Post columnist Steve Serby gets inside the head of baseball’s Hit King Pete Rose — to discuss his gambling, Hall of Fame ban, the state of today’s game and his legacy.
Q: With more states, eight and counting, legalizing sports gambling and MLB making MGM Resorts International its “official gaming partner,” and you banned from the Hall of Fame for gambling, how do you feel about that partnership?
A: Listen, I’m not opposed to baseball doing anything to create more revenue for ’em. That’s their business. I thought it was kind of interesting that, as a former manager of a baseball team, that 15 minutes before every game I have to email my lineup to baseball. Then they email it to the MGM, the casinos. I think that’s kind of interesting if you talk about being in bed with somebody — they’re really in bed with them.
Q: How does that make you feel?
A: Listen, I made mistakes and I’m payin’ for ’em. I wish I hadn’t did what I did, but it happened, and it’s part of history. I support baseball. I noticed the other day, home runs are up, strikeouts are up, and attendance is down. That’s not a good scenario for baseball.
Q: Why do you think attendance is down?
A: The way baseball’s played today — and then you got all these damn rule changes — if you watch “SportsCenter” every night, everything’s a replay of a home run. There’s no triples, there’s no get a guy on, steal second, get him to third … there’s no strategy to baseball. You can’t pitch inside, you can’t break up a double play, you can’t run into a catcher. I mean, your hands are tied. I think people are getting turned off by the amount of strikeouts in baseball.
Q: The MGM thing: Does it tick you off?
A: No. … It seems to me like that situation — maybe I’m reading it wrong — is baseball trying to protect the casinos? Why else would a casino be worried about the starting lineup, in case they’re scared of [Clayton] Kershaw getting scratched at game time? And they already took all their bets on Kershaw pitching. What other reason would the MGM want the lineups from major league ballparks if it didn’t have something to do with the sports and race book. Am I missing something?
Q: Is baseball missing something not letting you back in?
A: Let me tell you something: This is the sad part of my career right here, OK? I was born three miles from Crosley Field [in Cincinnati]. … I have never been in the Great American Ballpark clubhouse or the batting cage. I’m not allowed. Are you telling me that I can’t help some young player on the Cincinnati Reds become a better player? With all the baseball knowledge I have and how I can relate to people, you don’t think that I can help any team in baseball be a better team?
Q: Are you resigned that you will not get into the Hall of Fame while you’re alive?
A: Yeah, I’m happy with that. I’m also happy with the fact that I got a statue at the ballpark, I got my number retired, and I’m in the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. Which, by the way, is the best Hall of Fame of all 30 teams. Sure, I’d love to go to Cooperstown. My family knows what kind of player I was. My fans know what kind of player I was. I think the commissioner knows what kind of player I was. I made a mistake. I made a mistake. And people understand and I understand I made a mistake, so let you go on with your life.
Q: If the commissioner asked you if you have a gambling problem, what would you tell him?
A: No. I’m the type of guy that I won’t bet on anything I can’t watch. And I live in Vegas where everything’s legal. If I want to bet on a football game, I’m 78 years old, who gives a s–t if I make a bet and go home and watch the game and mind my own business? Am I hurting anybody?
Q: If you could have faced one pitcher in the history of MLB with the game on the line, who would it have been?
A: Maybe Whitey Ford. He was a great pitcher. He was a money pitcher. I don’t know much about all of the pitchers back in the ’30s and the ’40s. It might have been fun hitting off Babe Ruth. He still has pitching records. I’ll argue till the sun goes down, I tell people this every day: Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player in the history of baseball. I don’t think [Wayne] Gretzky could do it. I don’t think Michael Jordan can do it. If you think Tom Brady’s the greatest football ever, I don’t think he can do it. But Babe Ruth did it. What did he do? He saved the sport by going to this town, to that town for a weekend series. Because every time he went into a town, the team sold out all three games, enabled all those teams to grow. Babe Ruth was The Man. Those other guys I mentioned are great. But I just don’t think they have what it takes to save a sport.
Q: Who are the guys in any sport that played like Pete Rose?
