Pete Rose in the dugout during his stint as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, 1989 (Zuma Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)

In the opening monologue of the Ron Shelton film Bull Durham, baseball groupie Annie Savoy proclaims her allegiance to the “church of baseball.” She explains, “I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring, which makes it like sex.” Such words could easily be imagined coming from the mouth of Pete Rose. In his 2004 autobiography, My Prison Without Bars, Rose described his relationship with baseball as “my religion.” After fifteen years of public denial, the disgraced all-star finally admitted in this book, without contrition, that he had bet on Major League Baseball games in which he was involved. Previously, in 1989, this alleged violation of MLB Rule 21(d): Gambling had resulted in an investigation and his voluntary permanent ban from the sport he “worshipped.” Eventually, repercussions of the ban made him ineligible for election into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Two decades after Rose’s confession, and thirty-five years into his exile, the 2024 MLB season began with yet another reprise of baseball’s tale without redemption. In his new book, Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball, award-winning journalist Keith O’Brien brings current interviews (including twenty-seven hours with Rose himself), “previously unutilized federal court documents,” recently released FBI files, and a fresh look at a copious canon of multimedia sources to retell a story whose details have become hazy with the passage of time. Charlie Hustle’s sixty-four tight chapters, organized in five acts and supplemented by meticulous endnotes, could use a timeline to situate the uninitiated and remind aficionados of the twists in this perennial saga of the unforgiven sin.

The book reads like a psychological profile crying out for a diagnosis. Rose’s gambling trajectory escalates from pitching pennies as a kid to frequenting racetracks to associating with bookies and ultimately to betting on games he was managing for the Cincinnati Reds. His marital infidelities mount, including an allegation of sex with an underaged teen. He has at least one child from these affairs, which results in a paternity suit settled in 1980. Rose finally acknowledged his daughter in 1996 after she filed suit as an adult. Unfortunately, O’Brien imitates Rose’s pattern of neglect by consistently counting among Rose’s progeny only the four children from his two marriages.

With his record-breaking accomplishments and fame came disproportionately riskier behavior, and reading O’Brien’s narrative gives the reader the sensation of Rose steadily approaching the edge of a cliff. Through it all, O’Brien does not allow Rose a handy diagnosis to explain away confounding behavior. Does he have a gambling addiction, a money obsession, an unhealthy attraction to high-risk situations, a narcissistic personality, or a distorted sense of entitlement? Does he lack a conscience? Is Rose’s lying motivated by a pathology, self-preservation, or an aversion to getting caught?

O’Brien deftly handles “the rise and fall of Pete Rose.” He avoids overly detailed descriptions of games and does not mire the telling in an endless enumeration of Rose’s accomplishments. He steers clear of moralizing. The titles of each act provide thematic guidance: rise, shine, fame, fall, wreckage. But there are hints of wreckage throughout this well-paced narrative. Rose makes a mess of his own life, and troubles follow those who are entranced enough to become his enablers. They, too, are victims of Rose’s demons. O’Brien writes about the people caught up in Rose’s orbit:

Those closest to Pete will still do as he says, while others on the outside—on dark planets gone cold—will crack up if they spend too much time remembering what it was like to live in the warm light of Pete’s sun…. They love him or hate him so much that he has destroyed them.

Chasing Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record extends Rose’s career past its expiration date. Innuendos of performance enhancement peek through the cracks—corked bats, amphetamines, a disquieting proximity to a local gym with ties to steroids. None of this is new: bits and pieces have trickled out over the years from MLB’s investigative Dowd Report to sources as varied as Playboy, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, and Deadspin. Charlie Hustle is a tragedy without catharsis. O’Brien leaves us with a pathetic Pete Rose, who—now in the last innings of his life—signs baseball memorabilia in strip malls and casinos. For an extra $35, he’ll inscribe “I am sorry I bet on baseball.”

The book reads like a psychological profile crying out for a diagnosis.


What remains elusive in O’Brien’s otherwise engaging book is a sense of what exactly constitutes “the last glory days of baseball.” From this perspective, Charlie Hustle is a cultural history in need of deeper contextualization. Baseball has a long and complicated history of mixed messages when it comes to gambling. In Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, historian John Thorn presents gambling “not as a latter-day pestilence brought upon a pure and innocent game, but instead the vital spark that in the beginning made it worthy of adult attention and press coverage.” He proposes that gambling provided the spur “not only to the formation of standardized rules but also to the development of statistical measures.” In other words, the same statistics that fuel the sport’s record-obsession feed the gambler useful intel.

