In 1969, I was eight-years-old, and I decided I wanted to be a sports fan. It’s odd to think of it that way, but I was the oldest of four boys. My father wasn’t a sports fan; my mother was, but she was kind of busy having four boys between the ages of five and eight at the time. We kept busy in my small town in Kentucky (Hodgenville, birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, if you didn’t know) by reading, playing in our fenced backyard, watching “Lost in Space,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and “Hogan’s Heroes” on television. We had fun, but I noticed my friends were starting to talk about sports, and if the television news thought it was important enough to give time to sports, I thought it must be important. So, I made a conscious decision to become a sports fan.
I checked my World Book Encyclopedia and looked up the major sports to find which teams were best. I had that option, you know. There were no professional teams in Hodgenville, Kentucky, so I chose the Boston Celtics for the NBA, the Green Bay Packers for the NFL, and the Los Angeles Dodgers for baseball. I know; the Dodgers selection seems at odds with my other choices, but I never wanted to go to New York so I couldn’t choose the Yankees. It was easy to choose the University of Kentucky Wildcats for they always won. Looking back, the Packers weren’t such a good choice at the time, but the loyalty paid off when Brett Favre and Reggie White joined the team.
By 1970, I was watching every baseball game I could on the Saturday NBC Game of the Week. Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek kept talkiing about how great the Cincinnati Reds were as a baseball team. They had this great catcher in Johnny Bench, and he and the Reds slugging third baseman, Tony Perez, were absolutely destroying the league (the Reds were 70-30 in their first 100 games). They had a rookie pitcher named Wayne Simpson that no one could hit, the “Big Bopper,” Lee May at first base, a speedster named Bobby Tolan who could do it all, and Jim Merritt was on his way to winning 20 games AND he could even hit home runs. Bernie Carbo and Hal McRae made for a nearly unstoppable “platoon” in left field, a reliever named Wayne Granger could pitch nearly every day, and their manager, George Anderson, had a cool nickname (Sparky). They had even more: they were led by the player that embodied baseball and was baseball’s best ambassador, right fielder Pete Rose, who played every game like a man on a mission. Wait, that’s an understatement. He was on a mission.
I was hooked. As a nine-year-old I could change teams and the Reds were winning. I watched the 1970 all-star game in vivid wonder as Rose bowled over catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run. To me, it was an easy decision for Rose to attempt to score. Why play the game at all if you aren’t trying to win? And, anyway, for any critics of the all-star move, Fosse was playing to win, too. He didn’t have to be blocking home plate, if it was just an “exhibition game” to the players. It was a tough, but fair play.
That took me to the next level. I played every game on the playground like Pete Rose played on a baseball field. While Rose played on artificial turf, I played on a blacktop paved playground and I challenged for every base, sliding on the blacktop over and over. My Sears “toughskin” jeans had to be patched and re-patched by my mother, and I constantly had pavement burns on my arms and legs from diving and sliding. Why play if I wasn’t playing to win?
I learned to hit the ball to all fields, and use power if needed, whether it was baseball, softball, or kickball. I had read once where Rose said he could hit home runs if he wanted to, but as a leadoff hitter, his job was to get on base, hit .300, get doubles, and score 100 runs. That all sounded pretty reasonable to me. The 1970 World Series was a heartbreaker for me; if I had known what I know of Frank Robinson now, it would have given me a different perspective on the game. As it was, the other Robinson, Brooks Robinson, became kind of a fielding god to me after watching that series. They used to call me “Brooks Price” on the playground for my fielding at third base playing softball. As for Rose ever breaking Ty Cobb‘s hit record, I believed even then that he could do that since he was getting 200 hits every year. Surely that didn’t have to stop, would it?
I read that Pete Rose always knew his batting average and would look for every edge to know how to win a game. I became a student of the game, both on and off the field.
I quickly learned that Reds fans loved Pete Rose and everyone else hated him. It wasn’t hard to figure that out; he was winning…and he seemingly won at everything he did. Quick with the quip, the press adored him and he knew how to play the crowd. He was named to various versions of Player of the Year in 1968 (The Sporting News), 1973 (Baseball Digest), and 1975 Sportsman of the Year Award (Sports Illustrated).
As the Big Red Machine was winning World Series titles, I was becoming a teen and I didn’t watch as much as I used to when I was younger. Still, I listed to games on the radio and kept up. In the summer of 1978, I was attending a summer journalism workshop at Northwestern University while Rose was chasing Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. I honestly didn’t think he would do it, but getting to 44 games was really incredible. I kept watching, even when I had “freedom” to choose other things as a 16-year-old in a school many hours away from my home.
By the time I finished college and got my first real job, I was living and working in Louisville and Rose was, ahem, a Montreal Expo. The day the Reds announced his return to Cincinnati was like a destiny, the day the prodigal son came home. He hit like crazy during his return to Cincinnati, batting .365 with a .430 OBP and an .888 OPS in 1984 (and, yes, I had heard about those stats at that time and I had started using them). Though criticized for his lack of power, he still had a .395 OBP in 1985 when he broke the hit record. I knew why he was playing, even as a 24-year-old then. He put fans in the seats. After all, the Reds were winning; they finished in second place with an 89-72 record, five and 1/2 games out of first place. Their attendance was the highest it had been since the 1979 team won the Western Division title. I’ll admit that it was tough for Nick Esasky to get a fair shot at first base, but the Reds were winning, Rose was getting on base, and the fans were coming to the ballpark.
