Why Pete Rose is better than Hamlet

Rose, he knows he’s such a credit to the game—Billy Joel, “Zanzibar”, 52nd Street, 1978

Rose, he knows he’ll never reach the Hall of Fame—Billy Joel, “Zanzibar”, updated lyrics from the concert album 12 Gardens Live, 2006

Pete Rose was the first active baseball player I knew about—and this is due to a marble game. His face was on the box of a baseball game I got when I was maybe eight years old, one of those toss-off endorsements that seem almost innocent and endearing nowadays. You’d shoot a ball into the playing area, pinball-style, and it would drop into one of the various slots representing the result of a play, from an out to a home run. It was plenty of fun if you happened to be eight, and hadn’t been spoiled by any video games more sophisticated than Pong.

It was a fitting introduction: Pete Rose as baseball archetype. The name stuck with me—an easy one to remember—and my brain began filing away Pete Rose memories from the occasional Game of the Week appearance. When he started chasing Joe DiMaggio and 56, I was following every day as his streak climbed into the 40s. The first baseball card I remember having, cut from the bottom of a box of Hostess Twinkies (or maybe it was their Cupcakes), had Pete Rose’s unique mug on it. It wasn’t necessarily the first baseball card I had. It’s the first one I remember.

He was the standard. He was the baseline. He was the embodiment of baseball.

I never saw him play in person, and I certainly never played against him myself—but I know someone who has. When I’m writing science fiction, my short stories almost always end up in Analog magazine. Analog‘s longtime editor is Cincinnati native Stanley Schmidt, who, when he was in high school, played a baseball game against a certain other Cincinnati native, three years older than he was. He summed up the experience to me in one sentence, delivered with a smile and a twinkling eye.

“He was a jerk then, too.”

Those two perspectives are remarkably effective at capturing the range of reactions to Pete Rose. He was the fans’ ballplayer, the ultimate identification figure, until the mask fell and we saw what was behind the face and the hustle. Such reactions are never universal: some people had never joined the original chorus of adulation for Rose, and some fans today still deplore Rose’s banishment from baseball as an injustice. That doesn’t change the core reactions. It’s just a matter of timing.

So which is the truth? In many situations dealing with human nature, when you’re asked to choose “this or that?”, the proper answer is “both, and maybe more.” We are complex beings, even the most outwardly straightforward of us like Rose. We have to reconcile those complexities and contradictions the best we can.

The way I do it here, a process I will not presume to call complete, is by referring to the genre of tragedy. “Tragedy” is a word whose definition has expanded well beyond its literary usage, to embrace nearly any really bad thing, and many an only slightly bad thing, that happens. Your printer conks out in the middle of an important job, and you think that’s a tragedy. It really isn’t, unless you knew it was ready to break down but figured it would survive one more task before you got it repaired.

Real tragedy, literary tragedy, requires certain things. It requires a positive protagonist, someone with admirable traits, someone you could plausibly call the hero of the story, at least at the start. It also requires that hero to have a fatal flaw, a negative attribute that causes a terrible downfall that all of his positive attributes cannot forestall. If you were deliberately procrastinating about having that printer fixed, you (the good guy) have just enacted a tragedy. Not a big one, but it fits the forms.

Pete Rose fits them much better. He was admired and beloved, and his personal flaws brought him crashing down. He is a legitimate tragic figure—and I contend that he is a greater tragic figure than either the great ancient Greek playwrights who founded the genre, or William Shakespeare himself, ever conceived.

Thesis

To explain this, let’s start with Pete Rose the hero. He did have admirable traits, or at least one grand overarching trait, to recommend him, and it will be no surprise to anybody. Pete Rose’s great admirable trait was his absolute competitive drive.

Accounts differ as to who coined the nickname “Charlie Hustle.” It’s attributed to Mickey Mantle, to Whitey Ford, possibly to others. The standard story is that during spring training in 1963, one of those Yankees saw this prospect for the Reds dashing full-speed to first base on a walk. Thinking it a flashy, empty gesture to convince people of his drive, that Yankee pinned the derisive nickname on Rose to put the kid in his place.

Whoever it was didn’t know yet that for Pete Rose, running out a walk wasn’t a gesture: it was a way of life.

