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Rose in the Hall?

September 15, 2010

He sure did.

No. No. A thousand times, no.

Ok, it’s not like anybody pays attention to some of those abstract nouns used in the following sentence on the BBWAA’s voting: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Generally, writers who vehemently argue that Pete Rose should be allowed into the Hall of Fame use the spitballing Gaylord Perry, the womanizing, boozing Babe Ruth, and the race-baiting, cruel Ty Cobb, as examples of the Hall of Fame’s inclusion of those who don’t stand up to the “integrity,” “sportsmanship,” and “character” attributes required of inductees. And with the Hall voters having to debate the merits of so many potential PED abusers soon, why doesn’t Rose deserve a plaque? Rose, the all-time hit king, whose ‘only crime’ was gambling on baseball.

There are many things wrong with this line of thinking. Such as:

* “Rabbit Maranville’s in, so other light-hitting, average-glove shortstops should be in!”

* Voting for honors and awards in baseball – or other professional sports – is a nebulous, nebulous thing with no real determined criteria. Voters still argue over what the thrust of the MVP should be. Best player on best team that makes it to the playoffs? Or best player, period? And how do you determine best player, anyway? And by the way, Joe Posnanski pointed something out about the MVP award the other day.

* Funny thing about professional sports. You can beat your wife (or a one-armed guy in the stands, for that matter), and get rightly excoriated by the press and fans, but go out and perform well the next game and all is forgiven.

So let’s concentrate on the big thing. Why is this sin (gambling on baseball) different from the other sins (boozing, wrassling, injecting, being a member of the KKK, etc)?

Let’s put the rule in context. Baseball began as a club game for the middle classes. There were amateur clubs and organizations in New Jersey and New York that would compete against one another; eventually ‘owners’ of clubs would begin paying nominal sums to attract talented players. And the sport, as we know it, became codified.

In the mid-19th century, sports became real American entertainments and drew more and more workers as viable leisure time activities. And of course, the imminent encroachment of gambling set in as well. As William Ryczek writes in Baseball’s First Inning: A History of the National Pastime through the Civil War,

During the 1850s and 1860s, while baseball was striving to establish itself as America’s national game, there were a number of other pastimes that enjoyed some degree of popularity. Horse racing was the first American sport to gain wide acceptance…Other old world sports, particularly cricket, were popular in Philadelphia and New York, while some pastimes, including boxing, cock fighting (or cocking) and “canine sports” had a less savory reputation. In addition to the violent nature of all three activities, they had other undesirable elements in common. All offered cash prizes, all were accompanied by spirited betting on the outcome, and all had been the subject of numerous scandals.

In baseball, large stadiums were being built at the turn of the century, replacing the old fields of before, when people would just crowd around on foul lines and just beyond the outfielders. For thirty-five years or so, fans were paying to see teams play one another, just as people were paying to see horse races and boxing matches.

Long before the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, baseball was rife with this corruption. The Louisville Grays of 1877 were the first team to be caught in a high-profile gambling scandal. This was one year after the establishment of the National League. Many, many players were rumored to be corrupt. Hal Chase, the talented Highlander first baseman, was the most notorious and reviled for it, though others took money to lay down.

The catalyst for the successful fight against the endemic problem was, of course, the 1919 World Series, which led to the first independent commissioner in Kenesaw Mountain Landis, his task to ‘restore confidence in baseball,’ and the rule, now printed in every MLB clubhouse. Rule 21. Here are the highlights:

Rule 21 of MLB:

(d) …Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible. …

(g) RULE TO BE KEPT POSTED.  A printed copy of this Rule shall be kept posted in each clubhouse.

After the law came about, there was silence on the issue until Rose. As Rob Neyer says in this article, there are two “broad points” when discussing gambling in baseball:

1. 1865-1920: Stinking Cesspool of Greed

2. 1989-2004: Pete Rose

Is this a gross simplification? Sure.

Is this gross simplification generally accurate? Yup.

You see, it is literally true that there was not, from 1921 through the end of Pete Rose’s playing career, a single documented case of a major league player, coach, or manager placing a bet on a major league game, or conspiring with gamblers. On the other hand, prior to 1921 there were so many scandals and near scandals and non-scandals that it’s impossible to list more than a small percentage of them.

The rule declares banishment from the sport for having a gambling interest on a game in which a player or manager is directly involved. It’s posted in clubhouses. Rose was caught violating this rule. It’s easy for us to forget how much of an issue it was, but throwing games was a terrible problem. Because it proposed to devalue baseball in the worst possible way: establishing the outcome before the game was even played. Say what you will about spitballs, chemical enhancements: the end result when I go to a Mets game should never be a given. And that’s what fans are paying for – to see a competition.

Or, as the ever succinct Keith Law put it in an ESPN chat the other day:

“He broke the most important rule in the books, the one that separates baseball from professional wrestling. No way he deserves the game’s highest honor.”

Also, here’s an interesting, though to me unpersuasive, article for Rose’s inclusion.

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From → Criminals, History, Rules

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