Saturday, March 30, 2024

Review: Charlie Hustle (2024)

By Keith O'Brien

A Philadelphia sportscaster once offered an appropriate one-sentence summary of baseball's Pete Rose:

"He's a helluva guy, but he'd bet you on what time it was."

Yup, that's Pete. You can say a lot about his life, which now has gone past 80 years, but you can't say it's been boring.

No wonder we're still talking about this legendary player, who had a fall that Shakespeare would have appreciated. Rose was one of baseball's all-time greats, but betting on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds led the his forced departure from his association of the game/business. 

Rose has had plenty written about him over the years, naturally. He returns to the literary spotlight in a new biography called "Charlie Hustle" by Keith O'Brien, which ranks as the most comprehensive account yet of Rose's life. Not only did the author interview dozens of people and went through a ton of records and transcripts of report, but he even talked to Rose himself for a few days ... before Rose got angry for whatever reason and stopped returning phone calls. 

Rose's story started out as the Basic Local Boy Makes Good. tale. He grew up in modest surroundings in Cincinnati, with a father who was a good but not great athlete. Pete didn't seem to pay much attention to school work, but baseball was another story. Nobody outworked him, and he signed to play with the hometown Reds right out of high school. After a shockingly brief stay in the minors (only a couple of years), Rose wound up in the Cincinnati lineup in 1963. He was good enough to be the Rookie of the Year in the National League. Pete also picked up the nickname of "Charlie Hustle" from Yankee stars Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford because of the way he ran everywhere on the field - particularly while going to first after a walk.

Rose simply got better and better from there. In 1965, Rose led the league in hits for the first of seven times and hit .300 for the first of 15 times. He won a Most Valuable Player award, played in 17 All-Star Games, and claimed three championships. Most notably, he broke Ty Cobb's seemingly unbreakable major-league record for most hits in a career. Pete was a player-manager of the Reds at that point, and he probably was the only person that would have put his name on a major-league lineup card. But it did happen.

It's hard to underestimate how popular Rose was during that period. He clearly wasn't the most physically talented player on the field, but no one worked harder. An undiagnosed case of ADHD probably was part of the formula for success.

But O'Brien points out, there were some red flags that were flying along the way. Pete picked up a love of gambling on horse racing as a teen, and that issue only grew as the years went on. Add in a personality who didn't seem to take his wedding vows too seriously and the intake of amphetamines, and this clearly was someone who was flirting with danger. However, Rose was so popular that many were willing to look the other way. Perhaps a little discipline in those playing days might have changed his path. Or, maybe not. 

That brings us to the second half of the book, more or less, as a baseball story turns into a crime story. Rose was betting on a variety of activities by the time he was managing, including baseball. Rose hung out with enough shady characters so that word was bound to leak out to the authorities. He probably thought he could have slid by again, but gambling on baseball is the proverbial red line of the sport. But, as O'Brien outlines step by step, the case against him got bigger and bigger, and the sport's authority figures eventually had little choice but to ban him from the game. 

And as the author points out, everyone was probably willing to give Rose an edge even then. If Pete had come out and just said that he had made some mistakes and that he was sorry, his suspension would have been a relatively short one and he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame by now. But instead, Rose dug in and denied everything for several years ... and then he wrote a book about his true activities. 

Rose has become a sad figure these days in some ways. He spends some of his time signing autographs for fans who don't think he needs forgiveness for anything. He's an idol for life for them. There's the occasional story on the media on what he's thinking these days, especially in the light of the embrace by sports of gambling once the laws on that subject were changed. 

I'm not a particularly big fans of books on crime, and the dive into that particularly part of the underworld wasn't the highlight of the book for me. But I'm willing to admit that the story is quite clearly told, and that it's necessary under the circumstances. 

"Charlie Hustle" certainly will go down on the last word on the subject of Pete Rose. For those who are too young to remember Pete as a player and want to find out what the fuss was all about, this is a good place to start.

Five stars

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