If Pete Rose is barred from baseball, he will be the first since the infamous Black Sox of 1919 to be so banished.
What does Pete have in common with them?
Pete bet on his own team. They, in effect, bet on the other team.
They didn't know it at the time. What happened was that the Boston gambler, Sport Sullivan, took the first $40,000 that the fixer, Arnold Rothstein, had given him to bribe the players, doled out $10,000 to the corrupted White Sox players and bet the rest on the other team in that World Series, the Cincinnati Reds. In that sense, they had a bet riding.
Pete wasn't betting on a fixed proposition. Pete didn't know anything that the Sporting News didn't know.
Betting on a baseball game is a misdemeanor at worst. Pete, apparently, wasn't even very good at it. He went $400,000 in the hole at one time.
But if you're a part of the grand old game, you'd be better off robbing banks. As soon as you get paroled, you can have your old job back. It's for sure you'd be better off buying dope. Baseball forgives you for playing under the influence. In fact, it will pay for your rehabilitation.
But if your weakness is betting a bob on the home nine, that's the death penalty. You have just become a nonperson in baseball. If you don't think so, check the Hall of Fame for the bust of Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose lifetime batting average, .356, ranks third, all-time.
Why is the game so irrationally sensitive to this seemingly harmless diversion? Why, in an era when cities become bookmakers and states get into the numbers racket, is it such a terrible, unforgivable crime to wager a few quid on your favorite team?
Well, it really all goes back to the Black Sox era. Everyone knows about the eight who were kicked out of the game and their records expunged. Less widely known is that the game was awash with corruption in those days. The Black Sox were just the tip of the iceberg. The Black Sox fixed a World Series. But, apparently, it was nothing to fix a pennant race. Or an order of finish, generally.
No one knows for sure how widespread the corruption was but the facts seem to be that the game was in danger of degenerating into something like pro wrestling today, hippodrome, not sport.
Great players were not immune. Ty Cobb himself came close to being eased out of the game, along with Tris Speaker, when they were accused of participating in a fixed game in 1919 between Detroit and Cleveland.
The circumstances were a bit complicated--they always are--but the burden seems to be that two pitchers, Dutch Leonard and Smoky Joe Wood, got together with Cobb and Speaker to bet on a fixed game.
But the bet could not be gotten down, the odds shifted, and the incriminating letters from Leonard and Cobb were disregarded by the commissioner then, Kenesaw Landis, who apparently decided baseball could not take another blow to the body and swept the matter under the rug.
I mean, banning Swede Risberg was one thing. Banning Ty Cobb was like stoning a stained-glass window.
So is banning Pete Rose. Ty Cobb, for all his marvelous skills, was unloved as a human being. Pete Rose was America's kid brother. Pete Rose was as welcome at the White House as the Queen of England. Pete was the original dirty-faced kid sliding into home with a frog in his pocket. Everybody loved Pete.
Yet, like a lot of the rich and famous, he seemed to have a fatal fascination for the busted-nose set. It's not new in this country. Hollywood has played host to some of the most celebrated hoods. Some of them even got in films.
I can remember sitting in a dugout with Pete earlier this year as the scandal broke over him like a thunderstorm in the Rockies.
"What's this all about, Pete?" I asked.
"It's nothing," insisted Pete.
"Did you do it?" I pressed.
Pete thought a minute.
"I'll tell you one thing," he said. "I wish I had chosen different friends. If I had it to do over again, I never would have gotten mixed up with the people I did."
Baseball's great fear has always been that a gambling man would get so in hock to the books, he would inevitably resort to trying to fix outcomes.
The question is, how?
In the Black Sox era, a 29-game winner such as Eddie Cicotte got a yearly salary of $5,500. At the time of the World Series, he had just bought a farm in Michigan.
When Chick Gandil, the blackest of the Black Sox, netted $35,000 for masterminding the throwing of the World Series, he was getting 10 years' salary in a lump sum.
But that was then. This is now. How can a Chick Gandil--or a manager, or a gambler--fix games today? What do you do, take a ballplayer making $2 million aside and say, "Hey, kid, blow this game and there's 35 grand in it for you."?
Rose is a manager. But could even a manager put over a betting coup by juggling a lineup or enlisting aid in sabotaging his team in a game or a series? In the first place, the betting commissioners, the professional gamblers, would scent it out in a hurry and close the books.