Remembering Pete Rose the Player

As the 20th anniversary of Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from baseball occurs at a time when steroid use in baseball is again in the news, there has been a fair amount of reflection on whether or not the ban remains fare.  Mike Schmidt, a former teammate of Rose’s and an all time great who, by most measures seems to be a decent and thoughtful man, has argued that the ban in unfair and that Rose should be allowed to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  If the ban had not been in place, Rose would have been elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

Whenever Rose’s name comes up, it is usually in the context of discussing the ban.  Meanwhile memories of Rose the player have begun to fade.  Rose was not only a great player, and in many respects the iconic player of his generation, but a very unusual one.  No player in history has had a career quite like Rose’s.  As a player, Rose is now primarily remembered for being baseball’s all time hit leader, but even that only tells part of the story.

Pete Rose was an extremely versatile player.  Not versatile in the way of a useful utility player, who can fill in at 4-7 positions and hit a little bit like Jerry Hairston Jr. is or Derrel Thomas was, but versatile in the sense that he could start playing a new position as a regular in mid-career.  Few players are really able to do this even once.  Rose did it three times as he migrated from second base to outfield, to third base before finally ending up at first base.

Other than Pete Rose no player in the history of the game played 500 or more games at four different positions, not counting different outfield positions.  Rose played 600 games or more at three infield and one outfield position as well as more than 500 at a second outfield position.  He was an All Star first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, left fielder and right fielder over the course of a career that at times seemed as eternal as the game itself.

Interestingly, while Rose was an unusual player, he was not a great player in the conventional sense.  Were Rose to be elected to the Hall of Fame, he would stand out as one of the few true post dead ball era singles hitters there. His slugging percentage of .409 is lower than all but 14 post-1920 Hall of Famers.  Most of the other 14 were elected for their gloves, including players like Brooks Robinson, Bill Mazeroski, Luis Aparacio, Nellie Fox and Ozzie Smith.  Even other recently elected singles hitters such as Rod Carew, Paul Molitor, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn all had higher slugging percentages than Rose’s.

Rose’s career OPS of .784 is also lower than all but 18 post-dead ball era Hall of Famers, most of whom were again either middle infielders or elected largely for their glove work as well.  Rose’s adjusted OPS+ of 118 is also not particularly high for a Hall of Famer who spent most of his career playing either corner outfield positions or first base, as Rose did.

Judging Rose this way is a little unfair.  Rose’s true greatness came from his consistency and his longevity.  For almost twenty years, from 1963-1981, Rose was a good and often great player, a perennial All Star who was willing and able to play any position to help his team.  He was, obviously, an intense competitor who played as hard as anybody, often to a fault.  However, his decision to continue playing and extend the decline phase of his career tarnished his percentages and his reputation.  For five years from 1982-1986, Rose was rarely a valuable player, but he kept playing.  As manager he often put himself in the lineup seemingly just so that he could become the all time hit leader.

For this reason, the last years of Rose’s career were not pretty.  It was not fun watching the once proud and intensely competitive Rose trying to get the last 100 or so hits so that he could break Cobb’s record.  It was a sad end to the career of a player who once seemed to personify the word competitive.  Of course, it was not the end; the real end of Rose’s career was even worse as the accusations and allegations of gambling seemed to begin shortly after Rose retired.

Rose had been a controversial player years before any hint of gambling cropped up.  His fans admired his all out style of play, called him Charlie Hustle with no sense of irony and celebrated when he passed Ty Cobb on the hit list.  His critics found his habit of running to first base after drawing a walk an annoying affectation of false hustle, viewed his decision to bowl over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All Star Game as unnecessarily destroying  a promising player’s career for the sake of a meaningless exhibition game, and found his pursuit of Ty Cobb’s hit record long after Rose had ceased to be a productive player bordering on pathetic.   These controversies and statistical analyses, unfortunately, seem a little too innocent compared to the bigger questions around Pete Rose, but they are a good reminder of just what an extraordinary player and personality he was.