clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

8/24/1989 - Rose banned for life


(Pete Rose in a Reds jacket. Photo via Cincinnati Enquirer)

In February 1989, Pete Rose was summoned to meet with the heads of Major League Baseball. Retiring commissioner Peter Ueberroth, his successor A. Bartlett Giamatti, and future-commish Fay Vincent all spoke with the Cincinnati great. When inquired why he needed to be pulled from spring training into the commissioner's office, Rose told the media that he had been asked for "advice."

''You can read anything you want into it, but I don't see anything bad," Rose said. ''A lot of unusual things happen to me because I'm an unusual guy. It's unusual to have two commissioners there.'' Asked if the meeting concerned his gambling habits, Rose answered, "that's not the reason."

At that point, Pete was 48 years old and was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds. His placement in the pantheon of baseball greats was practically in stone: he was the game's all-time hit leader, won three World Series rings, played in the most games ever, and was on the side of the winning team more times than anyone.

Still, it was well documented that Rose placed bets on basketball and football games, as well as horse and dog races. It seemed only logical that if Rose was summoned to discuss his gambling activities, it meant there was suspicion that he was betting on baseball games. Since the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the penalty for betting on games was listed in each major and minor league clubhouse: if an MLB employee was to bet on games, it was one year of ineligibility; if said employee was to bet on the team he was affiliated with, that person would be permanently thrown out of baseball.

A month later, Ueberroth, who was nearly a week away from retirement, affirmed that baseball was investigating Rose on ''serious allegations'' concerning the slugger. It was also announced that John Dowd, a Washington prosecutor who represented a colonel in the Iran-Contra scandal, was compiling a report on Rose and that it was nearly complete. Not only was this news stunning, it was a complete volte-face from the baseball hierarchy, who had refused to disclose what the meeting was about.

It would take two months for Dowd to officially finish his assessment, and in that time, Bart Giamatti (Paul Giamatti's father) became the commissioner of baseball. Sports Illustrated and other outlets confirmed that Dowd was looking into Pete's gambling activities. Various papers printed stories of Rose's wagering history and the shady company he surrounded himself in. The media was glued to Rose as the regular season began. And though the fans gave him the benefit of the doubt -- which he got because the witnesses against him were crooks and lowlifes and because all the evidence was strictly hear-say -- it seemed increasingly likely that the Dowd Report would not be in his favor.

The links between him and betting partners began to mount. It seemed that every week a new story surfaced that accused him of signaling notes in the dugout, placing a mortgage on his home, bringing undeclared cash into the country, winning a contested Pick Six ticket, selling off memorabilia like the bat he used to break Cobb's record, or his World Series ring from 1975. The IRS soon started an investigation of their own, believing that Rose had skipped tax payments and had taken part in an illegal gambling ring.

''You know, for the first month, it was kind of amusing, all this stuff. I don't mean funny, but I could laugh at it," Rose said in May. "Now, I'm still reading these accusations every day in the papers. Every day! Who dreams this stuff up? Where in the hell do they get this stuff from? Who can believe it?"

Shortly thereafter, the never-ending stream of bookies and bettors culminated in the completion of the Dowd Report. Upon receiving it, Giamatti announced that baseball was going to hold a hearing with Rose as the subject and Dowd's essay as prime evidence. The meeting was scheduled for late May, though Rose's lawyers convinced the commissioner to give them another month to look over the report.

Just days before the hearing was to take place, Rose sued Giamatti citing that the Dowd Report was unfairly biased against him. Norbert Nadel, a Cincinnati judge who was up for re-election, granted Rose a temporary restraining order that postponed the hearing another two weeks. Giamatti and Dowd went to court, requesting an appellate Ohio judge to overturn the decision. In the process, the Dowd Report was handed over to the courts and by extension the American public.

The 225-page tome detailed hundreds of bets Rose made on games in 1985, '86, and '87, including dozens of wagers placed on the Reds. It painted Rose as a man overcome by debts he had made with drug cartels and bookies, a man who resorted to betting on the sport he knew best and did it on a nearly daily basis. The report also contained phone records, bank records, signed checks, betting slips with his hand writing, interviews conducted with 40 different witnesses, and a deposition by Rose that denied it all.

Giamatti's appeal to retain jurisdiction over Rose's hearing was blocked by Ohio's First District Court of Appeals. The ruling, much like Nadel's, was seen as partisan not only because Pete Rose was a legend in Cincinnati, but because previous cases had ruled that an MLB commissioner, as the head of a private business, had absolute authority in his/her decisions.

A hearing was scheduled on July 6th that, if won by Rose, would issue an injunction and remove Giammati's power over the matter. But before the hearing took place, Giamatti's lawyers filed a petition to move the case to federal court. John Holschuh, a US District judge from Columbus, Ohio, ruled on July 31st that the court hearing should be held at a federal level and not in the state courts. Rose's team of attorneys again tried an appeal, but it was turned down by the Sixth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals. Rose's hearing for an injunction was now scheduled on August 28th and would be held in the courtroom of Mr. Holschuh.

