A New Biography Explores the Paradox of Pete Rose

Keith O’Brien discusses his book “Charlie Hustle”

May 31, 2024 6:18 am
Cover art for the book "Charlie Hustle"
Keith O'Brien's biography of Pete Rose reckons with a complicated life.
Penguin Random House

To read Keith O’Brien’s new book Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball is to experience a host of contradictory emotions, sometimes at the same time. O’Brien comprehensively documents the many triumphs of Pete Rose’s career — as well as the monumentally terrible decisions he made over the course of his time in baseball, including the gambling habit that led to his eventual lifetime ban from the game.

At a time when professional sports’ relationship to gambling has radically shifted, O’Brien’s book is also a cautionary tale, emphasizing precisely why some distance between the two might not be a bad thing. Charlie Hustle is a compelling book about a contradictory figure, but it’s also a vivid portrait of a particular period in sporting history.

InsideHook talked with O’Brien about the genesis of the project, writing about his hometown and Rose’s own involvement with the project.

InsideHook: Your roots are in Cincinnati. What do you remember of the Pete Rose scandal when it first happened?  Did it take a while for you to realize that this would be a good subject for you to take on, or is this something you’ve wanted to write about for a while?

Keith O’Brien: Yeah, so I’m born and raised in Cincinnati. I spent my whole childhood there. And I’m too young to remember the Big Red Machine years, the peak years of the mid-’70s. But I was 11 years old when Pete was traded back to the Reds in 1984. I was 12 when he set the all-time hit record in 1985. I remember exactly where I was that night when it happened. And I was a teenager when it all unraveled in 1989.

In a lot of ways, I lived it. I’m not part of the book at all. There’s no first person here. There’s no “me.” There’s no “I.” But I do remember what it felt like to be in Cincinnati at the peak of Pete’s career. And I do also remember what it felt like to be there when he lost it all. I used that emotion and my memories of those emotions to inform my reporting, if that makes sense.

As someone who’d read about players like Shoeless Joe Jackson getting a lifetime ban from the game, it was really shocking to watch that unfold with one of the greatest players who’s ever played the game during my lifetime. Although, as you pointed out in the book, Pete Rose having connections to gambling was not exactly a complete secret.

People may remember the broad strokes of what happened here, but I think in the 25 years since Pete Rose was banned from baseball and has made mistake after mistake off the field, we have forgotten why we ever cared about him in the first place. I wanted to go back and reconstruct that narrative.

In doing so, it’s clear that Pete Rose’s problems that led to his banishment in 1989 don’t start three months beforehand. They don’t start even a year or even three years before. I think you can trace the problems in his off-field mistakes back 20 or 30 years. Certainly, by the late 1970s, the idea that Pete Rose was a gambler and gambled a lot was well-known. And well-known even in the offices of Major League Baseball.

There are still scandals now surrounding athletes who bet on their own sports, but — when you were researching this, were you struck by the changes in the relationship between sports leagues and betting from Pete Rose’s era to now?

Yeah, absolutely. I don’t delve into the current changes in the book. My narrative really focuses on this 30-year window of time when Pete Rose was a professional baseball player, from 1960 to 1989.  But the current landscape does make for a great picture frame to put around this portrait. No one would have predicted 35 years ago when Pete was banned from baseball that sports gambling would one day be legal in most places. No one would have predicted that a decade ago. And it is fundamentally changing our culture. It’s fundamentally changing our relationship to sports. It’s fundamentally changing how we consume, view and discuss sports. And I think we’re just at the beginning. I mean, gambling was only legalized across America six years ago. We are just at the start. And I don’t think anybody has any idea where this is truly headed.

For the book, I interviewed Faye Vincent, the former Deputy Commissioner of Baseball in 1989, and then the subsequent Commissioner of Baseball. And my original interviews with Faye Vincent started three years ago, in 2021. Even then, Faye Vincent looking out over the landscape at that time was stunned by what he was seeing. And he told me that we haven’t seen this kind of cultural change since overturning Prohibition 100 years ago, and the sweeping legalization of alcohol. And just as no one knew where that was going to go, then no one knows where this is going now.