As for the nickname, Rose owned “Charlie Hustle” like he’d made it up himself. The closest parallel outside baseball would be “The Iron Lady,” the name a Soviet state paper scornfully hung on Margaret Thatcher after a 1976 speech she made denouncing Communism. By her lights, they had blundered into a compliment, or at least shown she had made the right kind of enemy. She wore the title with pride for the rest of her career, which didn’t end until the Berlin Wall had been broken up and sold as souvenirs.

So it was with Rose, except this time a Red was the hero of the story. Sure he hustled. That’s how you were supposed to play the game, right? Run everything out, ’cause you never know. Don’t ever ease up, or it could become a habit. He took it to the point of obsession, to the point of self-parody, and he didn’t care if that’s what you thought about it.

And he had a point. He believed by training and temperament something we’ve studied and learned through science in the intervening decades. We now understand much better the mechanisms of neurological reinforcement, how we alter the chemistry of the neurons in body and brain alike by our actions. Practice something enough, and it becomes that much easier to repeat the action. In fact, it becomes difficult not to repeat the action.

Athletes of all stripes know this as “muscle memory,” but it goes far deeper than that. In a fundamental sense, we become what we act as being. Repeat an action often enough even just to satisfy others’ expectations, from charity to table manners, and we begin to acquire the virtue we are so cynically aping.

It works even when we’re not doing it. Seeing an action performed can potentiate the neural pathways connected with that action. The most pointed example I can give is the crotch-shot. Watching some blooper or home-video show, you see some poor schlub get hit in the groin with something, and (if you’re a guy) you immediately wince and kinda cover up that area. The sight of that event has tickled the appropriate neural pathways in your brain, laid down by a similar experience you had, and you have just experienced a faint echo of that man’s pain.

By playacting the role of a baseball player who never let up on the field, Pete Rose produced neurochemical changes reinforcing his actions and effacing any opposite tendencies. He became the man he acted like he was, and anybody watching him received a little of that reinforcement themselves. This is the long way of saying that people can teach themselves good habits and be an example to others—but it’s nice to have the science backing you up.

It’s also nice when the science helps you understand important events. A cornerstone of the legend of Pete Rose is the hit he leveled on catcher Ray Fosse during the 1970 All-Star Game. This was the prime weapon in the detractors’ arsenal until the late 1980s: that Rose didn’t have the sense or the decency to ease up during an exhibition game—a game that meant nothing!—and ruined a potential star’s career in the process.

Fosse’s numbers do support the claim of a derailed career, so I won’t dispute them. I will raise two other points. First, watch the play here, concentrating on Fosse first. Long before either Rose or the ball arrives, Fosse is straddling the baseline in front of home. He’s blocking the plate without the ball, which the rules say you cannot do. Plenty of catchers have done it, of course, but it’s an awfully hard-nosed play for an exhibition game that means nothing, isn’t it?

So that’s what Rose is facing: the only clear path to home plate means sliding between Ray Fosse’s legs, a highly unlikely maneuver. He stumbles, he recovers, and he crashes in, shoulder to shoulder. Maybe his hand brushes the plate in the pile-up, or maybe umpire Al Barlick awards Rose home on the obstruction.

Rose said his stumble was a slide he aborted when he saw it was hopeless. I think that’s true, but maybe incomplete. I think something more happened on that leaning, crouching, headlong dash to the plate, something Rose probably wouldn’t admit to himself, much less a reporter. You’re free to interpret it differently, but I think Pete Rose tried to let up against Ray Fosse.

But his body didn’t let up, because his body had forgotten how.

He had trained himself so hard in giving constant maximum effort that, when asked to go against that training in a split-second, his body slipped its gears. Given five seconds to decide whether to crash into Fosse, Rose could have mastered his ingrained reactions. In the heat of an instant decision, no way.

That’s a specific instance that has almost overshadowed the general case. Returning to the basics, Pete Rose was a player of substantial but unspectacular physical gifts, who used his unrelenting determination to parley them into something pretty amazing. To list all his accomplishments would be to risk tedium. (I’ll avert that risk by referring you to Steve Treder’s article.) A fair encapsulation would be that nobody ever got more hits, got more at-bats and plate appearances, and nobody played in more games.

