On August 24, 1989, Pete Rose accepted a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball after an investigation into allegations that he bet on baseball, including games in which he served as manager.
It may seem hard to believe now, but Pete Rose’s gambling was the subject of great debate during the 1990s and early 2000s. The majority of people believed he was guilty of the transgressions of which he was accused, while a small but vocal group of defenders felt that the evidence against him was flimsy and that he had been railroaded. And there was an endless argument about whether or not his actions warranted a lifetime ban.
I was a Rose defender, at least initially. I first started following baseball when I was 9 years old. My family moved to Cincinnati in 1977, and Rose was the biggest star on a Reds team full of great players. It would have been impossible not to have become a huge fan.
My family moved to upstate New York a few years later, but my passion for the Reds raged on through high school. When it came time to decide which college to attend, I chose the University of Cincinnati. I’d be lying if I said my love for the Reds didn’t play a role in that decision.
Rose had returned to Cincinnati as a player-manager in August of 1984, in pursuit of Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record. I arrived on campus two years later and fell right back into my torrid love affair with the Reds.
The rumors that Pete was in trouble for gambling started to swirl in February 1989, just as spring training was about to begin. My roommates and I always watched the evening news on the NBC affiliate, anchored by the already infamous Jerry Springer, and it was there that we watched the drama unfold. First, Rose was absent from camp one day. Then he explained to reporters that he’d been summoned to the Commissioner’s office in New York to discuss “general baseball matters.” And then the feces hit the fan when Sports Illustrated published a cover story reporting that Rose was being accused of betting on baseball games.
The national media descended on Cincinnati, and they followed Pete around all summer. He went to court in an effort to block commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti from taking any action. I left town when the school year ended in June, and by then it seemed clear that this was a fight Pete wasn’t going to be able to win. When he exhausted his options in state and federal court, Pete struck a deal with the commissioner: he’d agree to a permanent ban, but one which allowed him to apply for reinstatement after a year.
The agreement itself created controversy from the day it was announced, and the story took a sad turn eight days later when Giamatti died of a massive heart attack. All those who believed that Rose’s banishment might be short-lived soon realized that those hopes died with Giamatti.
The Dowd Report
A few years later, Rose appeared on a late night talk show hosted by Bob Costas, and when Rose asked if Costas thought he’d bet on baseball, Costas said he did. It wasn’t the opinion that surprised me, but the absolute certainty with which he expressed it.
Costas explained that he’d reached that conclusion after reading the Dowd Report, a 225-page document prepared by John Dowd, a former federal prosecutor who Giamatti had asked to lead the investigation. I found references to the report in the media and even some excerpts, but I wanted to see for myself what the overwhelming evidence was. Fans in Cincinnati all thought the report had been biased against Rose, that the Commissioner had based his decision on the word of some less-than-reputable informants — drug dealers, con men, and spurned hangers-on. Rose himself described the report as a “prosecutor’s brief,” one that outlined only one side of the story and offered him no opportunity to respond.
I approached with an open mind, but I was cynical and it was going to take some convincing to push me to the side of Costas and everyone else outside of Cincinnati who was convinced Pete Rose had bet on baseball.
I tracked down Dowd, who by this time was in private practice with a big law firm in Washington, D.C. He spoke to me briefly on the phone and sent me a bound copy of his report. And I have to say, it didn’t take long for me to be convinced. Rose was guilty as hell.
That 225-page summary report was backed by thousands of pages of supporting evidence: transcripts of interviews, reports from experts, and what turned out to be the smoking gun — Rose’s own bank records and phone records.
Clashing with Bill James
I started writing about the case, hoping to sort out the facts from the rumors and dispel some of the myths that were propping up the case in support of Rose. One of his most vocal supporters was writer Bill James, revered within the baseball community and considered the authoritative voice to most people who considered themselves hardcore fans of that era.
In his 1990 book, James railed against the Commissioner’s case, saying he hadn’t even come close to proving Rose had bet on baseball, and lambasting those who said they were certain of Rose’s guilt. On a couple of occasions, James and I sparred in the press, and he disputed what I claimed were some factual errors in his reporting on the case. He took me to task in his 2001 book, explaining why he felt my criticisms were off-base.
