The Rose Ballot

One of the questions people ask all the time is this: Why won’t the Pete Rose thing just go away? Rose was banned from baseball 27 years ago. Over those 27 years, he has denied betting on baseball … admitted betting on baseball but not on the Reds when he was manager … admitted betting on the Reds as manager but never to lose. He has sold autographed baseballs in Cooperstown when the Hall of Fame ceremonies were going on. He has continued to gamble, even on baseball, and has wondered aloud why this would give baseball pause in considering his reinstatement. He has done all sorts of cheesy things that have not exactly redeemed him in the public’s eye.

In other words: Why is anyone still talking about this?The answer is complicated. I think it has something to do the way Pete Rose played baseball. For a generation of baseball fans, particularly Midwestern fans, Rose represented the very essence of the game. He ran everything out. He crashed into bases head first. He played every position. He cracked line drives from both sides of the plate. He loved winning, but he loved the game even more. “Wow,” he famously said to Carton Fisk in the 11th inning of 1975’s magical Game 6, “this is some kind of game, isn’t it? We’ll tell our grandkids about this game.”

When the games ended, he wanted to talk baseball for as long as he could, and when that ended he would drive around in his car and try to pick up West Coast games on the radio. Rose’s obsession with baseball was overpowering and exhilarating, and people who loved baseball in his time felt intoxicated by him. Mix that intoxication with nostalgia, and, right, a lot of people simply cannot let go of Pete Rose. They want to see the Pete Rose they remember in the Hall of Fame.

The latest person to enter the fray is an accomplished man named Mark Rosenbaum. He grew up in Cincinnati in the time of Pete Rose. He went on to become a prominent civil rights lawyer who argued three cases before the Supreme Court and, among many other things, won billions of dollars for schools in underprivileged neighborhoods.

“Nobody,” he says, “played the game with more passion than Pete Rose.”

Rosenbaum is taking a different approach from most. He is not arguing that Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. Instead, he sent a long letter on Rose’s behalf to the Baseball Hall of Fame making one and only one case: Pete Rose deserves the chance to be on the Hall of Fame ballot. That’s it. And that’s all we’re talking about here (feel free to write your Pete Rose Hall opinion in the comments, but that’s NOT what this is about).

You probably know that before 1991 — coincidentally (irony font) one year beore Rose went on the ballot — every player, including banned players, were eligible for the Hall of Fame. That year, the Baseball Hall of Fame voted to make all banned players ineligible. It was quite controversial at the time.

As the years have gone on, that controversy has more or less died out as the larger conversation — does Rose BELONG in the Hall of Fame? — raged on. Rosenbaum would like the Hall of Fame to reconsider the ballot issue.

To quote from the letter:

“We are not writing to address whether Pete deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. We are not writing to minimize Pete’s history of gambling, or his history of trying to cover it up. And we are not writing to remind you of his greatness on the field … We are writing to respectfully request that Pete Rose be treated exactly the same way that every Major League Baseball player has been treated from the start of the National Baseball Hall of Fame voting in 1936 to 1991.”

At this point, I must say, Rosenbaum’s plea takes a couple of shaky turns. For instance, he brings up the fact that Shoeless Joe Jackson was eligible to be voted into the Hall of Fame even while was on baseball’s banned list and that he got Hall of Fame votes. This is true.

But Jackson is not a good argument. While he was TECHNICALLY eligible to be voted into the Hall of Fame, he was never considered. He appeared on the very first ballot of 50 players in 1936. Others on that ballot included a .221-hitting catcher named Lou Criger, all-around bad guy Hal Chase* and a catcher/pool hustler named Johnny Kling. All three of them got more votes than the two given to Joe Jackson.

*Chase was also on the banned list, and Bill James has called him the least admiral superstar of his time or perhaps all time. But Chase actually received 27 votes in two years on the ballot.

Jackson never appeared on another Hall of Fame ballot (though he did get two votes in a 1946 nominating vote). Everyone understood that, technicalities aside, Joe Jackson was no more eligible for the Hall of Fame than Bump Bailey.

