Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time hit king best known from the Cincinnati Reds’ “Big Red Machine” days and banned from baseball in 1989 for gambling on baseball including the Reds when he managed them, was scheduled to sign autographs for $70 a pop for a sports memorabilia shop at the Paradise Valley mall on Saturday.
So, when Valley memorabilia dealer Angelo Bellone, a certified public accountant who helps out Jeff Thalblaum at Free Agent Sports, a seasonal sports memorabilia shop there, asked me on Friday if I wanted to go to the airport to pick up Rose on Saturday before he was scheduled to appear to sign autographs outside the shop, I jumped at the chance.
I was interviewing Bellone and sports memorabilia dealers Al Gordon and Neil Kotler on Friday at Chandler Fashion Center for a story about their seasonal shop there, Big Kid’s Collectibles that ran in Sunday’s edition of the Tribune. The night before I interviewed them, I was digging through old photos in my desk drawer at home and found a Polaroid picture my father had taken of Rose at the Elder-Beerman department store in Dayton, Ohio in 1975 when Rose appeared there to sign T-shirts with his likeness on them. After showing the picture of a much younger Rose (he was 34 then) to Gordon, he laughed and told me to show it to Bellone who happened to be from a nearby Dayton suburb, and that’s how the lucky chance to be in the car with Rose came about.
As I was growing up in the Dayton area during the 1970s and the Reds were en route to winning back-to-back world championships in '75 and '76, players like Rose, Hall of Famers-to-be catcher Johnny Bench, second baseman Joe Morgan and first baseman Tony Perez were gods. For most of the early springtime of my youth, from 1974 when I was a first grader to the early 1980s when I was a teenager, I always looked forward to discovering the new Topps baseball cards at the Stop-and-Go convenience store or Kenny’s Drugstore in West Milton, Ohio, where I grew up and finding Rose’s card in a wax pack with a pink slab of bubblegum. Rose was known as Charlie Hustle.
That nickname given to him by New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford after seeing Rose run to first base after receiving a walk, still rings true as Rose regularly appears at sports memorabilia shows across the country, hocking his autograph for cash, mostly at the Art of Music in Mandalay Place on The Strip in Las Vegas. That’s where Rose now lives and is in the first year of a reportedly multi-million dollar deal to appear at the venue to sign memorabilia — $70 a signature and $100 to get a bat or jersey signed.
Rose who finished his career with 4,256 hits in 1986 and was selected as the Player of the 1970s, now is in his 70s himself. At 71, he’s barreling into old age in a similar way he barreled into then-Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run of the 1970 All-Star Game.
When we got to the terminal, there was Rose waiting on the sidewalk — walking a little slower, pulling a small piece of luggage, holding a gray jacket. His thinning hair, partially hidden under a white Fedora hat, was colored. He also was wearing alligator boots, and a pair of custom glasses with two gold alligators on the frame with some diamonds and rubies on it.
Bellone knew the drill: Put a small bag of peanut M&Ms in the console of his car for Rose, get him to the venue where he’s supposed to be and get him back to the terminal on time afterward so Rose could catch his flight home.
As Rose got into the car, I gladly took the back seat so he could sit in front.He grumbled a bit about one of those “get-a-life” autograph seekers trying to get “20 items” signed by him inside the airport. Rose told them in not so many words to come to the show and pay for it. He also grumbled about the nation’s choice for a president and questioned, “How in the hell can anyone elect someone who’s never had a job, and the only thing he’s done in his life was win an election?”
I mostly listened as Rose talked with Bellone about the amount of Hall of Famers and former players appearing at shows and asked if the mall was a good one. We told him yes.
Although Rose’s popularity peaked at shows in the 1980s when he still played and the early 1990s when he would sign about 1,000 during a sitting, he said signing about 150 autographs during an outing now is pretty good.When Rose arrived at the mall, a dozen or so people, many from the East Valley, already were waiting to get in line to get his autograph, maybe a handshake, a picture, or just a glimpse.
