Excerpt: 'My Prison Without Bars'

After more than a decade of denials, Pete Rose admits that he bet on baseball and on the Cincinnati Reds when he was managing the team. The revelations are laid out in his new book My Prison Without Bars.

Here is an excerpt:


"When they take your freedom — there is nothing scarier in the whole world." —Pete Rose

Of the 17 baseball players who have been banned for life, none have ever been reinstated. But since I have seven major league and 12 National League records, you'll understand why I would like to add just one more "first" to my tally before I settle in for the big dirt-nap. Not that I think I deserve better than those other guys — I just love to win. I had only met Commissioner Bud Selig once before, but on November 24, 2002, Mike Schmidt and I stood in his office in Milwaukee waiting for a meeting that I hope will bring me back to baseball. Actually, I wasn't sitting. I was pacing. I'm what you call a "hyperactive" person, which means I can't sit still for any length of time. I was pacing back and forth, thinking about how to talk about something that I had kept secret for 13 years — hell, longer than that. I don't know why the Commissioner agreed to reconsider my case. Perhaps he thought it was time to mix justice with mercy and some good old common sense. Maybe he was struck by the endless chants of "Let Pete in" at the 2002 World Series where I appeared on the MasterCard All Century Team. Maybe he thought that after 13 years, the so-called deterrent value of punishment was firmly in place. I did know what Mr. Selig wanted to hear but didn't know how he would react after he heard it. Finally, my friend and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt got frustrated by watching me wear out the carpet and offered some words of encouragement: "Look at all these photos, Pete," he said. "Just about every Hall of Famer in baseball is hanging on these walls and Pete Rose has more hits than any of them. Mickey Mantle's dead. Jackie Robinson's dead. Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Satchel Paige, and Babe Ruth — all gone. You're one of the last men standing from the old regime.

So just remember: Baseball needs Charlie Hustle." Most folks know that I'm not a warm-and-fuzzy guy. I don't pick up stray dogs or send thank-you cards, and I don't cry at weddings — unless it's one of my own. But I'll be damned if I wasn't a little bit moved by what Schmidt had to say. So hell, I took his advice. I started looking at the pictures and it took my mind off the business at hand. I looked at a picture of Willie Mays — the greatest player I ever saw. Then I looked at Sandy Koufax — who could throw a baseball through a goddamn carwash without getting it wet. And I looked at Hank Aaron — the man who broke Babe Ruth's home-run record.

I kept pacing until finally I came face-to-face with another familiar face —Ty Cobb, and you can imagine what that reminded me of.

The year was 1985, a warm September night, and I was one swing away from breaking Ty Cobb's career record of 4,191 hits — a record that stood for damn near 60 years. People have often tried to compare me to Tyrus Raymond Cobb but I just don't see the resemblance. Cobb idolized his strong-willed father and was pretty chilly toward his mother. As a rookie, Cobb was hated and shunned by the veteran players on his team. Cobb loved baseball with a passion and absolutely hated to lose. Cobb was involved in an alleged gambling scandal that drew a suspension from the American League president. Now, honestly, folks, does that really sound like Pete Rose? Aw hell, let's just get back to the night of the record-breaking hit. As y'all know, I've always been a media-friendly guy. But during the weeks leading up to the big night, I got radiation burn from all the cameras that were constantly stuck in my face.

They were camped out at my house on Indian Hill. They were camped out at the ballpark, and they pretty much followed me everywhere I went.

For 3 straight weeks, I did a press conference, TV, magazine, or newspaper interview every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I did an in-depth interview with Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated and with Lesley Stahl of CBS. But to be honest, none of that stuff bothered me. I was feeling strong, calm, and confident about the whole situation. I had become the most media-experienced athlete of my generation. In fact, when asked where I got my strength to perform under such intense pressure, I just opened my jersey and exposed my T-shirt, which read: "Wheaties, Great out of the Box!" Everyone busted up laughing, which kept the press right where I wanted them.

Top of the first, Browning, our starting pitcher, retires the San Diego Padres in order. Bottom of the first, Milner flies out. Then I step into the box against Eric Show in front of a sold-out crowd of over 47,000 Cincinnati fans, who were screaming and shouting like crazy. I looked back at umpire Lee Wire and he said: "Time to make history, Pete." The first pitch was high, which I took for ball one. I swung easy and fouled off the second pitch and then held off again for ball two. Show's 2-1 pitch was a slider, down and in, which I drove to left-center for a single. Then the fireworks erupted and all hell broke loose. I rounded first and slapped hands with Tommy Helms, my longtime friend and coach. Then the fans just went berserk. Steve Garvey of the Padres stepped in and said: "Thanks for the memories!" First, they took away the baseball and then they took away first base, which I assumed was being sent to the Hall of Fame for posterity. Marge Schott ran onto the field and presented me with the keys to a new red Corvette with a license plate that read "PR 4192."