Rosenbaum’s letter also brings up Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, who were briefly on the ineligible list for their connections to a casino, though that whole direction seems immaterial to the Rose case.

But Rosenbaum’s basic argument — that Pete Rose absolutely should be included on the Hall of Fame ballot — is a fascinating one because … well, we’ll get into it in a second. Before that, though, let’s get one other thing clear: This effort by Rosenbaum and company is futile.

1. The Hall of Fame will not put him on the ballot now. There’s no chance. The Hall of Fame is a museum dedicated to celebration of baseball, and I can all but guarantee that they will not turn their annual Hall of Fame balloting into a freak show referendum on Pete Rose. It’s a non-starter.

2. Even if by some miracle Rose did get on the ballot, he would not get elected. I don’t think he’d come particularly close to getting elected.

But let’s not talk about the politics of Rose. Let’s not talk about his gambling or whether or not he’s worthy of the Hall of Fame. Let’s not talk about forgiveness or stubbornness or anybody’s personal feelings. Let’s talk about one and only one thing:

Should Pete Rose have been taken off the Hall of Fame ballot?

* * *

Let’s start on August 24, 1989 — after the nastiness, after the back and forth threats, after the Rose lawsuit, after the tax evasion charges first came to light, after all of that. That was the day that baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti announced that Pete Rose had been banned for life. That was the end of a long and ugly chapter.

It’s striking how confusing that whole day was. Here was Giamatti making the announcement that Rose had agreed to his punishment, a permanent ban from baseball. He had agreed to drop all disputes with the commissioner. He had agreed to never challenge him or any future commissioner who would consider his reinstatement case. From Giamatti’s perspective, this was a decisive decision: Rose was permanently banned from the game.

The Rose people saw it very differently — or at least they SPUN it very differently. In their view, Rose had not been banished by the commissioner. Not exactly. Instead, Rose had SETTLED with the commissioner. It was a deal, and the deal was that Rose would be banned for one year, at which point he would reapply for reinstatement and (in his mind) be welcomed back to the game. And as part of the deal, Baseball would end its investigation of him and not rule one way or another on his betting on the game. It was a plea bargain.

“I hope to get back to baseball as soon as I can,” Rose told reporters.

“I guarantee I’ll be back in a year,” he told reporters a bit later.

“Is there a deal? A secret number? No!” Giamatti said when asked about that. “Is there anything automatic? Absolutely not. Will I be challenged by Pete Rose if I decide not to — I can’t be, he signed a document saying I won’t, and neither will any future commissioner.”

Point is, they disagreed about more or less every part of this thing.

But there was one thing EVERYONE agreed on: Rose would be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

“When Pete Rose is eligible,” Giamatti said at that press conference, “Mr. (Jack) Lang will count the ballots, and you will decide whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.”

Lang was the secretary of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), the group that votes for the Hall.

You really can’t get clearer than that. Giamatti fully anticipated that Rose would be on the ballot and there would be a vote. Now, it’s true that Giamatti did not have authority over the Hall of Fame — they are different institutions — but he had VIRTUAL authority. The Hall of Fame will follow the commissioner’s directive.And sure enough, shortly after Giamatti’s statement, Hall of Fame associate director Bill Guilfoile confirmed the commissioner’s word. “He will be on the ballot,” Guilfoile said

“I believe Pete Rose will be elected to the Hall of Fame,” former commissioner Peter Ueberroth chimed in.

So, everyone was on the same page. Then, a series of things happened, the first being the most important and most shocking: Giamatti died of a heart attack. He died eight days after banning Rose. Those two events would become connected in many people’s minds and hearts — many would theorize that the Rose affair had played a role in Giamatti’s untimely death.

After that, Fay Vincent — a close friend of Giamatti’s — became commissioner. And there was never any doubt of his fury at Rose or his revulsion at the idea of Rose being elected to the Hasll of Fame. In 1990, the whispers began that Rose might be taken off the ballot.

. “That’s been a suggestion made by some writers,” Guilfoile said mysteriously. “Whether that will come up for discussion, I don’t know.”

