being banned, Pete is smelling like a rose

Mike Royko

February 08, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

PETE ROSE DOESN'T realize what a neat break he got by being effectively barred from baseball's Hall of Fame.

He's now assured of not being ignored or forgotten. Or as the sports page theologians put it, he will be an "immortal."

That's because Rose will benefit from something I call the Hack Wilson Syndrome.

Hack Wilson. When was the last time you heard that name? Not lately, I'd wager, even if you are an old-time Cub fan. And for many sports fans, the name might not ring a bell.

In his day, Hack Wilson was quite a player. In 1930, he hit 56 homers and drove in 190 runs, still records.

He was also quite a boozer. That's why his career wasn't as long as it might have been and why he keeled over dead at age 48.

That's also why he wasn't in the Hall of Fame when he died, and didn't get in until he had been in his grave for more than 30 years.

The sports writers who vote players in wouldn't come right out and say it, but they didn't think that someone who spent most of his career loaded, half-loaded or hung over was worthy of the great honor of having his face on a plaque in a tourist attraction in a small town in New York.

So year after year, the writers would vote and Hack Wilson would come up short.

This always infuriated my father, who had seen Wilson in his prime. He used to say: "They ought to give him twice as much credit because he was a drunk. It's hard enough to hit a home run when you're feeling good. But I saw him hit them when he had the shakes and his tongue was hanging out. Anybody who can do that is a great athlete."

There was a certain logic there. It was said that Ted Williams had such keen eyesight he could see the seams on the ball as it whizzed toward the plate. That's impressive. But there were days when Wilson could see the seams on two balls and he had only a fraction of a second to decide which of them to hit.

But for 31 years after Wilson died, the sports writers were unforgiving and pitiless in denying him his "immortality."

And, as it turned out, that was just fine because every year the sports columnists on Chicago's four newspapers would have raging debates about whether he should or should not be officially designated as immortal.

They would sputter and fume, as sports columnists are still inclined to do, about whether it was fair or unfair to treat old Hack that way. And that would inflame sports fans to heated barroom debate.

Wilson didn't care, of course, since he was quietly pushing up daisies.

So as a result of being kept out of the Hall of Fame, Wilson received his annual sports page and barroom immortality.

Then in 1979 it happened. After the sexual revolution, the flower child drug revolution, the gays leaping out of their closets, athletes sniffing and snorting and being forgiven, and other American moral codes being tossed upside down and hither and yon, Hack Wilson's boozing didn't seem like that big a character flaw anymore. So they voted him in.

And what happened? We haven't heard another word about Hack Wilson since. He's gone, forgotten, just another poor likeness on a brass plaque in baseball's tourist trap.

So that's why Pete Rose is lucky. Baseball's commissioner has banned him from baseball. And the stiffs who run the Hall of Fame have slipped in a new rule that anybody who is banned can't get in, which means Rose. (They will let in cokeheads and pitchers who spit on the ball, which is a form of cheating, so they aren't totally lacking heart.)

I'm sure Rose is feeling sad about the whole thing, but that's because he's kind of dumb.

He should be elated. This means that every year, when the writers vote, the debate will begin anew: Shouldn't Pete Rose, who had more hits than anyone in the game's history, be forgiven? The commissioner will have to issue a statement, the keepers of the sacred Hall will have to sound pious, and the writers will ponder deep moral issues.

And since Rose is a relatively young man, and his vices are slow horses and fast bookies, rather than 86-proof skull popper, he's going to be around for a long time to enjoy his unique fame.

Meanwhile, those who have made it into the Hall will be going to sports celebrity golf outings and saying: "Remember me? I used to be . . . "

See? There's a certain justice in this injustice. Or maybe it's the other way around.

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