Then I looked over and saw Tony Perez and Dave Concepcion — two of the best teammates in the world.

Yes, sir, it was a pretty special night. I was doing just fine throughout the first several minutes of all the hoopla. But after they left me alone, I began to feel strange. I had no glove, no base, no ball, and no bat. It was the only time I was ever on a baseball field and didn't know what to do! Then while hugging Tommy Helms, I started to choke up. Helms gestured for my son, Pete Rose Jr., and while hugging Petey, I just lost it. I remembered all the men who helped me reach that milestone in my career, but during the 9th minute of the standing ovation, I looked up in the sky and saw the face of the only man I ever idolized — my dad, Harry Francis Rose.

In 1947, when I was 6 years old, my dad, or "Big Pete" as he was called, was the fiercest damned competitor the Feldhaus Football League had ever seen. On the night of the big game, I trekked along the banks of the Ohio River to get to the field, but like I said, I don't remember seeing a "mélange." I was the team waterboy and assistant equipment manager — jobs I loved because they kept me on the field, close to the action. I hated sitting in the stands with my mother and my two older sisters, Caryl and Jackie, because even back then I had no interest in the idle gossip of women. In fact, the only time I ever went into the bleachers was to "pass the hat" for donations to help pay for the stadium lights and referees. Dad only got paid about 15 or 20 dollars for the entire semipro season. So everybody else had to chip in to help pay for the extras. But after the Great Depression, there was never much in the hat because nobody really had any money. I would usually get to the field 2 hours before kickoff to set up the water buckets and help my uncle, Buddy Bloebaum, chalk the field. Buddy was a real flamboyant man who wore a fur coat and fedora hat.

He also had a secret identity, which I will talk about in detail later.

Before chalking the field, I'd run routes, catch passes from Uncle Buddy, and imagine myself breaking long runs and delivering bone-jarring tackles just like my dad. But in my mind, I wasn't playing between the railroad and the riverbank. I was playing at Soldier Field in Chicago before a sold-out screaming crowd. Even back then, I had big ideas about my future in sports, ideas fueled by my dad's encouragement.

During this particular season, my dad was playing for Trolley Tavern, one of the five different semipro teams in the area. Dad played semipro football for 23 years including one year with the Bengals long before they joined the NFL. On this night, Trolley was ahead of the Comets by three points, late in the fourth quarter. Since none of the roster's plumbers, bartenders, or bankers could kick, a field goal was not considered a threat. Come to think of it, I'm not sure if the "field goal" had been invented yet. Anyway, Dad kicked off to the other team, fought off a block, and got blindsided really hard by some big burly-ass player. Dad's teammate, Shorty Goings, heard the bone crack and could see the pain in Dad's face as he pulled himself from the ground. "Damn it, Pete," screamed Shorty. "Your goddamn leg is broke. Take yourself out of the game!" "It's just a scrape for chrissakes," said Dad. "I'm fine." Shorty knew better than to argue because Dad wasn't about to sacrifice a year of Cincinnati's bragging rights over something as trivial as a broken leg. I ran into the huddle with the water bucket and offered the ladle to my dad, who just waved me off. As team captain, he never drank water until the other players had a chance to drink their fill. Then I looked up, expecting to hear a balls-to-the-wall pep talk. But all eyes were glued on Big Pete, who was very calm. But that was my dad — a man of strong presence.

He had a square jawline and piercing steel gray eyes. When he spoke, people listened.

He looked at his teammates and said: "I don't intend to lose on the last play of the game. So let's put on a big rush and stick somebody!" As they broke huddle, each Trolley player tapped Shorty on his special leather helmet, which was designed to protect the metal plate in his head — the result of shrapnel wounds Shorty got during the war. I laughed my ass off at that good-luck ritual, then raced off the field, where I watched Dad from the sidelines. It was cold as hell and Dad's breath looked like smoke in the night air — an image I can remember just like it was yesterday. The Comet's quarterback stood behind center and barked out the signals: "Blue 22, blue 22!" The wide receivers were lined up for what is now called a "Hail Mary." But Dad must've sensed a sneak play because he screamed, "Red Dog" to his teammates, which meant the linebackers were supposed to blitz. Sure enough, instead of the drop-back pass, the quarterback gave a pump-fake and then handed off to his fullback on the draw play. But the middle was all clogged up because Dad played his hunch correctly. He got knocked down while fighting off a blocker, but Dad crawled over, wrapped his arms around the fullback's legs and joined in on the game-winning tackle. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, a dozen other fans and I stormed the field in celebration. My dad had just won the big game and the Schultes' Fish House keg of beer that went with it. Dad limped toward the sideline, removed his helmet with his bloody hands, then looked into my eyes and gave me a smile — one of the biggest thrills of my life.