Rose and company could have pursued the case further and stretched it into 1990. However, it was inevitable that their request for an injunction would ultimately be turned down, and the hearing would once again be in Giamatti's hands. Nobody had ever challenged the authority of Major League Baseball and won in federal court, and with all the evidence against Rose, proving that the hearing shouldn't take place was going to be impossible.

Baseball wanted the case over with as much as Rose. In a compromise written by deputy commissioner Fay Vincent, Rose agreed to a deal that put him on the permanent ineligibility list and ended the ordeal once and for all.

On August 24, 1989, A. Bartlett Giamatti spoke in crowded room with the Major League Baseball logo plastered in the background. In one of the saddest moments in sports history, Pete Rose -- the man who said he'd "walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball," the man who earned the nickname "Charlie Hustle" when he ran to first in a spring training game, the man who played the game with such reckless abandon that he had a street named after him -- was kicked out of baseball.

"The banishment for life of Pete Rose from baseball is the sad end of a sorry episode," Giamatti began. "One of the game's greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game, and he must now live with the consequences of those acts. By choosing not to come to a hearing before me, and by choosing not to proffer any testimony or evidence contrary to the evidence and information contained in the report of the Special Counsel to the Commissioner, Mr. Rose has accepted baseball's ultimate sanction, lifetime ineligibility."

The deal in place was meticulously constructed and specifically designed so that a hearing was no longer necessary. Rose would agree to his lifetime suspension with the option of applying for reinstatement a year later (though no banned player had ever been reinstated). ''Nothing in this agreement shall be deemed either an admission or a denial by Peter Edward Rose of the allegation that he bet on any Major League baseball game,'' Giammatti read. That also meant that he, the commissioner could state his own opinions about Rose without legal repercussions. And when asked the inevitable question, he responded, "In the absence of a hearing and in the absence of evidence to the contrary ... yes, I have concluded that he bet on baseball."

Later in the day, Rose spoke at his own press conference in Riverfront Stadium and denied that he bet on baseball. With tears in his eyes, he called the settlement "fair" without giving an alternative as to why he was banned. Rose told the press it was a "compromise" that he wasn't booted for betting on baseball, but by that point it was obvious to everyone that that was what had happened.

Tommy Helms took over as the Reds manager and finished out the season; the same sadly could not be said of Bart Giamatti. Just eight days after announcing the agreement, Giamatti -- a heavy smoker who was described as "mildly overweight" -- died of a massive heart attack exactly five months after becoming the commissioner. His close friend Fay Vincent, who Giamatti appointed as the deputy commissioner, was elected to fill his position. While his tenure as commissioner was the equivilant of William Henry Harrison, who lasted in the White House for 31 days, Giamatti created a lasting image in overseeing one of the greatest controversies in sports history.

Things got worse for Pete Rose, whose vow to apply for reinstatement one year later went uncompleted. The Dowd Report revealed that Rose frequented card shows and memorabilia signings because he didn't need to claim his earnings. On July 20, 1990, Rose was sentenced to five months in prison for filing false income numbers on his taxes. ''I would like to say that I am very sorry," Rose told the courtroom. "I am very shameful to be here today in front of you." "I hope no one has to go through what I went through the last year and a half. I lost my dignity. I lost my self-respect. I lost a lot of dear fans and almost lost some very dear friends.''

Though what he did was strictly against baseball regulation, had he simply admitted that he bet on baseball and shown considerable contrition, Rose could have mended the bridge to the Hall of Fame. But by continuing to deny that he bet on baseball, Rose wasted valuable time by giving no indication that he committed the crime, let alone if he was sorry for it. In 1991, the board of directors on the baseball Hall of Fame committee unanimously voted to keep banned players such as Rose off the Hall of Fame ballot.

Without reinstatement, Rose spent the next fourteen years utterly isolated from baseball. He was not allowed to enter clubhouses and without his name on the ballot, the all-time hits leader was separated from the Hall of Fame. The Cincinnati Reds could not officially retire Rose's number 14 jersey, though it was consensually agreed that no one in the organization would wear his number. That unwritten rule was bent in 1997 when Pete Rose Jr. made a brief 11-game stint with his old man's team. Petey only got two hits before being sent down to the minors.

Rose Jr. would have a very extensive minor league career that was almost as long as his dad's. He played on over twenty minor and independent league rosters and, like his old man, spent time in jail (his was for distributing steroids).

In 2004, the elder Rose finally admitted that he had bet on the game in a last-ditch attempt to get reinstated. But by lying that he didn't gamble on ballgames for fourteen years, Rose's admission seemed insincere. He gave no one but his most ardent supporters the chance to embrace him, and even those people were peeved since he told the truth in a book deal. He wasted his fans campaigns to get him into the Hall of Fame by not reconstructing his life or apologizing at all. By the time he told the truth, Rose was living in Las Vegas.