A Q&A with Pete Rose on the 50th anniversary of his MLB debut
Fifty years removed from his first major league game, Pete Rose still vividly recalls the journey that took him from a non-roster invitee in spring training to being the Opening Day second baseman on the 1963 Cincinnati Reds. Rose debuted on April 8, 1963 against the Pirates, the first of what would be an MLB-record 3,562 career games, 15,890 plate appearances and 14,053 at-bats but not, however, the first of his 4,256 hits, another record.
Rose went 0-for-3, though he did walk his first time up, and he scored the season’s first run in the Reds’ 5-2 win. It would take three more games and five more days for Rose to get his first hit, but he finished the season with 170 and would be named the National League Rookie of the Year.
SI.com chatted recently with Rose about those first days in the major leagues — including the palpable clubhouse drama that accompanied his arrival and his inevitable jitters before taking the field with his hometown Reds — and his thoughts on the game today. Over nine years removed from his admission that he bet on baseball, Rose now spends most of his time in Las Vegas doing some promotional work and watching plenty of the game he loves.
SI: When were you notified that you’d be going to the big leagues? Did you “get the call”?
PR: Well, it wasn’t really like that. You’re in spring training and then you barnstorm north to come up to Cincinnati. I was a non-roster player and while we were coming north, we played an exhibition game in Annapolis and I was actually number 27 at the time. Three or four hours before the game the next day I went to the Reds’ office and signed a big league contract. When I got back to the locker room number 14 was hanging in the locker. So no one really told you because if you were barnstorming north then you knew you made the team because they weren’t going to take you up and then pay for you to go back to Tampa, Florida.
SI: How far was Crosley Field from where you grew up originally? Who attended your first game since it was so close?
PR: I was born three miles from Crosley Field and grew up 10 minutes away. My mom, my dad and my brother all came by for my first game. It was a big deal for us. Growing up in Cincinnati every kid wants to play for the Reds. I didn’t feel nervous at all until about 20 minutes before gametime when my mom, my dad and my brother came down to the dugout and the Cincinnati Enquirer wanted to get their picture. At that point I realized where I was and what I wanted to do.
SI: What do you remember about the game?
PR: Well, I remember winning, which was most important. My first time up I walked on four pitches off of a starting pitcher named Earl Francis. The next guy grounded out and then after him was Frank Robinson, who hit a two-run home run so I scored the first run of the big league season since Cincinnati used to be where Opening Day was every year.
SI: How long did you think you would last with the team?
PR: You never know if you’re going to hang around. [Your only] goal is to make the big leagues. You just try and stay because there is so much competition. Good things start happening to you, you know? You start hitting guys and start surrounding yourself with good people. After that you start winning games and batting titles and stuff like that. I don’t think anybody makes the big leagues for the first time and thinks about playing for 20 years. You feel lucky to play 20 days.
SI: How were you treated by the veterans? Did it take long to feel like you were a part of the clubhouse?
PR: It was different with me because, to be honest with you, I was called in the Reds’ office during that year and I was told I was hanging around with the African-American players too much. I hung out with them because Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson treated me like I was one of the guys. You have to understand that the Reds won the pennant in 1961 and came close in 1962 and had a second baseman named Don Blasingame who had a great year. In ’63 they thought they could win it again, but the manager (Fred Hutchinson) sticks this brash kid named me in there, but most of the team thought Blasingame should be the second baseman.
SI: Do you have fond memories of your rookie season?
PR: Getting 170 hits and getting Rookie of the Year is what I remember about the season, but what I remember even more was that after the season I joined the Army. I went to Fort Knox to do my basic training in the offseason, and as a result I only hit .269 the next year. After that I went to Venezuela to go hone my skills. I went down there for the winter after the ’64 season and really learned how to hit. I think I hit over .300 for 10 or 12 seasons after that. We just worked. We went to the ballpark every day. That was growing up for me. There weren’t many 19, 20 or 21-year-old kids that were dominating the big leagues back in those days, but when I came back I was full of confidence and I started getting 200 hits a year. In Venezuela they took the ball real seriously in the winter. They did in the Dominican Republic too, and we went there for two weeks as a part of our schedule. We would have three games a week, sometimes twice a week. When we didn’t play, we went to the ballpark and worked.
How much baseball have you watched this season?
PR: I watch it all. I watched Opening Day in Cincinnati, which I go to every year. I watch three games a day on my phone. Heck, right now I’m watching Baltimore, the Reds and Oakland too. I’m just a fan.
SI: Which players do you really enjoy watching?
PR: My favorite player is Joey Votto. He’s a great hitter, he’s a lefty and a first baseman for the Reds so of course I am going to like him. I really like (Dustin) Pedroia, (Derek) Jeter and (Mike) Trout too. There are so many. There are a lot of really good players out there today that play the game well. I like to watch Bryce Harper. He approaches the game the right way. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but we’re getting more players in the game today that are approaching the game like I did. They’re having fun. And they sure know the difference between winning and losing.
SI: What pitchers out there today do you think you’d have a hard time with?
PR: Well, it’s just like everybody had a hard time with (Sandy) Koufax, (Juan) Marichal or (Bob) Gibson. I’d have a hard time facing [Justin] Verlander or [David] Price or [CC] Sabathia. You’d have to pick your pitches so you could get a knock off of them. Or foul some balls off so you could draw a walk. Nobody’s unhittable. The closest guy to ever being unhittable my first couple years in the league was Koufax. He was that good. Every time he went out there he had a chance to pitch a no-hitter.
SI: Is there anything about today’s game that you don’t recognize?
PR: Well, it’s not like basketball where guys take a lot of time off to rest. It’s not like football where guys have injuries constantly on the mind. In baseball players play and they get paid a lot of money. In the world of salaries, you negotiate. If somebody gets a big contract, don’t complain about it. Go get somebody that can help you fix that problem.