A: In my era, a lot of guys played hard. Playing hard don’t mean you have to run to first on a walk. Tony Perez played hard. Johnny Bench played hard. Mike Schmidt played hard. All the great ones played hard. Frank Robinson played as hard as anybody. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, we didn’t have guys that were loafers. We didn’t have guys that were late for spring training, late for practice, missed airplanes, things like that. And we didn’t have guys that had multi-year contracts. If you’re a player, you put it on cruise control. Not everybody. But if I know I’m gonna get paid the next five years $100 million, what am I worried about if I play every game or not? What am I worried about trying to lead the league in doubles or making the All-Star team? My first 16 years in the big leagues was a one-year contract with the Reds.
Q: Who are athletes today who play the way you played?
A: Mike Trout plays hard every day. Bryce Harper plays hard. Now, [Manny] Machado, he don’t necessarily play hard, he’s willing to tell you he’s not going to. That wouldn’t’ have made it in Cincinnati.
Q: How about other than baseball?
A: The guy that plays closest to me I think — I love him — is Russell Westbrook. That guy plays every … damn minute like it’s his last minute, and when the game’s over, the hell with that shaking hands, he’s going to the … damn locker room. I’ve won World Series. Guys from the opposing team are in our clubhouse congratulating us. I could never do that. I might send you a text the next day or something. I just got my ass beat in a World Series, I’m over here happy for you? Who beat me? Bulls—. I don’t need that. I don’t think athletes today need that.
Q: How did the passing of Bill Buckner affect you?
A: I liked Bill Buckner. People will remember him for the wrong reasons. We all make errors. He made an error cost the Red Sox the World Series, helped the Mets win the World Series. I don’t remember that about Bill Buckner, I remember Bill Buckner could hit. He played hard.
Q: You were 10-for-57 (.175) against Sandy Koufax. Why was he such a problem for you?
A: I was a young kid, hadn’t learned how to hit yet. I got there in ’63, and I believe before ’63, Koufax was like 27-20 [36-40 from 1955-60]. And after I got there, he was like 97-30 [97-27]. So I wasn’t the only guy he was getting out.
Q: Did you ever read Ted Williams’ book on hitting?
A: No, because it would confuse me. I met with Ted Williams one time after spring training, when I was just a kid. And he asked me, “How important is your wrist in hitting?” And I said, “Well everything.” And he got me against the fence, he says, “Swing your bat.” And when you swing the bat, you hit the ball when your back arm becomes straight, and he said, “Look at your wrist. Your wrists are only important in your follow through.” Then he hit me on the knee. He hit me on the waist. He hit me in the ribs. He hit me on the shoulder. He had me so confused, I said, “Mr. Williams, you might have been the greatest hitter in the history of baseball, but I can’t think about all these things.” My philosophy is see the ball, and hit the ball. He said, “Whatever you’re doing son, keep doing it ’cause you’re doing a good job with it.” The guy that hit like Ted Williams was Tony Gwynn. Tony was one of those guys that watched tape every day. If I’m in a streak where I’m 15-for-30, why do I want to watch tape? I might want to watch tape if I’m 0-for-30.
Q: Some historical moments in baseball history … where you were and what you remember: Bobby Thomson’s home run in 1951.
A: I remember seeing it on the news. … I remember how happy he was when he hit that home run, when he went around the bases. And I ended up knowing Bobby Thomson, and the pitcher [Ralph Branca], too. I was 10 years old. I’m watching TV on an 8-inch TV, it’s black and white.
Q: Don Larsen’s perfect game.
A: All I remember about that is Yogi [Berra] jumping in his arms.
Q: Bill Mazeroski’s home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.
A: All these moments we’re talking about, you can just visualize the joy on the guys who did all these moments. Remember how Mazeroski went around the bases? He wasn’t a home run hitter. If [Roberto] Clemente hits that home run, or [Willie] Stargell hit that home run, you would expect it. But when a guy that’s not expected to hit a home run, there’s a lot of joy in the atmosphere.
Q: The Don Denkinger call at first base in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series.