The last accomplishment is apt, because nobody wanted to play more than Pete Rose. He went more than three years without missing a game, twice. He famously declared “I’d walk through Hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.” From him, you believed it, and at the end of his career, with his skills wearing away, it occasionally seemed he was proving it. He loved baseball, loved it as fiercely as he played it.

Those two things, the drive and the love, were what endeared him to so many baseball fans. Loving baseball may not be an undeniable virtue to everybody, but we fans think it is: we’re fans, after all. Rose’s love of baseball made fans identify with him, for it meant we had something in common. It made him one of us.

His drive attracted us even more, for what it said was possible for us. Baseball fans have always loved the “scrappy” players, the guys who work so hard to make more of themselves than there seems to be. Pete Rose was its ultimate expression. He didn’t just make the team; he didn’t just become a pretty good player. He was so determined, so scrappy, he made himself into someone you could plausibly call the best player in the game.

And if an Everyman like Pete Rose could become the best, not through the lottery of a perfect athletic body but through total devotion and guts, wasn’t it possible for all of us? Even without being born with millionaire parents or a super-genius IQ or movie-star looks, if we stuck to it and worked our tails off, we could succeed, thrive, excel. We could be Number One, even if no one else thought we could.

How could you not love a guy like that?

Antithesis

Unfortunately, Pete Rose would give us reasons. And dissociating ourselves from those reasons isn’t as easy as identifying ourselves with his virtues.

This is where Rose shows himself as an aberration among tragic figures, at least as far as classic literature goes. Shakespeare and the ancient Greek playwrights are lauded for the depth of their works, but they never grappled with the particular moral complexity that Rose’s tale produces (with one arguable exception, and I will be arguing about that later). For in Pete Rose we have a tragic protagonist with a manifest admirable quality, his absolute competitive drive—and the fatal flaw that brings his life down in ruins is the exact same thing.

Pete Rose’s competitiveness knew no bounds, and that was the trouble. Any game, indeed any endeavor in life, is quite literally defined by its limits. Rose’s desire to compete crossed every limit it encountered, heedless of consequence. Rose’s self-training to play all-out, to need to play all-out, affected him far beyond baseball.

This was evident even in the prime of his playing career, if not yet quite in the forms it would assume. Rose was gambling long before he met John Dowd, just not on baseball. If he was in a city with a horse or dog track and it was a day off on the baseball schedule, he was there, getting his action, competing by proxy. He was scarcely unique in that among ballplayers, especially the old-timers, but it was a signpost on the road he was traveling.

In the clubhouse, he was crossing a more disturbing line. The 1970s were the peak of the original PED scandal, one widely ignored then and nearly forgotten since: the amphetamine epidemic. These drugs—”greenies” the most common—were widely available in locker rooms across baseball, used by a large but ultimately incalculable proportion of baseball players. And Rose was one of them.

He made some waves by admitting this in a TV interview with David Letterman in 2006, but his original admission had come in a Playboy magazine interview in 1979, and a 1981 trial would link him and other Phillies to illegal prescriptions. The baseball culture somehow swallowed these revelations whole without it affecting Rose’s reputation, rather like Mark McGwire‘s openness about his androstenedione use in 1998. The taint upon his character would come later.

The revelation can scarcely surprise us. Rose’s career was predicated on manic energy. If his own internal supply ever flagged, there it was in handy tablet form, or mixed in with the clubhouse coffee. So many others did: why not him? The temptation to take the green pill, or whatever form it assumed, must have been so strong that he would have seen no reason to resist it. Crossing a line? What line?

I cannot help thinking how this filters another of Rose’s signature moments: Game Six in 1975. Leading off the eleventh inning, Rose can’t help telling Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, “This is some kind of game, isn’t it?” Moments later, at first base, he’s telling Carl Yastrzemski, “This is the greatest game I ever played in.” Even in the clubhouse—even in defeat!—he babbles on to reporters about how tremendous a game everyone just saw.

