Rose was sitting next to Tony Perez at a press conference Saturday afternoon before Rose’s induction into the Reds Hall of Fame and he leaned toward Perez and said, “I’ve known this guy for 56 years.” Quick as a flash, pitcher Jack Billingham said, “And you both use the same hair dye.”
Rose asked Perez if he remembered the 1967 All-Star game. Of course he did. Perez hit a home run in the 15th inning to give the National League a 2-1 victory.
“That was my first All-Star game and I was the last player to get into the game,” said Rose. “Know why that was? Because I was the only catcher left on the team.”
Catcher? Pete Rose, a catcher? Indeed, Rose was a catcher when he played for a team in a summer adult baseball league in Dayton.
The back story of how Rose signed with the Reds shows how close the team came to losing him.
Rose was playing amateur ball in the Dayton area and Reds scout Tommy Thompson saw him and kept urging the Reds to sign him. They resisted and told Thompson, “If you keep pushing this kid you are going to get fired.”
There was a Baltimore scout in Dayton named Jack ‘Jeep’ Baker and he was holding a tryout camp. Thompson told the Reds, “If you don’t sign Pete I’m going to take him to the Baltimore camp and they’ll sign him.”
Finally, the Reds relented and invited Rose to a workout. Thompson told them, “I can’t make it but I’ll send him with his uncle Buddy Bloebaum.” The Reds saw him, signed him for $7,000. Later in his career, Rose tried to give Thompson a wad of money out of his pocket. Thompson refused it. Rose tried to give him a diamond-encrusted ring off his finger. Thompson refused it. Finally, Rose gave Thompson an oil painting of himself and wrote on it, “To the only man in baseball who believed in me.”
Rose said in addition to his $7,000 signing bonus, he was offered an additional $5,000 if he played 30 days in the major leagues. He played 3,562 major league games and earned that extra $5,000. And he played five different positions in the majors and never caught a professional game, the position he was playing when the scout, Thompson, first saw him.
Johnny Bench, always eloquent in these situations, put Rose’s baseball life in a neatly packaged perspective.
“Pete Rose is the most dissatisfied person I’ve ever known,” said Bench. “Every day he was not happy until he got four hits. He was never, ever happy with three hits. He wanted four.
“Pete always came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you can hit .300,’” said Bench. “I told him, ‘You hit .300 and I’ll drive you in 100 times.’ I remember the last day of the season when he was battling Matty Alou for the batting title. Pete went 5 for 5 on the last day. Somebody kept reporting to Pete, ‘Matty got another hit, Matty got another hit.’ So Pete would go out and get another hit and another hit and another hit. He was like that, never satisfied. He wanted to be the first $100,000 singles hitter and was.
“He played five positions and was the most unselfish guy you’d ever meet without an ego,” said Bench. Then he said, “Did I just say without an ego? Every time somebody asked him to change positions, there was nobody who worked harder — first base, second base, third base, left field, right field. Whatever it took to win.
“The greatest of this man was that he was never satisfied,” Bench added. “And he instilled that in everybody around him. He led by example and we were the ones fortunate enough to play alongside of him.”
Bench paused for effect and said, “The only thing I wish is that I hadn’t gotten into all those investments with him.” Rose and Bench owned a Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Dayton and a bowling alley in Fairfield. Said Bench, “Did anybody ever buy a Lincoln or a Mercury from us? I think they quit bowling in Fairfield.”
As Rose made his acceptance speech, some music began in the background and he said, “Does that mean I’m done? To hell with it, I’ve waited 30 years for this.” And he continued.
He said all week he already cried once on a baseball field, the night he passed Ty Cobb with career hit No. 4,192 and said, “I won’t do that again.” But as he closed his speech he said, “In Cincinnati we all love chili. We all love ice cream. We all love ribs. And we all love the Cincinnati Reds.”
And he was crying because 40,000 people in Great American Ball Park love Pete Rose.