Denny McLain had two fantastic seasons as a Major League Baseball pitcher. In 1968, with the Detroit Tigers, he won 31 games (the last pitcher in MLB to win at least 30) and lost six; the next season, also with Detroit, he went 24-9. In 1968 he was voted Most Valuable Player for the American League, and in both years he won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the league. McLain’s other eight seasons with various clubs could be described, precisely, as mediocre: He was 76-76.
Off the field, though, McLain’s performance was somewhat less than mediocre: His criminal record includes convictions for racketeering, embezzling people out of their retirement funds, money laundering, and selling cocaine. He did two stints in prison; a judge at a bond hearing called him “a professional criminal.” The least of his transgressions was gambling—he took part in setting up a bookmaking operation to take bets on horse racing, football, and basketball. Then-Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn suspended him for the first three months of the 1970 season.
Denny McLain is eligible for Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
The last batter McLain pitched to, however, was Pete Rose. Rose played for 24 years, appearing in more games and accumulating more hits than any player in baseball history. In 1990, four years after he retired as a player, Rose served a five-month sentence in a medium-security prison for having failed to report income from autograph and memorabilia shows.
But MLB cares nothing about Rose’s problems with the IRS. Nor do they care particularly about Rose’s admission to have betted on horse racing, football, and basketball. What baseball cares about is that Pete Rose bet on baseball games, and as a result, Rose is banned for life from the Hall of Fame. In Kostya Kennedy’s new book, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, McLain is quoted as saying, “The big difference between me and Pete when it comes to gambling is that he bet on baseball and I did not.”
The Pete Rose story is baseball’s open wound, the controversy that won’t go away. Kennedy’s book will almost certainly put the Rose dilemma back into the spotlight, wherethe old debates will be hauled out and rehashed. As Kennedy points out, several superstars known for steroid use have been eligible for the Hall of Fame, and he called for Rose’s inclusion on the Hall of Fame ballot in a January column for The New York Times.
But perhaps it’s time some high-profile personnel within the MLB also took a stand in support of Rose. Two years ago, the late Major League Baseball Players Association head Michael Weiner came out in favor of lifting Rose’s ban, telling the National Press Club that “Cooperstown is for the best baseball players that have ever played regardless of their status as PED cheats or gambling cheats for that matter.”
The MLBPA has made no strong statements since then. It’s time for the union and its members to make a unified stand in support of Rose. It would be especially appropriate for the new union head—Tony Clarke, a former player—to lead that charge. After all, Marvin Miller, the founder of the MLBPA, maintained that the players’ association could (and perhaps should) wield a powerful influence in the Pete Rose case.
It’s now been nearly 25 years since Commissioner Bart Giamatti, after an in-house investigation, determined what Rose had always denied—he had not only bet on baseball but bet on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, while he was their manager—and banned him from baseball. The next two commissioners, Fay Vincent and Bud Selig, upheld that ban. The ban means Rose can’t appear at any official Major League Baseball function (an exception was made to allow Rose to participate in the pre-game induction of baseball’s All-Century Team before Game Two of the 1999 World Series in Atlanta), and he can’t take part in any pre- or post-game festivities involving the Reds in Cincinnati, where he played and managed for 25 seasons, or in Philadelphia, where he played for five seasons.