Forty-two years later, I was looking down into the eyes of my own 6-year-old son Tyler. But instead of celebrating a victory, I was trying to explain why I was going away. No, this was not just another spring training in Florida or 3-week stint on the West Coast to play the Giants, Dodgers, and Padres.

I had been convicted of filing false income tax returns and was being sent to the prison camp at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. I decided to tell the truth and when I did, Tyler started to cry. He was not old enough to understand what was happening. But I didn't want to lie because I knew that sooner or later, he'd find out the truth. I swallowed the lump in my throat and thought about the pain my dad must have felt while making that tackle with a broken leg. But Dad's pain was physical and what I felt this day was emotional — a helluva lot harder to deal with! I grabbed Tyler by the shoulders and tried to explain that everything would be okay. But nothing I said made that little boy feel any better. The next few minutes felt like hours. I had no answer for the betrayed look in Tyler's eyes. My dad never let me down on any level and failing my own son was just too tough to handle. So hell, I started to cry, too — rare for me because, like I said, I'm not a warm-and-fuzzy guy. But I'm speaking from experience when I tell all of you dads out there — no pain is worse than when you let down your kids. Finally, my wife, Carol, ushered Tyler into the kitchen for some ice cream and a promise that he could come visit me on Sundays. Now ain't that a bitch? Trying to cheer up your son by telling him he can come visit Daddy in prison on Sundays.

As you can imagine, this was the lowest point in my life. I walked out onto the lawn and took one last look at my 10-acre Indian Hill estate and stared toward the barn that housed my prize quarter horses — knowing that it would all have to be sold to pay the seven figures I owed to lawyers, taxes, penalties, and interest. I felt more like an outcast than Cincinnati's favorite son or baseball's all-time Hit King. At just about that time, I saw my wife's closest friends, Rickelle Ruby and Charlotte Jacobs, pulling into the driveway.

The two attractive blondes were invited along to help my wife share the drive back from Carbondale, Illinois. Years earlier, Johnny Bench and I provided the seed money for Rickelle's husband, Jeff Ruby, to open the Precinct and Waterfront restaurants — sites where we all spent many nights celebrating during the 1980s. But as soon as Carol saw her girlfriends, I knew I was in for trouble. The three of them huddled up and started hugging and crying and talking about how they had to be strong, which left me no option but to step right in and straighten things out. The last thing I wanted to see was a bunch of crying women. So I walked toward the girls and looked them squarely in the eye. "I have a serious question to ask and I'd appreciate an honest answer," I said. The girls wiped their tears and responded to the serious tone in my voice. "Do you know why they can't keep Jews in prison?" I asked. "Because they eat all the lox," I replied. The punch line took a moment to sink in but the girls started laughing at my corny joke, which provided some much-needed relief from what was already a grim atmosphere. I figured a little humor would help to keep things in perspective. After all, I faced Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, and Bob Gibson — I could damn sure face 5 months in southern Illinois.

I had 6 hours before I was required to surrender to the authorities at Marion — a 5-hour drive from Cincinnati. The word "surrender" was never part of my vocabulary but ever since that day in Judge Spiegel's courtroom, the prison sentence had been hanging over my head like that "shadow" I mentioned earlier. But in some strange way, I was eager to get on with the challenge. As we drove down I-75, I caught a glimpse of Riverfront Stadium along "Pete Rose Way" — a sight that … well, you can just imagine how that sight made me feel. Hell, they should've named an alley after me based on the things I'd done.

The Queen City, which had been my oyster for 30 years, never felt so lonely. As we crossed the Ohio River, I settled into my seat and took a little nap. I didn't wake up until we passed through Louisville, where, contrary to published reports, I did not stop to bet on the ponies at Churchill Downs.

Within a few hours, I caught a glimpse of a huge concrete structure with cinderblock walls and barbed wire fence — the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion. So, without fanfare or media attention, I said my good-byes and surrendered to the authorities, who would take control of my life for the next 5 months. I was immediately taken to a holding area to await "orientation." Some reporters called this place a "country club." But let me tell you, when they take your freedom, there is nothing scarier in the whole world. The sound of iron bars closing at the main prison damn sure caught my attention — a sound that caused me to ask myself a question: "How did I get here?"

Excerpted with permission from My Prison Without Bars by Pete Rose. Copyright, January 2004, Rodale Press.