Donald Trump Was Wrong About Pete Rose
His other policies aside, Donald Trump was wrong about one thing: his February 8th, 2020 tweet insisting Pete Rose should be a lock for the Hall of Fame.
In 1989 Pete Rose was banned from baseball, and with his shunning lost any hope of ever being enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, at least while alive. Mr. Rose has made it clear he would prefer enshrinement, but it is unlikely to happen soon. Even so, Trump's tweet suggests there is mounting pressure to change that.
Pete Rose's banishment was the consequence of his gambling, which was one of his many moral failings that have since come to light. In recent years, allegations of misdeeds by Mr. Rose have surfaced that from both a moral and a legal perspective are far more worrisome than betting. If true, those kinds of crimes are among the worst of the worst, and Mr. Rose should not be granted any leeway in attempting to excuse them. I'll leave those discussions for another day.
That said, recent events like the Astros' cheating scandal have raised the question of which kinds of offenses really merit a lifetime ban. If not blatant cheating on the field, why gambling? Pete has a point there. Derek Jeter's recent induction, which is based far more on personal popularity than merit against his peers, also bolsters Pete's case. Neither was among the best players of all time, as both had statistics only slightly above average for most of their careers. But Jeter's near-unanimous induction on the first ballot offers a window into the kind of enthusiasm, justified or not, that might help propel Rose into the Hall if he had a similar personality and fewer off-the-field hurdles.
In discussing his baseball status, Mr. Rose has frequently in interviews expressed a deep longing for baseball to overlook his gambling and insisted that he would be a great ambassador for baseball today if he were granted a larger role. This is questionable, and his less-than-humble and less-than-remorseful attitude seems to me less a solid example for young people than that of many other former players.
Whether Pete Rose is ultimately enshrined in the Hall of Fame posthumously is likely to come down to a subjective statute of limitations: eventually baseball will relent and conclude that his on-the-field contributions were too great to shun him forever. Once it is felt he has served his time for off-the-field indiscretions, few will question his on-the-field bona fides.
Before the gates open to Mr. Rose, however, I'd urge the Hall not to grant Mr. Rose a free pass for on-the-field performance as they did for Mr. Jeter. The Hall, after all, has standards, and amid the discussion of Mr. Rose's other failings it is often overlooked that as a baseball player his performance left much to be desired.
Among Mr. Rose's many records, longevity was his greatest asset. He holds almost no records based on performance alone; the records he does hold he does almost exclusively because he played for a very long time. He set the all time outs record long before he set the all-time hits record, after all.
While it's no guarantee that great performance will get one into the Hall of Fame - in fact barely 50 percent of those with career OPS+ figures of 150 or higher are in the Hall, this metric of offensive performance remains the best predictor of Hall viability. A simple measure that compares one's overall offensive production against the average, an OPS+ of 150 or higher means that a player's overall performance for his entire career was 50% better than that of the average player.
Around 75 percent of Hall of Fame members have OPS+ figures greater than 120. At a career 118, Pete Rose would fall around the 22nd or 23rd percentile of Hall of Fame inductees. Those below that threshold almost universally excelled in another area of the game, such as fielding or baserunning, that would offset their low offensive output. For Mr. Rose, this would mean rewarding his effort and longevity in much the way one rewards Ozzie Smith's defense to make up for a lack of athletic ability or offensive production. While this is more than justifiable in Mr. Rose's case, it shouldn't be considered automatic.
The question in Mr. Rose's case is whether his effort and longevity make up for a lack of Hall of Fame production and a rash of moral failures to put him over the top. In fact it's arguable that in his case longevity may have actually gotten in the way: the Reds struggled late in his career, and the year after he was banned from the game they won the World Series with an entirely different crop of players. From 1980 onward he never once scored an OPS+ over 100, and the players the Reds replaced him with filled his spot with better offensive numbers. Had his career ended in 1980 he'd have a stronger OPS+, but would not have had the longevity that makes him worthy of consideration.
Mr. Rose's legacy of value as a player is largely remembered only in the imagination. While one can contend he contributed much, by Hall of Fame standards those contributions do not appear on a stat line. Instead, one is left arguing qualitative and subjective rationales on his behalf. If he indeed was the "heart and soul" of the Big Red Machine, and if his fiery and feisty attitude had intangible benefits undocumented and unseen, so be it. These contentions are at the core of his case. Just don't consider it an automatic qualifier.
I'd urge the Hall to approach his case with seriousness. After all, Barry Bonds is sitting on the outside looking in with a career OPS+ of 182, 64 points higher than Pete's, with 762 home runs and 514 stolen bases. Mr. Rose would dream of Mr. Bonds' numbers.
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