The anticipation had been building for weeks during the summer of 1985 and as the new school year started, 44-year-old player-manager Pete Rose had chipped away at Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record. Maybe Pete got there a little slower than our young minds thought, but with a pair of hits on a Sunday afternoon game at Wrigley Field, Rose and Cobb were tied with 4,191 hits.
Clearly at this point of his career Rose was just hanging on for the record. We saw it when he was winding his way through his last season with the Phillies in 1983. A staple at first base for a full 162 games in his first four seasons with the Phillies, Rose often split time with Tony Perez and an aging prospect named Len Matuszek, who hit 27 homers in Triple-A in ’83. As a result, Rose was the Phillies opening day right fielder that season and did not regularly play first base until the end of June.
When the World Series shifted to Philadelphia for Game 3, manager Paul Owens kept Rose on the bench a pinch-hitter. In Game 5, Rose went 2-for-4 as the right fielder. Three days later, the Phillies released him, just 10 hits short of 4,000.
There was nothing as odd as seeing Rose at age 43 with his hair graying, dressed in the gaudy Montreal Expos uniform. Fortunately for the fashion police, Rose was traded from the Expos to the Reds where the Cincinnati kid returned to be a first baseman and manager, all at once.
Rose will be in Cincinnati tonight for a ceremony to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his 4,192nd hit. After all, it was Sept. 11, 1985 at Riverfront Stadium, now leveled and turned into a parking lot, where Rose had his last moment in the sun. Despite all those hits, all those records and a burgeoning managerial career that resulted in a World Series title for the Reds 13 months after his suspension, Rose likely will never stand in front of the masses at Cooperstown and be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
His reward was a bad movie produced by ESPN where Tom Sizemore stumbled through his depiction of Rose. It might have been better to get Ted Sizemore.
Nevertheless, Rose broke Cobb’s record on a school night, but I can remember being out in front of the house when word filtered out that hit No. 4,192 had fallen. There were no cut-ins to the regularly-scheduled programming, no big national celebrations and no buzz outside of folks who followed baseball religiously. For Rose, though, it was the culmination of a life’s work and the definition of his legacy. In fact, he has trademarked the phrase, “Hit King,” which along with his career hit total (4,256), he writes onto every autograph he signs at the memorabilia shop in Las Vegas. Sorry, the “Charlie Hustle” inscription costs extra.
Coincidentally, Cobb played his final game on Sept. 11, 1928, though he was the Hit King since 1923 when he passed Cap Anson with his 3,436th hit. So Cobb held the record for 63 years—24 years after his death—before Rose grabbed a hold of it. And with his 70th birthday coming up next April, Rose could hang onto the record for the rest of his life, and maybe even as long as Cobb.
A couple of years ago I met with Rose in Las Vegas and I asked him if he thought anyone could break his record. The answer, of course, was a blunt and resounding, “No.”
But I pressed on anyway, ticking off names as if we were a couple of baseball fans talking about the game in a bar or wherever. Only in this case it was Rose, me and the workers at a memorabilia shop in Caesar’s Palace where the all-time hit king was signing autographs and posing for pictures.
Even though A-Rod averages 190 hits per 162 games, his tendency to hit homers and standing in the middle of the Yankees’ offense might make it difficult for him to get beyond 3,800 hits.
Yes, that’s true. Ichiro would have the best chance if he hadn’t spent the first half of his career playing in Japan. He is 36 and has nearly 3,500 hits between both Japan and the U.S. and needs just 16 more hits this season to break Rose’s record of 10 seasons with at least 200 hits.
Regardless, Ichiro’s nine “lost” seasons in Japan cost him.
However, the way Rose so quickly dismissed the next name was kind of surprising.
“Derek Jeter,” I said.
“No,” said Pete.
“Really? Why not? He gets 200-hits a season and hits at the top of a lineup that needs his to get hits. Ten years worth of 200 hits or close to it is nearly 2,000 hits. That adds up.”
“Yeah, but he’s 35,” Pete said.
Actually, Jeter is 36 now and in the throes of his worst season in the big leagues, batting just .260 with 152 hits in 138 games. Heading into this season, Jeter averaged 208 hits per 162 games. At that rate, he would need to play seven more seasons to end up with nearly 4,200 hits.
Sure, Jeter plays a demanding position, but he will be younger than Rose was when he gets his 3,000th hit next year. This is all some rudimentary and basic math and it’s probably not likely that Jeter will be pounding out 200 hits when he is 40, especially considering his contract is up at the end of the season. However, maybe Jeter will move to first base or DH a few games a week instead of playing 150-plus at shortstop every year?
Besides, when Rose was 40 he led the National League in hits, and the first four seasons he played first base when he joined the Phillies, Rose got 705 hits. Make that 705 hits in 594 games from the ages 38 to 41. That comes to an average of 193 hits per 162 games.
Not bad for an old guy.
So could Jeter get close to Rose’s record? Perhaps we should save this for 2017 if Jeter is still around. That will give Rose 32 years with the record and 28 years into his banishment from the game. In the meantime, Rose gets a special dispensation on Sept. 11, 2010 to celebrate what he did 25 years before in an actual, major league ballpark. Yes, Major League Baseball will allow Rose into Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati tonight. Whether or not he’ll get another visit remains to be seen, but what is definite is that Rose should be able to last as long as humanly possible.
Rose’s career and his record took durability. So too does his banishment from baseball. He played for 24 years and he’s been banned for 21.
What’s going to give first, the record or the ban?
 Cobb broke Anson’s record with a four-hit game on Sept. 22, 1923 at Fenway Park while playing for the Tigers. Interestingly, the Tigers were wrapping a stretch where they played 12 games in six days… yes, six straight doubleheaders against the Philadelphia A’s and Red Sox. He had a chance to set the record at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, but got just four hits in six games against the second-division A’s. He fared much better in Boston, going for 11 hits in the first five games and tied the record with a homer in the sixth inning.