A: He still thinks he got that right. I will never criticize umpires. I remember when I was a kid, I got along good with the umpires. And whenever Al Barlick and Augie Donatelli were in Cincinnati, I would meet ’em [on Saturdays] for breakfast. You couldn’t do that today, because if I’m eating with an umpire today, and all of a sudden it’s a close call in the ninth inning, and they call it in my favor, everybody’ll say gamblers have got you. And I really believe that umpires are a big part of the game, and they want to be a part of the game, but they can’t, because of society. We all know the guy missed a call against New Orleans [in the NFC Championship] that cost ’em the Super Bowl [berth]. That guy’s no worse than anybody. There’s no perfect situation. But I think umpires do a pretty good job.
Q: Muhammad Ali.
A: I knew him when he was Cassius Clay from Louisville [Ky.]. I gave him tickets to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati one time. He was the best. He was a promotin’ dude, boy, and he could fight, too.
Q: Howard Cosell.
A: I used to really like Howard. Then he made a statement one time, and I was really sorry he made the statement. And the statement was, when [former MLB commissioner Bart] Giamatti died of a heart attack — he said I killed him. Because of the investigation. He never said anything about him being 60 pounds overweight or smoking five packs of cigarettes a day.
Q: Paul Brown.
A: I met Mr. Brown when he brought the Bengals to Cincinnati. When I was a kid, the only game we got on TV was the Cleveland Browns. Football mind like no other. He just demanded respect. And he got it.
Q: Meeting Jimmy Carter in the White House.
A: Jimmy was a good guy, but he was kind of a non-baseball guy. He had me there ’cause I got my 3,000th hit. And he said, “Oh, you got 3,000 runs, huh Pete?” I said, “No, Mr. President, I got 3,000 hits.” He said, “Oh, well my mom’s a baseball fan.”
Q: Donald Trump.
I met Trump several times when he used to be in Atlantic City when I played for the Phillies. Nice guy. I had a meeting one time with him, and I had a guy with me named Wayne Lyster. And the other guy in the meeting was D. Wayne Lukas. Mr. Lyster was a [horse] breeder in Lexington [Ky.]. D. Wayne Lukas was the top trainer at the time. And we wanted to entice Donald to get into the racing industry. We were trying to get him to put $10 million up a year for three years. It was appealing to him, then all of a sudden he got caught at the ski lodge with Marla Maples, and that kind of put everything on hold. To be No. 1 in the racing industry, it would be a big deal for Donald Trump.
Q: Where was this meeting?
A: Trump Tower. You got Donald Trump behind his desk, there was so much glitter going on with those two guys, with the diamond cuff links and the Rolexes and the chains, it was funny. They were two dudes, boy. They were one of a kind, both of ’em.
Q: Casey Stengel.
A: I remember one time I talked to Casey for about three minutes, and I had no idea what he said. I looked at Frank Robinson and I said, “What the f–k did he say?” And Frank said, “Nobody knows what he says.”
Q: Describe George Steinbrenner.
A: In spring training, I used to sit at George’s dog track and bet the dogs with him. I would have liked to play for him.
A: Just ’cause he cared. George Steinbrenner would have loved me.
A: Because I bust my ass every day and I’m worried about winning. Steinbrenner was a winner. Steinbrenner loved winners.
Q: Joe DiMaggio writing “F–k Ho [Chi Minh]” on the Intrepid aircraft carrier with a piece of chalk on a bomb on one of the planes headed for Hanoi, Vietnam?
A: When the plane got back, the guy come up to Joe and he says, “I got an ammunition dump with your bomb.” And Joe was the happiest guy in the world. … Another time, we were in Saigon. For a couple of days, we would go visit the hospital. We got to go in to visit the Charlie ward one time. Charlie is the Viet Cong, OK? And Joe was so pissed, because the Viet Cong ward was air conditioned, and our ward with our soldiers was not air conditioned.
Q: Describe the Shea Stadium crowd after your brawl with Buddy Harrelson in the 1973 playoffs.
A: Rough. When that guy threw that Jack Daniels bottle from the third deck, just missed me in left field. Of course, Met fan, it was empty. He waited till he emptied it. I understand how passionate Met fans are, I’m not gonna criticize Met fans. I’ll criticize anybody — anybody — I don’t care what city you’re from: Don’t throw objects at players. I remember one time we’re playing in Chicago, I’m playing left field, and a guy threw a crutch at me in left field. I ended up playing right field at Wrigley Field, and a guy shot me right in the neck with a rubber band and a paper clip. For two innings, it bled. If I’da turned around, and [he] been able to hit me on the eye, I’d probably only got 3,000 hits (laugh).
