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This book explores the legacy of Pete Rose and sports gambling

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

LA Dodgers superstar pitcher Shohei Ohtani is adamant that he did not bet on baseball. And the mystery behind his ties to sports gambling is a sore spot before opening day tomorrow. But long before the inquiry into Ohtani's ties to betting, there was Pete Rose. The Cincinnati Red was a consistent hitter with a brash personality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE ROSE: I had a style, the way I played. And most if not all fans would love my style. You know what my style was - playing hard, sliding head first, diving for this, diving for that.

CHANG: In 1989, Rose was banished from baseball for life after an investigation found that he bet on the sport as a player and a manager. A new book titled "Charlie Hustle: The Rise And Fall Of Pete Rose" chronicles one of the most polarizing figures in sports. Its author, Keith O'Brien, interviewed Rose for the book in hopes of getting one of baseball's former greats to reckon with his dark past. O'Brien shared some of the tape with us when we spoke to him and drew a line from Pete Rose to today.

KEITH O'BRIEN: Pete Rose was, in the second half of the 20th century, one of our most iconic athletes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSE: No one played like me.

O'BRIEN: He was baseball's all-time hit leader. He still is now, 40 years later. No one is anywhere close to breaking that hit record. It will probably stand forever. And in the time in which Pete Rose played, between 1963 and 1989, he was not just a successful athlete, he was a beloved athlete. Fans loved Pete Rose not because of the hits or the World Series victories or the MVPs or anything like that. His whole persona was about hustling, and he became Charlie Hustle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSE: No one that I ever played against was Charlie Hustle except me. You understand what I'm saying?

O'BRIEN: Pete Rose stood out. He would sprint down to first base on a walk. He would barrel into second base, trying to break up a double play as if he was a linebacker, not a base runner. Today, I don't even know where we would put him or how we would think about him if he was playing, because nobody knew what to do with him even back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSE: As long as I'm baseball's all-time hit king, people will talk about me. And no one's ever going to beat that record.

O'BRIEN: At the start of every baseball season, Pete Rose had the same goals. He wanted to bat 300, he wanted to have 200 hits and he wanted to score 100 runs. Those were his goals. And the miraculous thing is, by and large, he attained those goals and soon found himself, by the late 1970s, in striking distance of one of Major League Baseball's most hallowed records, you know, baseball's all-time hit record, 4,191 hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTY BRENNAMAN: Kicks and he fires. Rose swings.

JOE NUXHALL: There it is. There it is. Get out. Get out. All right.

BRENNAMAN: And there it is, hit number 4,192. A line drive single into left-center field, a clean base hit. And it is pandemonium here at Riverfront Stadium.

O'BRIEN: In February 1989, problems for Pete Rose start to come to a head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSE: Thirty, 40 years ago, gambling used to be a no-no.

O'BRIEN: Sports Illustrated has received a tip that Pete Rose is betting on baseball and he's betting on the Cincinnati Reds, things that are in violation of Major League Baseball rules. The rumor of Sports Illustrated's investigation begins to drift across town to the offices of Major League Baseball and decide that they need to call Pete Rose to New York for a meeting to discuss the rumors of his gambling on baseball. And in this meeting, my reporting shows that if Pete was honest, the entire narrative that comes next, the next 35 years, the time we're still living in now, is different. But Pete can't be honest. And when they ask him if it's true, he lies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A BARTLETT GIAMATTI: By choosing not to come to a hearing before me, and by choosing not to proffer any testimony or evidence contrary to the evidence and information contained in the report of the special counsel to the commissioner, Mr. Rose has accepted baseball's ultimate sanction, which is lifetime ineligibility.

O'BRIEN: They hire a former Justice Department prosecutor and in a matter of weeks unravel years and years of lies about Pete's gambling. They have his phone records. They have his bank records. They have depositions with men who placed his bets on baseball and bookies who accepted those bets. They have everything on Pete Rose, and still Pete can't be honest about what happened.

Pete was indignant from the start about his banishment from baseball. He expressed no humility. He expressed very little sorrow. Between 1989 and 2004, he repeatedly said that baseball had got it wrong, that he hadn't bet on baseball and he hadn't bet on the Reds. In 2004, this narrative begins to change. Pete has received a ton of criticism in the past 35 years for not being honest in 1989, but I think it is complicated when you look at it through the prism of history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSE: Baseball is in bed with gamblers today. Everybody wants a piece of the pie with the gambling, and most all of them are getting paid by the gambling sites. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing. It's about time they understood that.

O'BRIEN: Our culture has changed. You know, in 1989, gambling was something that happened strictly in the underworld. It was verboten in every state but the state of Nevada. If you wanted to place a bet on sports, you had to do it with a bookie. And that meant you had to know people who were bookies. That was simply not a life that most people lived. These days, in 38 states and Washington, D.C., sports gambling is legal. In many of those places, we can place bets on our phone. We can do it at the stadium. And we are doing it, gambling, at a record pace. And while all of this is happening, illegal gambling is also still happening.

And for years the men who pursued Pete Rose in 1989 have been saying it's dangerous. We're going to find ourselves, they said, in another scandalous gambling situation. And there's a lot we still don't know about the allegations surrounding star Dodger player Shohei Ohtani and his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. There is a ton that we don't know, but what's clear even now is that with the shady outlines of this story as it exists, this is already the biggest gambling scandal that baseball has faced since 1989. It is already the biggest gambling problem that baseball has faced since Pete Rose. And that's not to equate Shohei Ohtani to Pete Rose. They are different stories. But the fact that we ended up here is not surprising at all.

CHANG: Keith O'Brien, author of "Charlie Hustle: The Rise And Fall Of Pete Rose."

(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN KREISBERG'S "CANTO DE OSSANHA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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