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Solving the Pete Rose Dilema
By Ed Mahoney


The recent Hall of Fame inductions of Tony Perez, Carlton Fisk, and Sparky Anderson rekindled great memories of the classic l975 World Series between the Reds and the Red Sox. Unfortunately, they also spotlighted the long and embarrassing drama between Pete Rose, a key player on that championship Reds team, and Major League Baseball. "We want Pete," his partisan supporters chanted, again, at Commissioner Bud Selig. And the Commissioner, again, did his best to say as little as possible. Pete, of course, was very close by—signing autographs on Cooperstown's Main Street. No Washington politician could do better at embarrassing his opponent.

For more than a decade now, Rose has denied gambling on baseball games and publicly campaigned for his reinstatement (even on Main Street at Cooperstown). During that same time, baseball has repeatedly ignored Rose's request for reinstatement, thereby tacitly maintaining the terms of the original Giamatti agreement: a lifetime ban in exchange for a cancelled investigation. Presumably official baseball wants the whole truth from Rose before rescinding the ban. Meanwhile, fan support for Rose builds and fan respect for the Commissioner declines. Worse yet, each new Hall of Fame induction ceremony is an embarrassment because the Pete Rose dilemma (not to mention Pete himself) will not go away.

Is there an honorable way to end this annual standoff? Yes, there is.

Rose should be reinstated, but on Major League Baseball's terms, not his own. Instead of the silent treatment, Selig should take the initiative to assert baseball's integrity while also improving its image with fans. Those goals are not incompatible. Why not? Simply put, most fans do not support Rose because they think he has told the whole truth about his gambling. They support him because they believe a lifetime ban is an excessive penalty for gambling on some baseball games. We know that this policy evolved from the Black Sox scandal of l9l9 and Commissioner Landis's rather absolute response to it. Landis was right to take a stand for baseball's integrity, but his "one punishment fits all" solution was extreme. Baseball could recover some credibility on this issue by delineating specific offenses and appropriate punishments for each.

For example, the Commissioner could adopt (in suitable legalese) the following "crime-and-punishment" hierarchy:

Gambling on other sports

An appropriate fine and/or a suspension of two to five years

Gambling on baseball

A ban of eight to ten years (the Pete Rose case)

Concealing information about the fixing of baseball games for money or other benefits

A twenty to thirty year ban (the Joe Jackson case)

Fixing baseball games by playing to lose them for money or other benefits

A permanent ban (the Black Sox except for Jackson)


Delineating such a graduated system of offenses and punishments would do much to restore baseball's credibility on the gambling issue, both legally and politically. It would also allow the Commissioner to reinstate both Pete Rose and Joe Jackson on baseball's terms. Each player has served more than the specified punishment for the presumed offense. Assuming that neither Rose nor Jackson is found to have "fixed" baseball games, the status of each should differ from that of the permanently banned Black Sox players. Rose and Jackson could then enter the Hall of Fame based on their performances while baseball delivers a much more articulate message about player integrity than does either Commissioner Landis's edict of eighty years ago or Commissioner Selig's silent treatment of Rose today.

What are the objections to such a solution? Well, some will always reject any compromise involving gambling or dishonest behavior, but I believe that view is short-sighted. Appropriate punishments are much more credible than simply a lifetime ban for any type of gambling offense. Others will criticize any solution that allows Rose to continue denying that he bet on baseball games while avoiding a conclusive investigation. Rose might do just that, but Major League Baseball would not need to argue with him. The Commissioner could take the high ground by announcing that Rose's banishment of over a decade has compensated for any gambling he may have done on baseball games. If Rose then persists with his media campaign for full exoneration, only he will seem small-minded and self-serving. More likely, Pete would just let the matter die and accept his reinstatement. Ending Joe Jackson's ban would also demonstrate baseball's ability to revise an earlier excessive punishment while still not condoning Jackson's role in the l9l9 World Series scandal.

So how about it, Commissioner Selig? Rather than allowing Rose all the initiatives while baseball persists with an inarticulate and unpopular policy, why not take control of this issue now—and put an end to the Pete Rose soap opera on terms that will set an enlightened precedent for all such matters in the future.



ED MAHONEY holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of New Mexico and has been a SABR member since l979. He currently teaches English at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

© 2001 Ed Mahoney


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