It’s been interesting seeing how English soccer is taking steps to reduce their overlap with gambling, like phasing out betting companies as jersey sponsors. That all of that’s been happening as the U.S. is charging pretty headlong into it feels like a cautionary tale just waiting to happen.

As gambling and advertising for gambling and the notion of gambling becomes more and more omnipresent in our sports coverage, I think people are already rebelling against what’s happened. When the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 to effectively allow states to decide for themselves what to do with gambling, it was like throwing open the door. There was no regulation whatsoever, at least on the federal level. It just happened on a state-by-state basis, and many states were ready to move because they wanted it. They wanted the tax revenue that gambling would provide.

In a matter of just a few years now, 38 states and the District of Columbia have legalized sports wagering in most of those places. We can do it on our phones, from our couches, from our seats at the stadium. We can place bets in-game, which again is something that just never happened before. In the ’70s and ’80s, Pete Rose couldn’t place a bet in-game. Bookies got their lines, their point spreads, often from a syndicate of other bookies, or sometimes from a syndicate of organized crime. You didn’t have lines that were adjusting at the moment.

So someone like Pete Rose placed his $2,000 bet, which was his standard bet, before a game, and then he watched the game. And now, we can all place our bet before the game, and then we can do it in the middle of the game, and at halftime, and then we can chase our losses in the third quarter, or in the eighth inning. I mean, it’s just something we’ve never seen before.

There were two personality traits of Pete Rose’s that came up a lot in the book. One was his penchant for gambling, but there was also a tireless work ethic, even beyond that of his teammates. You describe the way that he had a memory of every pitcher he’d ever faced that he could draw from over his career, for instance. His work ethic felt very admirable; his gambling felt tragic. Do you see these qualities as coming from the same place, or being in opposition to one another?

It’s absolutely coming from the same place. One element that I identified early on was that the same qualities that made Pete Rose an iconic baseball player are the same qualities that doomed him to failure as a person. On the field, he played with fury, he refused to bend, he would not be vulnerable, he would never want to be seen as weak, he would do anything to win. And, just as important, Pete Rose always believed that he would win, or he would prevail. He was — and actually is — an eternal optimist.

Those qualities served him well as a player. You know, the whole persona, the hustle, endeared him to fans, and his unwillingness to fail probably accounted for hundreds of hits as he battled and battled just to get on base. But those exact same qualities, this refusal to bend, this refusal to be vulnerable, this refusal to appear weak, and this enduring belief — that things will just work out for Pete Rose, that he can outwork the problem, he can outlast the problem, he will somehow escape in the end — are the exact same qualities that doom him to making poor decisions in his personal life, and poor decisions in 1989 and for years afterwards, when he won’t admit the truth and won’t admit that he bet on baseball.

I was surprised by some of the contradictory things that came up about Rose, from his dealings with his Black teammates — which were more progressive than one might have expected — to his relationship with a high school student, which sounded ethically and possibly legally out of bounds. Did you find your own perceptions of him changing as you worked on this book? 

Going into the project, I was, of course, aware of many of the dark places that Pete Rose had gone to over the course of his life and over the course of his career. And one of the goals of the book was to go to those places, too. And so I did that. What was difficult was doing interviews with people who had been hurt by Pete Rose.

Pete Rose has become, I think, almost like a partisan debate. There are people out there who love him and would walk through a wall of fire for Pete Rose. I interviewed those people. And there are people out there whose intersection with Pete forever changed their lives in negative ways. And I interviewed those people, too.

At times in interviews with those folks, in talking about something that happened, at times, 50 years ago, the pain was still right on the surface. And that was something that I hadn’t expected when I set out to do the project. But I did try to convey those emotions in the book, too, because I think it helped capture the entirety of the man.

The fact is, if you crossed paths with Pete Rose, especially at the peak of his fame in the ’70s or ’80s, it was often a singular moment in the lives of other people that would forever alter their lives as well.