Before the 1985 season started, I knew it would be the year that Rose would break the hit record. He had completed the 1984 season with 4097 hits. I had noticed he was batting against lefthanded pitching less and less, and the Reds had Esasky and Perez to hit from the right side of the plate. Rose had batted .211 against lefties in 1984 and .310 against righties. I estimated that he would break the record on September 10 and I bought two tickets for a buddy and me to go the game. I can’t tell you how anxious I was as Rose approached the record and I was close to being on target.
On September 8, Rose had accumulated 4189 hits as the Reds played a day game in Chicago. According to “Redleg Journal” (by Greg Rhodes and John Snyder), Rose had not planned on playing as the Cubs had announced that lefty Steve Trout would be starting and Rose had not started against a left handed pitcher all year. However, Trout fell off a bicycle and hurt his arm and was replaced by righty Reggie Patterson. Rose chose to play and singled in the first, grounded out to second in the third, and then tied Cobb’s record with a fifth inning single. The Cubs fans gave Rose a five-minute standing ovation. Rose batted twice more and grounded out with Lary Sorenson pitching and Lee Smith struck him out in the ninth with two runners on base. There had been a two-hour rain delay earlier and the game was called due to darkness with the score tied after nine innings, 5-5.
(It’s since been discovered that Cobb had a game counted twice in his career totals and actually had 4189 hits…Rose actually broke the record on 9-8-10 in Chicago, but logic has prevailed since the mistake was found nearly eighty years after the fact and to avoid confusion since the celebration took place on 9-11-85).
The Reds played the San Diego Padres on 9-9-85, and the Reds defeated lefty Dave Dravecky, 2-1. Rose did not play.
Tuesday, September 10, arrived. 51,045 were on hand to watch Rose pass Ty Cobb. Pitching for the Padres was LaMarr Hoyt, who was 13-8 at the time on his way to a 16-8 season. Rose, batting second in the order behind Eddie Milner, popped up to shortstop in the bottom of the first inning with the Reds already trailing 2-0. Rose led off the bottom of the fourth inning and flied to left field; however, Buddy Bell clubbed a two-run homer to tie the game. My buddy and I started realizing that the game was half-over, Rose hadn’t broken the record, and we needed to start thinking about tomorrow. So, we left our very good seats (no, I don’t remember where) and went to the ticket window to purchase tickets for the 9-11 game. We found that we weren’t the only ones with that that idea. Before we could purchase next game tickets, Rose was back to bat in the sixth inning with the scored still tied, 2-2. Again, Rose popped to shortstop…and off to the ticket window we were again….and the line was even longer. Diligent to our task, we got in the ticket line again, but Rose was again up to bat, now with the Reds trailing, 3-2. Batting against reliever Lance McCullers, Rose flied to left field, an 0-4 day.
The Reds ended up losing by the 3-2 score, but we had made our way back to the ticket window and made our purchase for the next night. Our seats weren’t as good, but we could get into the game.
47,237 fans showed on Wednesday night, 9-11-85. Eric Show was on the mound for the Padres and Rose was playing. After Tom Browning had retired the Padres in order to start the game for the Reds, Milner led off the game with a pop up to third base. Then, with a 2-1 count Rose lined the pitch into left-center and the crowd went wild. The crowd gave Rose a seven-minute standing ovation, which sure seemed a lot longer at the game. Reds coach and long-time Rose teammate Tommy Helms joined Rose on the field, as did Rose’s 15-year-old son, Pete Rose, Jr. Pete Rose was in tears, his batting helmet off his head, looking to Heaven to find his dad, and we were all touched. Reds owner Marge Schott gave Rose a red corvette with the license plate “PR 4192”. Rose later tripled in the game and scored both Reds’ runs in a 2-0 Reds win. The game ended when Rose made a diving stop of a Steve Garvey ground ball and threw him out at first base on a toss to closer Ted Power.
I have a framed autograph poster of the moment in my office at work. I saw the poster at a collectibles’ shop one day and asked my wife and family to get for me for a Father’s Day present.
The poster has Rose crying and has newspaper articles talking about Rose’s emotions for that day. The stats don’t stand out, the wins don’t stand out, Rose’s .300 batting average is not in big print; Rose’s emotions of achieving a lifetime goal, of reaching the pinnacle, of breaking an “unbreakable” record, of following in the footsteps of a player he wanted to emulate, of being the “Hit King” (a nickname I’ve never embraced…he’s still “Charlie Hustle” to me). The emotions ruled the day. For all the stats and records that Rose accumulated, I think we all forget how much he loved baseball and how much baseball loved him. That was the poster I wanted; not a facsimile of the number-filled baseball cards of my youth. I wanted to share the emotion with him, and he openly shared his record, happiness, and achievements with the world.
And baseball smiled.