Q: Why did opposing fans hate you so much?
A: Well, maybe because I got so damn many hits (chuckle), and won so many games. No one ever got booed louder than I did in Philadelphia. But when I was there in ’79 as a Phillie, I never got booed one time. See, I always thought people were stupid, I’ll tell you why: Because they’d have been better off when I come up to bat, they just keep quiet. Because when they all start booing and yelling, it stimulated me to want to do better. It inspired me to do well.
Q: What advice would you have for Bryce Harper about playing in Philadelphia?
A: Philadelphia fans, there’s two things they want: They want to win, and they want you to bust your ass. And if you win and bust your ass, it won’t be hard on you.
Q: You’ll be signing copies of your book “Play Hungry” on Wednesday at 1 p.m. at the Barnes and Noble Fifth Avenue store.
A: I wish a lot more guys today could have my story. What I mean by that is, the relationship that I had with my father. He was a basketball player, football player, baseball player, and everywhere he went I was a water boy, bat boy, ball boy. He was very aggressive. And seeing that on an everyday basis is probably what made me aggressive. He was very punctual, and I was a very punctual player. And I was a very fundamentally sound player. So all the traits that I had to be the player that I was, I got instilled upon me from my dad. If I made mistakes in games, he would never criticize me in front of my peers, he’d wait till I’m on my way home. He didn’t believe in mental errors. He didn’t tolerate mental errors. My dad is the only person I’ve ever idolized — and I’ve met seven presidents.
Q: Three dinner guests?
A: Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio, Abe Lincoln. … Can I get a fourth on there?
Q: Sure, who?
A: Jackie Robinson. I got to meet him because of my relationship with Don Zimmer. My dad and Don’s dad were Little League teammates, so we’d always go after the game and see Don. All the players would walk out, and Don introduced me to [Roy] Campanella, and to Jackie, and to Charlie Neal and Sandy Amoros and Duke Snider and Gil Hodges and Carl Erskine, Joe Black. Jackie Robinson was just really a nice guy, and I got to talk to him. I mean, I was just a kid, not knowing what he was going through. Every African-American player should thank God for Jackie Robinson. Us white players should thank him, too. Because Jackie made the game of baseball a better game.
Q: Do you remember anything about the conversation you had with him?
A: No. I was in awe. I called him Mr. Robinson.
Q: Favorite movies?
A: “Patch Adams” and “E.T.”
Q: Favorite actor?
A: The Duke, John Wayne.
Q: Favorite actress?
A: Marilyn Monroe.
Q: Favorite singer/entertainer?
A: Frank [Sinatra] and Elvis [Presley].
Q: Favorite meal?
A: Thanksgiving. Turkey and dressing.
Q: How would you sum up what it’s like being Pete Rose today?
A: It’s fun. I’m very popular in the autograph market. People seem to like me. They like the way I played. Here’s what I hear all the time: I wish players would be able to play like you played. I hear that 10, 15 times a day.
Q: And if you had to sum up what it’s been like being Pete Rose, how would you sum that up?
A: I’m gonna die, and I don’t think anyone’s ever gonna pass me as far being the Hit King. I just don’t see it the way baseball is played today. I don’t foresee anybody getting 4,000 hits. And that underneath my name has really helped me survive, being the Hit King. The hardest thing in sports to do is to hit a baseball, and I did it successfully more than anybody in the history of the world. Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time Hit King, will always make me stand out in sports.
Q: So if you had to sum up what kind of life you’ve had, how would you do it?
A: I got all the records in the world, and the best record I got, is I played regular-season games, 1,972 winning games. That’s over 250 more than anybody else. And that’s all I ever played for was to win. All I ever played for was to win: I’m No. 1. All I ever played for was to hit: I’m No. 1. All I ever played for was to score runs: I’m No. 3. All I ever tried to do is hit doubles: I’m No. 2. I did a lot of things that I set out to do. I had a winning life.
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