O’Brien briefly puts Rose’s transgressions of Rule 21(d) in the context of what led to its codification in 1927. The permanent ban established for betting on games that a player or manager participates in was a response to game-fixing allegations against two future Hall of Famers, including, ironically, Ty Cobb, the all-time hits leader Rose surpassed in 1985. The accusation “of conspiring to throw games so that they could place money with bookies and win” did not shut Cobb out of Cooperstown. Rose’s eligibility for the Hall of Fame five years after his retirement undoubtedly set in motion the 1991 rule change that barred him from consideration. The governing board tied eligibility for election to the Hall with eligibility to work in MLB. This move, in effect, made reinstatement a necessary precondition for Rose.

Rose’s penchant for gambling was an open secret that appears to have produced no effort at intervention. His bets on many sports were accomplished through illegal bookmakers, actions that should alone have merited penalties under Rule 21 (d), which states that “any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee who places bets with illegal book makers, or agents for illegal book makers, shall be subject to such penalty as the Commissioner deems appropriate in light of the facts and circumstances of the conduct.” The majority of Rose’s career occurred during the tenure of MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who suspended pitcher Denny McClain for ninety days in 1970 for bookmaking activity and associations and banned for life Hall of Famers Willie Mays in 1979 and Mickey Mantle in 1983 for taking on employment as Good Will Ambassadors for casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Both Mays and Mantle were reinstated in 1985 by commissioner Peter Ueberroth as exceptions to the rule, yet he observed at the time that changes in the gambling industry and its growing legitimacy would require new MLB guidelines.

Within months of the historic 2018 Supreme Court decision striking down the federal ban on sports gambling, MLB entered a marriage of lucrative convenience with the gaming and sportsbook industry. In November 2018, MGM Resorts became the first Official Gaming and Entertainment Partner of MLB, followed in successive years by partnerships and expanding deals with DraftKings, FanDuel and an ever-growing list of authorized gaming operators. A flurry of activity over the past six years is reshaping the relationship between baseball and betting, state-by-state, and, in the process, reopening questions about the status of Pete Rose. O’Brien observes, “At minimum, it casts Pete Rose in a slightly different light. Under today’s rules, a legalized gambling platform could have sponsored him.” Perhaps, but Ohio didn’t legalize sports gaming until January 2023, and betting on baseball is still actionable in MLB with penalties ranging from suspension to permanent banishment. Easier access to sports betting through multiple platforms also creates more opportunities for gambling and less understanding of each state’s laws governing gambling, especially for international MLB employees. What could possibly go wrong?

Almost thirty-five years to the day after Commissioner Ueberroth announced that his office was investigating troublesome allegations concerning Pete Rose, MLB issued a statement announcing that their Department of Investigations began a formal process looking into allegations involving two-way all-star Shohei Ohtani, now an LA Dodger, and his interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. Whether or not Ohtani bet on any sport, if he had paid off the gambling debt of his friend, he would have violated Rule 21(d) (3) by engaging with a “gaming operation that is unlawful in the jurisdiction.” Sports betting is illegal in California. Will the varying state-by-state laws on the legalization of sports gambling impact future employment decisions by players and others connected with teams? If Ohtani had chosen to play in New York, would his possible involvement have been an issue?

Once more, the shadow of Pete Rose and his unforgivable sin hovers over another MLB season. The timing couldn’t be better to pick up Charlie Hustle; don’t be surprised if Rose petitions MLB to overturn his excommunication again.

Charlie Hustle
The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball
Keith O’Brien
$35 | 464 pp.

Carmen Nanko-Fernández is professor of Hispanic theology and ministry and director of the Hispanic Theology and Ministry Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Her publications focus on areas of Latin@ theologies, Catholic social teaching, sport and theology, and the intersections between religion and popular culture with particular attention to béisbol/baseball. She is founding co-editor of the series Disruptive Cartographers: Doing Theology Latinamente (Fordham University Press).

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Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
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