In March of 1963, Mickey Mantle dubbed Pete Rose "Charlie Hustle." It was not a compliment. Mantle thought Rose looked silly running full-speed to first base after drawing a walk.
That same spring, Rose's Cincinnati teammates called him "The Rook." They said it with sneers, deriding his flash, his blatant confidence that he was already a major leaguer, just like the popular veteran, Don Blasingame, whose job Rose wanted.Rose wore his uniform pants so tight that manager Fred Hutchinson warned him that he was going to embarrass himself stooping for a ground ball. Rose grinned. It would make a great photo opportunity and was bound to get him some ink.
At age 22 Pete Rose was uniquely aggressive, totally egocentric and had an instinct for publicity. He was ambitious, selfish and had little respect for his older teammates. He had, indeed, the essential qualities of a star.
"Hustle: The Myth, Life and Lies of Pete Rose" begins with scenes from that spring-training camp in 1963. Author Michael Sokolove puts it the way I, and others who were there, remember it. If the rest of Sokolove's biography is as credible as the prologue, Rose's public persona as a role model has been grossly misrepresented.
Sokolove's "Hustle" is a harsh, even cruel, indictment of a greedy, friendless boy-man obsessed with gambling and unable to handle it. It is a tale of a celebrity who conned the press, ran a scam on his fans and eventually self-destructed. If it weren't so exhaustively detailed it would be unbelievable.
In 1987, Sokolove was the baseball writer for the Cincinnati Post. He had daily contact with Rose, saw the people who hung out with him, knew from city-side reporters that Rose was into big-time gambling, heard the rumors of investigations by the baseball commissioner.
In 1989, Sokolove told Rose he was writing a book about him and asked for his cooperation. Rose wanted money, lots of it. Sokolove refused to pay for Rose's side of the story. Rose had fumbled the ball - the worst error of his career.
As early as 1970, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had his security chief, Henry Fitzgibbon, investigating Rose's gambling and his association with bookmakers. Fitzgibbon was suspicious but wasn't convinced he had a case. Besides, Rose was the most popular player in baseball; he put fannies in the seats.
In Cincinnati, and later in Philadelphia, team management had serious misgivings. Dick Wagner, the Reds' general manager, is quoted as saying in 1978: "Pete's legs may get broken when his playing days are over." Rose was welshing on his debts to bookies, but he was such a big loser that some continued to handle his action.
Under baseball's rules, Rose's association with known gamblers was enough to get him a year's suspension. Leo Durocher had been taken down for it; so had Denny McClain. But Rose was a true superstar, a legend in his own time. He was allowed to get away with breaking the rules, so he ignored warnings to get his act together.
By 1987, Rose's obsession with gambling was out of control. "Hustle" quotes a crony who went to the race track with Rose:
"Petey was throwing away a thousand, fifteen hundred a race. He was losing ten thousand a night."
"Hustle" is a stark portrait of an obsessive gambler who tarnished his reputation as a bona-fide baseball hero. Sokolove cites a psychologist who suggests that Rose's only chance was to face the truth about himself; otherwise his addiction would take him down the sewer.
He didn't. And it did.