Brien
Pantheon, 440 pp., $35

Christopher Caldwell is a contributing editor at the Claremont Review of Books.