Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball, by Keith O’Brien (Pantheon, 464 pp., $26.64)

Pete Rose first set eyes, through the intermediary of binoculars, on his future wife at River Downs, a horse track outside of Cincinnati. If his life were a book, and it is in Keith O’Brien’s marvelous Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball, the reader would recognize this as foreshadowing.

The biography also reads as cautionary tale. Consider Shohei Ohtani, baseball’s most luminous current star: he claims that a former associate who says he placed bets on Ohtani’s behalf “told lies,” he describes himself as “shocked” that money from his accounts settled gambling debts, and he insists that “I never bet on baseball or any other sports” and “never have asked somebody to do that on my behalf.” It recalls Pete Rose’s denials 35 years ago, when Major League Baseball banned him for betting on games. Ohtani’s known background offers no clues indicating anything but an angel until this season’s revelations. Even should evidence vindicate the presumption of Ohtani’s innocence, one gleans the impression that any story of a professional athlete laying money on sport nevertheless makes for old wine in new bottles. After all, baseball’s commissioner felt compelled to post Rule 21 governing misconduct (including gambling) in every locker room long before Pete Rose entered one.

The physically unimpressive man lacking power appeared to nobody but himself as foreordained to enter one. That destiny had insulted his dream only served to make his dream his destiny. O’Brien’s book details how Rose hustled at 12 to collect fares from motorists crossing the Ohio River on a ferry, nearly dropped out of Western Hills High School after getting cut from the football team, and jumped to sign a measly minor-league offer that clearly indicated that the Cincinnati Reds did not expect him ever to play for the Cincinnati Reds—much less go on to become baseball’s all-time hits leader.

But in the Florida League in 1961, the underdog notched 30 triples—the ultimate hustle hit. Ignoring their colloquial name, he ran out bases on balls. He slid headfirst when almost no players did. Without complaint, the unpretentious ballplayer switched positions—logging at least 589 games at first, second, third, left, and right during his career—at the manager’s whim. None dared call him a utilityman.

The Reds blasting The Natural soundtrack when unveiling a statue of the hometown hero several years ago missed the moment as much as playing The Benny Hill Show’s “Yakety Sax” theme song at a funeral would. Neither pedigree nor skills propelled Rose to Crosley Field. Effort did. Will did. Competitiveness did.

The most Pete Rose play of Pete Rose’s career exemplified this. “In this new world, players, fans, and writers could not imagine why Pete Rose would have slammed into [Ray] Fosse back in 1970, unless it was because of a character flaw,” O’Brien writes of the famous home-plate collision at the All-Star Game. “The play became evidence that something was wrong with Pete. He wanted to win too much.”

“The home run proved to [Reds manager] Sparky [Anderson] that some players did want to win more than others,” O’Brien writes of Rose homering in the 12th to stave off elimination in the 1973 National League Championship Series. In the pressure-packed 1975 World Series (Games 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7 decided by one run), Rose predictably won the MVP award. Four years later, he signed with Philadelphia for less money than offered by Atlanta, among other suitors, to play for a contender. With the weight of the contract and a city on his shoulders, Rose in his second season in a new uniform helped deliver the championship that had eluded the Phillies since the franchise’s inception nearly a century earlier.

Pressure weighed down just about everyone else. Rose thrived not just on mere pressure but on chaos. This attraction to chaos gave him a boost in clutch situations but handicapped him off the field. He used the Reds traveling secretary to book the accommodations of both his wife and his mistress for road games. “She was in one hotel room at the New York Sheraton while Karolyn was in another,” O’Brien points out. The coup de grace on the marriage came when Karolyn spontaneously confronted a younger woman driving the Porsche her husband had bought for her.

“On the day that Karolyn filed for divorce in Cincinnati,” O’Brien notes, “Pete went 3 for 4 against the Mets in New York. Over the next four games, he hit safely in fifteen out of seventeen at-bats. He batted .468 for the rest of 1979 and then rolled into the offseason, collecting his usual accolades.” O’Brien relays that Rose began his historic 44-game hitting streak in 1978 exactly when Major League Baseball officials spoke to him about his relationship with underworld types.

He lived to win as a participant and as an interested spectator. Those around baseball did not suddenly learn this through 1989’s Dowd Report. Starting in spring training during the 1960s, he sometimes played a Tampa triple-header after morning practice—the horses, the dogs, and jai alai. At a drunken roast in early 1979, George Foster joked how Pete helped so many kids with football, baseball, basketball, and hockey before pausing for the punchline: “He taught those kids how to bet on them all.” Later that year, CBS tapped Pete to fill in for an ailing Jimmy the Greek on The NFL Today. He correctly picked the Patriots over the Lions, informing viewers: “This is the best bet of the day right here.”

Rose unfortunately rarely limited his wagers to the best bet of the day. Instead, he compulsively gambled on a slate of games that, with the vigorish and the house’s greater resources, ultimately led to the debts that nudged him toward bets on the sport he knew best. Charlie Hustle, like the Dowd Report and its subject, pegs the 1986 season—his last as a player—as his first known foray into gambling on baseball.

Almost from the moment baseball finally exiled the man with Axel Freed’s problem and Moe Howard’s haircut, it dodged a new problem. Players did not swing in batting cages past midnight to become great as Rose did. They injected needles into their buttocks and began to resemble Superstar Billy Graham, the Ultimate Warrior, and other stars of a sport on which nobody dared gamble. Fans began longing for the blue-collar approach represented by Charlie Hustle and “the glory days of baseball” referred to in the book’s title. MLB did not soften its stance toward its pariah, but its partnerships with MGM Resorts and FanDuel indicated that something other than principle now motivated Rose’s prolonged banishment. So, too, does the rush to judgment of innocence in the Ohtani case that, like his account ledger after his interpreter allegedly siphoned funds, does not quite add up yet.

The temptation to label the Pete Rose drama Shakespearean evaporates when one realizes it does not end with the main characters taking brides in a group wedding. A week and a day after negotiating the Hit King’s 1989 ban, MLB commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti died of a coronary at 51. Tommy Gioiosa, that Gold’s-Gym-going-gopher-turned-friend, went to prison rather than betray the idol who repaid the loyalty by ignoring him. A 2016 welfare check found the body of Ron Peters, likely more than a week after its occupant of 59 years departed it. Peters, the former high-roller bookie who had placed more than $1 million in Rose’s bets, received an indigent’s cremation. Pete Rose watched the team he managed the previous season, the Reds, win the 1990 World Series on a television in a federal prison’s common room.

Is Keith O’Brien an incredible storyteller, or did Pete Rose just live an incredible story? It won’t matter to the reader transfixed on this addictive book, which will captivate students of outlier personality types as much as it does baseball fans.

Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images


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