Book Review: Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball by Keith O’Brien

Few athletes in the history of sport have been as controversial as Pete Rose.  Never has a conversation taken place between sports fans that hasn’t included the obligatory question: “Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame?”  His is a dilemma that has plagued us since his playing days, all of us taking a firm stance with little gray area or wiggle room.

Enter Keith O’Brien’s thorough, and thoroughly entertaining, Charlie Hustle:The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball, a dare I say epic (if only 464 pages) account of Rose’s career, one of the better baseball books I’ve read in ages about one of its most captivating figures.

O’Brien takes you to the ballpark where so few of us go anymore for a variety of reasons, most notably for how the sport has treated its former heroes, including Rose.

The context of Rose’s career, O’Brien reminds us, takes place during a time when not only the game was changing but also the way it was covered by journalists.  “The chummy beat writer was gone.  Scribes weren’t beholden to athletes in any way.  What they wanted was a story.  Scandal was good for ratings.”

O’Brien is no Rose apologist.  The facts and history are laid out in Malamud-like fashion for, while Rose might not have been a natural, few ballplayers worked as hard or were as determined. 

O’Brien traces Rose’s childhood, explaining why he was who he became, the hustle he learned from his father, a neighborhood sports icon, as if Charlie Hustle was a nickname of destiny.  O’Brien recants Rose’s days at the racetrack with his father and the trauma of being cut from his high school football team.

Through family contact and hard work, Rose ultimately landed a $7000 contract to play baseball for Cincinnati’s farm team.  He was sent to Geneva, New York where he first met Tony Perez.  Never was Rose not Rose, even early on.  “He slid headfirst into bases – something that almost no one else did.  He cheered for his teammates, he shouted a lot and he cursed with such ferocity that the words echoed for all to hear.”

From Geneva it was on to Tampa.  “He enjoyed the warmer weather.  He liked walking around the docks in the harbor or slurping down black bean soup, cooked up by Cubans in Ybor City.  He could go to three different places to gamble in his free times – a horse track, a dog track and late-night jai alai games.”

Rose was sabermetrics before we’d heard the term.  He just did so in his head, an analytical at bat of Williams-like proportions and success.  Scooter Rose is what they called him early on.  The nickname “Charlie Hustle” eventually came from a spring training game where New York Yankees Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford watched him leg out a bunt to first.  “They were laughing at Pete.  They thought he was working too hard.  But Pete refused to see it that way.  He knew that hustling was the secret to his success, the key to every room he would ever enter.  He happily wore the name.”

Called up in 1963, after a slow start, Rose was off to the races.  “Any time he saw a pitcher twice, he was better than he had been the time before.  He remembered what they threw and how they threw it.”  It was during his rookie season that he met his first wife, at all places, a racetrack.  That season, he’d win Rookie of the Year.

As with all things American, race was also an issue.  As Rose continued to make a name for himself, not only was he an attraction but so was his whiteness.  At a time when the game began to see more color in its lineups, at least early on, sportswriters were on Rose’s side. “Every major sports column in every major American newspaper was written by a white man.  And while many of those reporters wrote flattering feature stories about the game’s Black and Latino stars, they gravitated to Pete Rose.  He looked like them, spoke like them, he was working class like them, and he was willing to give interviews all day, filling their columns with colorful quotations and stories.  The coverage was hyperbolic at times, perhaps.  But it wasn’t untrue.”

By 1968, Pete Rose became the leading vote-getter for the All-Star team.  “Gone were the days of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford laughing at Pete from the dugout.”  Rose’s rise to fame took place within the context of expansion, his budding rivalry with teammate Johnny Bench, higher pay for players, an increasing rise in the popularity of football and new stadiums built as revenues grew.  Cincinnati’s Riverfront was built in 1970.  But all wasn’t Rosy for Pete as rumblings about his gambling lifestyle began to surface.

Then came the 1970 All-Star Game and the night he barreled into Ray Fosse.  “The play became evidence that something was wrong with Pete.  He wanted to win too much.  It proved that Pete Rose always played hard.  It made him relevant, a sensation, even.  It made him Charlie Hustle.”

Their post-season losses in 1970 (World Series to Baltimore), 1972 (World Series to Oakland) and 1973 (NLCS to the Mets), and a crumbling marriage in which Pete always put baseball first culminated in Rose’s Reds finally breaking through and beating Boston in 1975 (picture a waving, leaping Carlton Fisk in Game Six), Rose named Series MVP as well as Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year.  Rose’s post-Game Seven response?  “I wish opening day was tomorrow.”