It’s vintage Rose: loving the game, loving the competition, appreciating its greatness even on the wrong end of the score. But there is a certain jangly tone to it, a certain forced overflowing. One wants to believe otherwise, but I have to wonder if Rose was wired on “supplements” when he spoke to Fisk and Yaz and the reporters. Not that he spoke anything but the truth, of course. (In green-o, veritas?). Still, it clouds one’s appreciation of that awesome game to think of Pete Rose popping speed to get through it.

Another of Rose’s competitive sins fell outside the game: his tax evasion on autograph and memorabilia income. Competitive, you ask? Certainly. It’s been one of Americans’ favorite sports for the last hundred years: figuring out how to make the most money possible while giving the least to the IRS. Some people play the game within the rules (meaning the tax code), and some people play outside the rules, but it’s had a back-handed social acceptance all the while. (As long as they’re not doing better than you, anyway.)

As with the amphetamines, Rose wasn’t alone in crossing this line. Other big baseball names have been implicated in such shenanigans: one of Chris Jaffe’s day-versary lists named names just weeks ago. But the IRS can play a shrewd game itself. Who are you going to make an example of: admirable Henry Aaron, beloved Ernie Banks—or the guy who just got banned from baseball for life? Right. You go for the guy who might actually be hated more than the IRS.

Rose didn’t quite stop playing that game once he was caught, but he did shift to just making as much money as possible. For a while, he frequented the home shopping channels, hawking as much memorabilia as he could churn out. Prime among this was anything, literally almost anything, connected with his 4,192nd hit, the one that put him ahead of Ty Cobb. And multiple copies, too: apparently he was wearing so many jerseys, pants, caps, socks, and batting gloves that night that he should have looked like the Michelin Man as he waddled to first base. It was a degrading spectacle to see him prostituting a great moment in baseball history.

And the sabermetricians should have been laughing up their sleeves the whole time.

As Rose chased 4,191, he made himself an expert on Ty Cobb, all the way to his hat size, in a familiar all-out fashion. Somewhere along the way, he surely picked up the arcane fact that the statistics mavens had recently unearthed: Cobb’s career totals included a double-counted two-hit day. The real number to beat wasn’t 4,191, it was 4,189.

Major League Baseball got the word, and has studiously ignored it ever since. Pete Rose never let on during the chase that 4,192 wasn’t the ultimate goal, but if he was the Cobb completist he bragged of being, he knew the real score. He let the chase and the celebration proceed unspoiled, but after that … well, he sure acted like 4,192 meant much less to him than it did to others.

When called on his mercenary ways, Rose said that to him, the record was 4,256, and nobody was buying that stuff from him, ever. And I can’t help appreciating his stand (while crossing my fingers hoping that he’s kept to his word). It’s a cynical and self-serving position, but he’s got the facts on his side, which is more than MLB can say for maintaining the self-serving fiction of 4,191.

Still, it was part of a broad pattern, pushing the boundaries, crossing the lines. He had to keep driving, for more money, more energy, more action. He was defined by the competition, first and foremost on the physical level.

But his so thoroughly-trained body was doing what every body will eventually do. It was weakening here, stiffening there, giving out by excruciating degrees. The game was racing on, and he was falling off the pace. It is the transition every athlete faces. Some fortunate ones can walk away without regrets, or at least accept the decline and fade away with grace, like a race car down-shifting and shedding its speed.

Pete Rose, of course, only had one gear: he had long since stripped out all the others. Giving up the game, inevitable as it was, produced a crisis in his life. Managing the Reds filled some of the need, but not enough. He hungered for the visceral satisfaction of the competition, the action.

There was a way to get some of that baseball action back. The rules of the sport said he couldn’t do it: every clubhouse bore a notice expressly forbidding it, on pain of the severest penalty it was within the power of the game to inflict. But if you see something often enough, the brain starts automatically filling in the familiar space it occupies. You register the presence, but you don’t really perceive it, unless you take the time and effort to look.

Pete Rose could have looked. He could have pulled against the magnetic force of his ingrained urges, focused on the line he was about to cross, forced himself to understand what it meant. He could have stopped his headlong rush, avoided the collision to come that would ruin a career.

But Pete Rose had forgotten how. If, indeed, he had ever known how.