The BBWAA’s outrage at the very SUGGESTION that Rose (and all other banned players) might be pulled from the ballot was immediate and fierce. The BBWAA had come to believe that THEY were the true guardians of the Hall. In fact, at that very time, they were petitioning the Hall of Fame to change its veteran’s committee rules so that it would stop electing people like Rick Ferrell and start acting more like, well, the BBWAA.

“(Ferrell) got five votes in all the years he was on the ballot,” Lang griped. “We think they should have to come reasonably close to the 75 percent requirement.”

But the BBWAA’s anger did not prevent the Hall of Fame from having a vote about banned players and the Hall of Fame ballot. And, as one BBWAA member grumbled, the fix was in. When the vote went down, the two writers on the committee along with Hall of Fame director Edward Stack voted to keep banned players on the ballot. The other seven, including several baseball executives and my old friend Buck O’Neil, voted to get them off the ballot. The deal was done. Rose was off the ballot.

“A sham,” Philadelphia’s Frank Dolson said.

“Disgraceful,” Jack Lang said.

“If you find the slim chance of a candidate winning an election distasteful, you don’t manipulate the system to keep that person off the ballot,” Kansas City’s Joe McGuff wrote. “Not in a Democracy, anyway.”

And so on. Several writers promised to boycott the election (they did not). Several others promised to write Rose in as a write-in candidate (they did). But, in reality, there was nothing they could do. The Hall of Fame makes the rules of eligibility. Taking Rose off the ballot solved many problems for them. It put the Hall in the good graces of Commissioner Vincent. It soothed the Hall of Famers, who were less than excited about Rose’s Hall of Fame credentials (Bob Feller threatened to never come back to the Hall of Fame).

Of course, Hall of Fame cloaked the Rose snub in the blanket of justice.

“We’re cleaning up our rules of election,” Stack said as innocently as he possibly could. “This is probably something that should have been done years ago. … I don’t remember (Pete Rose’s) name being specifically mentioned. Pete Rose was not the subject of our discussion.”

This sounded as ridiculous then as it does now, but none of it really mattered.

And so now the question: Should Pete Rose have been pulled off the ballot? Bill James thinks yes, and he believes it so strongly that he does not have any idea why it was ever an issue. As he wrote in, “The Politics of Glory:”

“The Hall of Fame is absolutely, completely, totally and unarguably right about the banning of Pete Rose … It’s a silly thing to even talk about. The Hall of Fame is baseball’s highest honor. Does it make sense to say that Pete Rose is ineligible to put on a uniform for any reason, or that he’s ineligible to play, or manage, or coach, or broadcast, that he is ineligible to sit in the press box or step on the field, that he may not work in baseball as a batboy, an equipment manager or a men’s room attendant — but that he does remain eligible for baseball’s highest honor? How could anyone even argue such a thing?”

That’s a powerful case — but there is a counterargument, one that Rosenbaum makes with passion: Rose being on the ballot is what Bart Giamatti wanted and expected even after he banned Rose from baseball. He could not have made that more clear. He did not want to ban Rose from the Hall of Fame ballot and did not believe he was doing so. He believed, instead, that the voters should weigh Rose’s career in total, his play and his gambling, his contributions to the team and the harm he caused to baseball, and decide if he belonged in the Hall of Fame.

And even now, many years later, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred followed Giamatti’s lead. Yes, he denied Rose’s petition for reinstatement but he also made clear that the Hall of Fame was a different story.

As mentioned up front, it’s too late now. The Hall of Fame has nothing whatsoever to gain by making Rose eligible. The other Hall of Famers would be outraged. The Rose distraction would deflect attention from other deserving players on the ballot. Nothing would be more infuriating to the Hall of Fame than to have Jeff Bagwell or Tim Raines or Jim Thome elected and have the headlines everywhere be: “Writers Vote No On Rose Again.”

But, if we could go back in time, I think the Giamatti argument is persuasive. He did not intend to ban Rose from the Hall of Fame ballot. I think if he had lived on, Rose would have been on the ballot. And I also beleve the writers would not have voted him in … and we’d be talking about something else.

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