The Reds would win again in 1976 but things would start to unravel, a child with another woman out of wedlock, continued gambling debts and the dismantling of the Big Red Machine.  Then there’d be his chase of Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak.  “The Press treated DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak as if it were a pillar of America itself.  There was the Constitution, the Statue of Liberty, blue jeans, apple pie – and fifty-six games in 1941.  Anyone who spoke about the achievement was required to address it with quiet reverence.”  The streak would end at 44.

Celebrated nationally, “Pete’s reality was less polished than the one being presented in the newspapers.”  After a stint in Philadelphia where Pete would continue to amass hits and win a World Series, the decision was made to bring Pete back to Cincinnati as a player/manager.  Amidst increasing chatter that Rose was hanging out with the wrong crowd, Reds’ ownership thought it a good move to bring back the city’s most beloved athlete.  They’d also host his chase of Cobb’s all-time hit record.

“He had outlasted everyone from the Reds teams of the 1969s, almost all the old beat writers, most of his former teammates.  They had all drifted away or retired, and Pete was still there, the oldest player in baseball, hanging on.”

And then, finally, the all-time hit record.  “If you were alive and watching, you remembered exactly where you were in this moment: how your family gathered around, how the barroom went quiet, how the crowd stood up on its feet in the cheap seats or gathered in the department store in front of the rack of television, how Pete crouched over the player, eyes on the ball, how he ran the count to two balls and one strike with the flashing bulbs firing.”  Hit number 4,192 left Rose “crying as the crowd roared and the standing ovation continued.”

As gambling continued for Rose, so did his reputation amongst local bookmakers.  “Everyone in this little world knew that Pete couldn’t be trusted.  He was like one of those elusive river eels, the unwanted fish that people sometimes hooked by accident in Cincinnati.  Pete was slippery in the murk.”  It was only a matter of time before things went south.

In Hustle, you’ll read tales of every player in the game, including of course Bart Giamatti, the Yale president turned baseball commissioner who “preferred books over boardrooms and seminars over spreadsheets.”  And of course, the Dowd Report. “Pete had insisted on wording in his signed agreement that the document was neither an admission nor a denial of guilt on his part.”

O’Brien is quick to point out that even after all this time, there are question marks as to when and how Pete Rose bet on baseball.  “The timing of Pete’s first wager on a baseball game isn’t clear.  Pete can’t remember or won’t say, and the people around him can’t or won’t, either.  It’s an odd hole in the story, especially for a man who can summon, with instant recall, how many triples he hit for the Macon Peaches in 1962.”  According to other records, however, in 1986, Rose was losing up to $32,000 in sports wagering.

The book reads like a mystery that you’re waiting to unravel with more sordid details yet to come.  It’s a tragic tale of a relatively simple man, uncommonly determined, who liked to do nothing more than gamble, screw and play baseball.  The story is complicated by the fact that he is the game’s greatest hitter, or at least its most accomplished.  The seeds of his demise were planted early on and sprouted the more they were watered.  Having watched, and enjoyed, every Martin Scorsese bio-epic ad nauseum (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street) it would not surprise me in the slightest if Marty picked up a copy of Charlie Hustle and at a minimum considered the project.  Charlie Hustle reads as such: a man’s rise, a man’s downfall, a man’s gradual yet incomplete reconciliation, over years and years of trial.

I’m not sure Charlie Hustle changed my opinion on whether Pete Rose belongs in Cooperstown.  Opinions on this matter are not easily swayed.  It did, however, enlighten me by showing me a side of the man I never knew existed.  Like Rose himself, Hustle is a throwback to a simpler time that turned out to be not so simple after all.

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One Reply to “Book Review: Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball by Keith O’Brien”

  1. I grew up in Tampa where the first books that I checked out of the library were books on sports.
    The Reds played their spring training games at AL Lopez Field. I watched Rose take batting practice and heard quite clearly him cursing like a sailor. You might know my opinion on the Hall of Fame controversy. I want to thank you for the heads up on this book. Because of my schedule I might have missed the opportunity to read this story. It will added to my collection as soon as possible. Please keep up the good work , it is much appreciated.

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