Pete Rose's Reckless Gamble

A quarter-century after his ban from baseball, it's easy to forget just how deeply the Cincinnati Reds' manager compromised the integrity of the game.

Neil Lauron/Reuters

I have taught a variety of sports law courses in the past seven years. Every semester, when my lecture turns to sports gambling, I get some form of this question:

“But what about Pete Rose? He only bet on his team to win. What’s wrong with that?”

The gist of my response: A lot is wrong with that.

The case of Pete Rose remains an enduring scandal 25 years after the Cincinnati Reds player and manager agreed to a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball on August 23, 1989. In 2014, the conversation about him often harkens back to images of Rose’s grit and on-field excellence during the 1970s.  Rose, now 73, seemingly remains hopeful of being reinstated into the sport, despite a life in “exile” that was recently explored by Tyler Kepner in the New York Times. Many pundits support him in that hope.

But MLB commissioner Bud Selig’s review of Rose’s application for readmission to the game has remained under review at least a decade. Selig is set to retire as commissioner in January 2015 and has given no indication that a re-evaluation of Rose is imminent.

Despite the goodwill towards Rose, his transgression in betting on games remains as serious today as it was in 1989. Which is to say, very serious.

In my classes, with frequent citations to John Dowd’s comprehensive 1989 report investigating the scandal, I explain why the uncertainty of outcome inherent in honestly competitive sport disappears when players and coaches bet on the games they are involved in—even if such wagers are only “to win.”  I also read the following excerpt from Michael Sokolove’s textured biography of Rose:

Betting on the game is baseball’s ultimate taboo because it has the potential, as nothing else does, of wrecking the sport … It calls into question the integrity of the competition, our faith that the winner will be determined by the best efforts of each player on the field.

My classroom exchanges on the topic, reflective of the Pete Rose debate that persists today, usually proceed as follows (my students’ typical questions and objections are in bold).

Pete Rose only bet on the Reds to win when he was the team’s manager. He believed in his club. How can that justify lifetime banishment from baseball?

Major League Baseball Rule 21(d) is clear. Here is the relevant portion:

Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.

But rules in baseball are selectively enforced all the time—just look at what happened with the pick-up-the-rug-and-repeatedly-sweep steroid debacle. Pete Rose didn’t throw games like the Chicago White Sox players did in the 1919 World Series. Rose always tried to win when he managed the Cincinnati Reds. What is wrong with that? Look: Footnote #3 of the Dowd Report is clear on this point.

No evidence was discovered that Rose bet against the Cincinnati Reds.

But he didn’t bet on the Reds to win every game.

What do you mean?

Rose’s betting slips, written in his own handwriting, as well as other evidence, indicate that he only bet on certain Reds’ games.

Why does that matter? He may not have been betting on all the games, but he still wanted to win every game.

It matters for two reasons. First, when Rose did not bet on the Reds, his inaction was a signal to his bookies that he wasn’t very confident in that game. Those bookies may have used this inside information to place a bet against the Reds. This doesn’t mean the game was fixed, but is reflective of Rose’s state of mind.  He was compromised. Second, his wager on certain games, but not others, may have influenced the way he made decisions as a manager.

What do you mean?

If he had a wager on that night’s game, he could be more inclined to burn through his bullpen in a less-than-optimal way. He may have used pinch hitters and pinch runners differently. In an all-out-effort to win a single wagered-upon game, he could, in turn, be sacrificing the team’s chances in a number of future games. Similarly, in games where he didn’t bet at all, he may rest certain players so they are fresh in the next game, when he was wagering on the Reds.

Let’s just assume he did wager on each and every game. Then what he did is okay, right?

No, it’s still problematic from an integrity standpoint. Even if Rose were to have bet on every game throughout the entire season, he probably didn’t always wager the exact same amount on each game.

So what? The amount he bet shouldn’t matter. He was always betting the Reds to win.

Differing bet amounts are telling. If he bet $100 one game and $1,000 another game, what message is he telling his team? Or his bookie? Or himself? It shows he had fluid levels of confidence in certain games versus others. This distinction is important. For example, according to John Dowd, when certain Reds’ pitchers took the mound, Rose didn’t bet at all.

You can’t tell me what Pete Rose did is any different than the CEO of a big publicly traded company who has stock options and bonuses based on share price or other performance metrics.

I’ll try. The CEO hypothetical is distinguishable. CEO compensation schemes and employment agreements are transparent. They are filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Those who are interested can read them. Illegal sports gambling is the complete opposite. Rose didn’t disclose his bets for fans, bookies, or other gamblers to absorb prior to the game’s first pitch. He only told his runner. Read this from Page Two of the Dowd Report:

Gambling is conducted in secret by its participants. Normally little is recorded and what is written down is destroyed shortly after payment of the wager. Payments are often made in cash by runners between the bookmaker and the gambler because cash is fungible and difficult to trace.

All of this was 25 years ago. Isn’t that long enough? Rose has recanted and apologized.

He has, but it took a while. He spent 15 years denying he ever bet on baseball. In an effort to sell his 2004 book, Rose finally admitted that he had. His August 23, 1989 agreement with MLB allowed him to apply for reinstatement after a one-year period.

How could he explain away his baseball gambling in his application for reinstatement?

He would have to come up with something different than some form of the “I only bet on the Reds to win” explanation. For this type of mea culpa to “work,” he would have had to (i) transparently bet on (ii) every Reds game for (iii) exactly the same amount. This did not happen. The first part of the Dowd Report included a powerful paragraph addressing the seriousness of gambling by game participants:

Betting on baseball by a participant of the game is corrupt because it erodes and destroys the integrity of the game of baseball. Betting also exposes the game to the influence of forces who seek to control the game to their own ends. Betting on one's own team gives rise to the ultimate conflict of interest in which the individual player/bettor places his personal financial interest above the interests of the team. 

Well, despite all this, Rose should still be in the Hall of Fame for what he did as a player. He is the all-time hit king—no one else will ever get to 4,256. He has to be in the Hall of Fame!

Then he shouldn’t have bet.