Synthesis

In modern times, with the immense proliferation of writing, there have surely been some dramas composed where the protagonist’s tragic flaw springs from his best virtues. In the old tragedies that still set the standard of quality, though, you don’t see this. Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles never conceived the idea in the infancy of the tragic form (at least not in the small proportion of their plays that have survived), and Shakespeare, in his many masterful adaptations, never hit upon that formula either.

Except, perhaps, once. Aptly enough, with what is widely considered the greatest tragedy ever: Hamlet.

Prince Hamlet’s great failing is that, when charged by the ghost of his murdered father to slay the usurping king, he doesn’t act: he thinks. He analyzes the matter to death, literally and multiply, ending with his own. His deep thoughtfulness had been established early in the play, so it’s one of his basic traits. To a modern audience, this is the formula fulfilled. Hamlet is admirable because he’s intelligent, but he ruins everything by being just too smart.

It’s uncertain at best, though, whether this is what Shakespeare intended. Heroes of his tragedies, and those of the Greek masters, were almost uniformly high-born persons, whether petty tyrants, Scottish thanes, or princes of Denmark. Their high birth, their nobility, was itself the trait audiences were expected to look up to.

We think of Shakespeare as timeless, but he was a product of his age and his country. He lived under a monarchy, and he took care to support the monarch (he wrote one play at the specific request of Elizabeth I). In his works, the high-born were still great just for being high-born. Hamlet’s self-destructive intelligence could have been a sub-theme—the Bard was surely capable of such complexity—but it would not have been foremost in the minds of his original, intended audience.

If it’s different for us, that’s because we live in a different kind of society. America’s democratic republic was founded on a rejection of the notion that your bloodlines can make you automatically exalted. We still have the itch to look up to someone higher than ourselves, but we’re skeptical of kings and princes in that regard. We identify better with people who made their own success, however low they began, out of their own good traits. People who are red-blooded, not blue-blooded.

People like Pete Rose.

The audience is meant to identify with the tragic figure to bring the lessons of the work home, to deliver the fear and pity the playwright means you to feel through the character’s travails. Rose succeeded in that: there were times when it seemed a whole country identified with him. That his fatal flaw ended up being the quality so many of us wanted to emulate makes the lesson far more potent.

Pete Rose’s rise and fall showed that there is no virtue so beneficial that, taken to extremes, we cannot warp it into a vice. When a good becomes an obsession, it can demolish rather than build. And as all the great tragedies have striven to show, it can happen to anybody. Including you; including me.

Including the Hit King.

The price of literary tragedy is always high. In the classic works, death is the usual result. When it isn’t, the punishment that ensues can often seem worse. Pete Rose can relate to that. The game he loves has rejected him; the Hall of Fame that would have embraced him for his playing alone has its doors forever shut to him. To this day, he rages against his treatment, a punishment he maintains is too great for the crime.

Tragic figures don’t always fight forever against their downfall. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, King Oedipus tries to cheat fate, the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. When he learns he has fulfilled the prophecy despite his best efforts, he stabs out his own eyes in horror and is banished from the kingdom he ruled. Yet in Oedipus at Colonus, the now ancient exile has accepted fate. He thunders against those who try to manipulate prophecy, but as for himself, his remorseful penitence gives him a stature, even a grandeur, at the end of his life.

(Note, however, that not even a sympathetic Sophocles gives him his eyes back.)

That is not the road Pete Rose has taken. He cannot reconcile himself to be content with all he accomplished as a player. He needs the outside vindication. He needs the plaque as proof, the ultimate silencing taunt of “Scoreboard.”

His punishment, therefore, more resembles something out of Greek mythology, which really knew how to put miscreants through the wringer. One can think of Sisyphus, pushing his boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down. Even more apropos is Tantalus, forever prevented from slaking his hunger or thirst by fruits and water that recede as he reaches for them.

The writers of the Greek myths might have been impressed with one particular self-inflicted torment Rose has endured: the apology balls. Pay Rose enough money, and he would autograph a baseball with the prefatory line “I’m sorry I bet on baseball.” It carries more than a whiff of a child’s punishment, writing on the blackboard a hundred times “I will not put snails in Cathy Monroe’s lunchbox.” But it was a good gimmick, and good money, and Rose did it, who can say how often.