Early in Charlie Hustle, you write that you had been in touch with Pete Rose and that he did seem to be open to talking to you for a while — and then at some point  broke off contact. Were you surprised that he was willing to talk to begin with, or was it more of a case of being surprised that after committing to speaking to you for the project, he eventually bowed out of it?

Nothing surprises me with Pete Rose. That’s one thing I’ve learned most of all. I mean, Pete Rose had never spoken before to an author for a book unless he had some kind of editorial control over the project. And I want to be clear, he did not have any control here. So I guess in that sense I was a little surprised that he was willing to talk to me — but again, not really.

I am originally from Cincinnati. My Cincinnati roots and connections helped open doors for me and got me an introduction to Pete Rose. And I’ll say that when I did get that introduction, Pete Rose was thrilled to talk.

I was very clear I wanted to tell the whole story here. I explained that I felt like it was a time for reckoning for him. He was in his early 80s when my reporting began, and to use the old sports cliche, we are all day-to-day. But when you’re in your early 80s that notion is especially present. I was offering Pete Rose a chance to reckon — maybe one last chance to reckon — with the past, and he was excited to talk.

But over the course of our time together, I did push him and did want to talk about everything, and I think I ultimately pushed him as far as he was willing to go. The fact that he stopped calling me back, I guess, in that sense, isn’t that surprising. He’s also done this before. I met many people over the course of my reporting who had once been in close contact with Pete, had once even been close friends with Pete, and he severed contact with them, for whatever reason. So he’s certainly done this sort of thing before.

You described that happening in the book as well, like when Rose and Johnny Bench went into business together and then all of a sudden it just fizzled out. Some kind of chill seems to have set in — which might have foreshadowed what was to come. 

That was a relationship that was filled with tension for lots of reasons — mostly involving ego and fame and importance in the city of Cincinnati. But Pete has severed contact over the years with all kinds of people — ex-lovers and girlfriends, reporters and even close friends.

Remembering the Night the Disgraced Hit King Was Crowned at First Base
An excerpt from Keith O’Brien’s “Charlie Hustle” from Pantheon Books

The subtitle of the book includes the phrase “The Last Glory Days of Baseball,” and towards the end of it, when you wrote about the investigation into Pete Rose’s gambling and his suspension and the subsequent death of A. Bartlett Giamatti, you allude to the next scandal on the horizon for Major League Baseball. Do you think that focusing on gambling prevented the powers that be in Major League Baseball from anticipating the use of steroids and performance enhancing drugs?

I don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t think anyone was aware that players — and star players — were already using steroids in the summer of 1989. I do think there’s some pretty deep historical irony to the fact that during that summer, as baseball pursued Pete Rose — rightly so — players were already injecting themselves with steroids, at least in the clubhouse in Oakland.

I think that irony is meaningful because, in my opinion, the steroid scandal to come would have a far more devastating effect on baseball than this gambling scandal in 1989. I don’t mean to suggest that they shouldn’t have pursued Pete Rose; they were right to do so. Pete Rose’s relationships with bookies, his debts to bookies and his decision to bet on baseball and bet on his own team did put the game at risk, without question. It had to be investigated. 

One thing that’s stunning to me, looking back on it, is that investigation in 1989 which leads to the Dowd report — named after the lead investigator, John Dowd — is a stunningly accurate first draft of history. In a span of 10 to 12 weeks, John Dowd —  newly hired special counsel for Major League Baseball — and his team builds a dossier on Pete Rose that includes bank records and phone records and depositions with people who placed his bets on baseball and depositions with a bookie that took his bets on baseball. 

This report unravels years of lies, maybe more, and it’s completed even before the summer begins. I think that’s amazing, but looking back on it, it is ironic that while baseball was pulling out all the stops to get to the core of the truth of what Pete Rose was doing, it was blissfully unaware of the next scandal to come, the steroid scandal, which was absolutely destructive to the sport.

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