But I was less interested in convincing Bill James of Rose’s guilt than I was in letting others come to their own decision, based not on James’ interpretation of the evidence but on their own. So I asked John Dowd if he’d be alright with me posting his report online, and he agreed.
Over the next year, I made many trips to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where the 22 volumes of supporting evidence had been sent, and the staff at the Research Library let me pore through them. I posted copies of the most interesting stuff online, and eventually posted copies of everything.
Over the years, Rose continued to profess his innocence. To some, he was a pariah, to others a folk hero and victim of injustice. He made the case for why he should be allowed to return to baseball, something that the new Commissioner, Bud Selig, said he couldn’t envision happening.
I wrote more than a dozen articles on the case, and each one unleashed a flurry of angry letters and e-mails. I responded to every reader by pointing them to the archive of documents I’d posted online. (They’re still there, in their entirety, and still draw a surprising amount of traffic.)
Rumors of a Return
In the course of reporting on the case, I made a lot of good contacts within baseball and within Rose’s circle. So I was very surprised in 2003 when the website Baseball Prospectus published a report saying Rose had a reinstatement deal in place. I knew most of the folks who wrote for the website, and I had just launched the first spinoff of their brand, Pro Football Prospectus. Their report on Rose’s deal was a national story and some outlets were calling me for my reaction.
I checked with my contacts within the Rose camp, who all said they hadn’t heard anything about this. One source in Major League Baseball said it simply wasn’t true. The BP guys wouldn’t tell me anything about their sources, but they got pretty angry with me when I started making radio appearances and saying I didn’t think their reporting was credible. They ended up yanking my contract for the football book, but I had to be honest and say I think they were being hoodwinked.
It turned out I was right, there was no deal in place. I always suspected someone close to Rose, maybe even Rose himself, leaked the story as a trial balloon, to see if there was significant public support. There wasn’t, and the ill-will that the story created within the Commissioner’s office squelched whatever small chance there had been for Rose to return.
In December of 2003, I got an urgent call from a producer at the ABC News program “Primetime.” He asked if I could send him a copy of the Dowd Report and all of the documents on a CD.
“They’re available at my website,” I explained. But there was a matter of some urgency, and he needed them all on a disc as soon as possible. It didn’t take too much sleuthing for me to figure out what was going on. I knew that Rose was planning to publish a new book the following month, one which was intended to make a case for why he should be reinstated. I deduced that Primetime was going to do a story refuting Pete’s claims of innocence, and they needed my help.
After signing a non-disclosure agreement, I shared pages and pages of notes, answered questions about obscure details of the case, and helped them nail down exactly what Rose had done.
A few days before the show aired, the real story broke. Rose was coming clean in his book, admitting that he had bet on baseball and begging for forgiveness. He wanted a chance to return to the game and to be eligible for the Hall of Fame.
The move backfired, of course. Rose’s contrition seemed self-serving since it came in the guise of a book promotion tour. After fifteen years of proclaiming his innocence, people who had long been convinced of his misdeeds weren’t all that interested in his confession. And the timing of his announcement overshadowed the Hall of Fame’s announcement of its 2004 class, which came the following day.
Whoever advised him to take this course of action did not serve him well. Redemption wasn’t going to come as easily as Rose had imagined.
With Rose’s confession, my role as a counter-balance to the Rose supporters was no longer necessary. But I’ve kept the Dowd Report and my archive of documents online for historical purposes. They tell a sad story.
As for Rose, he turned seventy this spring. Folks in Cincinnati still love him, but I think even he is resigned to the fact that he won’t ever be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s a shame, because he was such a fantastic ballplayer. His grit and determination were inspirational and helped prop up the myth that every 10-year old boy needs to see — that hard work leads inevitably to success.
Now, in my mid-forties, I look at Rose’s life and see the ultimate tragedy. A man whose strengths became his greatest weaknesses, one whose mistakes cast him out of the arena that meant everything to him. His lust for competition his what fueled his gambling problem. His self-confidence and belief in his own greatness deluded him into believing that he could lie his way out of trouble. And his inability to see the path back revealed his biggest failure, not understanding that his fifteen years of lying was what ruined his reputation and alienated all of those fans who had come to love him for what he did on the field.