It seems almost contrived, to draw the pity of the audience. And in at least one case, it has succeeded.

One can hope that it serves a greater purpose. Repeat an action often enough, and it gets ingrained. That is how the Pete Rose story began, and he would be well-served if it came back around to that. Write about it over and over, and the lesson might penetrate. He might finally regret, not the results of his misdeed, but the misdeed itself. He might reach the true contrition necessary as the foundation to rebuild himself and earn the measure of respect he craves.

Pete Rose might finally, truly, be sorry he bet on baseball. Like I am.

References & Resources
Joe Posnanski’s The Machine was highly useful as a source of facts and insights. Online bios at Baseball-Reference and Baseball Library also helped.

The Pete Rose-branded marble game is long gone, and I have never seen it again anywhere to be able to identify it. You’ll have to take my word for it—unless someone has a picture, or knows a webpage. Anyone?

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Comments

  1. Paul Blocklyn said...

    I haven’t read this article yet, but I think that any writer who entitles an article “Why Peter Rose Is Better than Hamlet” deserves to win a Pulitzer prize.

  2. Shane Tourtellotte said...

    John D.:  Thanks for looking, but that’s not it.  Mine was substantially bigger, over a foot a side (tough to estimate:  I was smaller then), and stood on a floor or table tilted rather like a pinball machine.  White balls too, as I recall, rather than metal.

    Paul:  I wouldn’t mind, but then I’d need to find room on my desk for the thing, and that’d be harder than writing the article!

  3. Frank Jackson said...

    For what it’s worth, my mother once commented that Pete Rose “looks like a garbageman.”  I’ve never been able to forget that characterization.

  4. Jim said...

    I guess I will play the role of dissenter. As you point out, in Hamlet we find that we can admire the protagonist, at least in some way. His downfall is, in part, due to qualities that we admire that, through unfortunate circumstance, come back to haunt him (pun not intended).  Pete Rose was not like that.  It always seemed to me that he was about as close to a thoroughly dislikable human being as there is. Everything he did seemed to spring from an almost never-ending self absorption. His running to first base was never a team oriented trait, but rather a cry for personal attention. His claim to still have the record setting ball from his last hit seems almost laughable. How did he know when the last one would be? Did he keep them all, from 4,191 to 4,256? The reason he gambled despite the consequences wasn’t because he craved action, but because he felt he was unaccountable; bigger than the game, at least in his own mind. Every action since his banishment seems like a well-designed public relations campaign to get the public to continue the hero worship that he was accustomed to and felt was his birthright. I was never a Rose fan, and while he was good at one time, he was overrated, particularly the last 10 years of his career, so maybe that colors my thinking. Yet, I can admire Hamlet despite his flaws. I find nothing to admire about Rose.  All that being said, this was well written and thoughtout piece.

  5. Paul G. said...

    To add my Pete Rose triviality, I was gifted a Pete Rose video game – a refugee from a garage sale – when I was younger.  I’m not sure what it was called; my Google searches indicate it may have been Pete Rose Pennant Fever.  Anyway, I remember reading the manual and the game explained that while the title hero was on your roster, unlike all your other players who you could control at the plate and in the field, Pete Rose would ignore your commands and do whatever he damn well pleased.  This, of course, was fine because in true Mary Sue fashion he was the best player in the league.  I remember thinking how big of an ego he must have had to demand such (virtual) treatment.  The disk (yes, floppy disk) came into my possession after his disgrace, so that may have colored my opinion.  Don’t think I ever played the game.  It was a bit outdated at the time so that probably had something to do with it, but I also remember thinking how stupid the “Rose Rules” were.  If I want to smash Pete Rose into the outfield fence, preferable repeatedly until he is carted off the field, then that’s what I’m going to do, buddy, or I won’t buy your second-hand software at a garage sale.  (I don’t think my protest had much effect for some reason.)

  6. voxpoptart said...

    This may be my favorite piece I’ve ever read at this site. And certainly, without question, the best essay on dramatic tragedy ever to include the phrase “crotch shot” in the midst of its discussion of neural pathways.

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