As Rose drew more of a crowd than Santa Claus did at the photo area nearby for more than an hour, former Arizona Diamondbacks star Luis Gonzalez also appeared to sign autographs for $20 apiece for his charity and also had Rose sign a jersey moments before they sat on Santa’s lap.
While signing for a host of others, Rose became vintage Rose.
He made small talk with the fans, smiled for pictures and shook peoples’ hands.
When one fan asked Rose if he thought anyone would ever break his hits record or get 4,000 hits, Rose said no.
“They would have to play for a long time and players who have the ability to reach that make a lot of money and won’t keep playing,” Rose said.
But as for Jeter reaching 4,256 hits (he needs 952 more to reach that), Rose shook his head in doubt.
“That means he needs about 3,500 at-bats to get it, and he’s 39 now,” Rose said. “He won’t play that much longer.”
Another fan asked Rose if any of today’s players remind him of himself and the way he played. Rose answered, “Jeter, Mike Trout and Dustin Pedroia.”
When a young man with his girlfriend somewhat sheepishly asked Rose if he could have his picture taken with him, Rose quipped, “Sure, but I’d rather have my picture taken with her,” getting a few laughs.
Many people from the East Valley were there to get Rose’s autograph, including John Minch, 49, of Mesa, who had Rose sign one of his game-used cracked Louisville slugger bats that Minch purchased from the Reds’ gift shop in Cincinnati many years ago. The bat is believed to be the one Rose used on July 4, 1978, the 20th game of Rose’s famed 44-game hitting streak that year.
Chris Hess, 54, of Mesa and Terry Barrett, 55, of Chandler, also were among the fans to see Rose.
Barrett, who shares the same birthday as Rose, had the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper dated Sept. 12, 1985 — the day after Rose got hit No. 4,192 at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, breaking Ty Cobb’s hit record that stood since 1928.
I was there with my parents that night; we had seats in the nosebleed section, but after Rose got the hit, time stood still as he received a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 50,000 for nearly 20 minutes.
Hess, who grew up in northeastern Ohio emulating Rose in the Columbiana County Little League in the late 1960s and early 70s, had a color 8x10 picture of Rose with him and his son. He said he didn’t mind paying $70 to get it signed.
“It’s Pete Rose,” said Hess, who worked for the City of Mesa’s Parks and Recreation Department for 22 years. “I’d pay any day for Pete Rose’s autograph. He’s my idol. It’s about embracing Pete and what’s right for the game,” said Hess, who supports Rose’s reinstatement to the game and his induction into the Hall of Fame.
“I watched the Cleveland Indians all my life, but when I wanted to mold my game, I watched Pete Rose,” Hess added. “When you look at 1975 or ‘76, no teams were better than the Cincinnati Reds and no player was better than Pete Rose.
It’s time baseball quits being stupid and how the commissioner of baseball needs to stop being silly and put Rose in the Hall of Fame. It’s such an injustice not to let him in.”
When we drove Rose back to Sky Harbor International Airport, we talked a little bit about what else? Dayton. Not too many people are aware that Rose’s baseball career took off in Dayton, 50 miles north of Cincinnati. Rose said he was ineligible to play for his Western Hills High School team his senior year and played in the Dayton’s Class AA Amateur League that summer instead. Rose said he went 5-for-5 in the last game he played for Lebanon and went 25-for-50 overall in the league, batting .500. Scouts took notice of his performance that season and it led to Rose signing his first professional baseball contract with the Geneva (N.Y.) Redlegs, the Reds’ Class D Minor League team in 1960 when he was 19.
And the rest is history.
On the way back to the airport, I also jokingly asked Rose, “What did you ask Santa for?”
“Nothing,” Rose said. “I don’t need anything.”
Maybe he doesn’t, but I’d be willing to bet in addition to being reinstated to baseball, he’d like to receive his Hall of Fame plaque so it could hang alongside Bench, Morgan and Perez.
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