Twenty-five years ago, the first half of the baseball card collecting year was dominated by talk of the Upper Deck Company’s splashy debut with the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card and the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken with the now famous obscenity written on the bat knob. It was the Ripken card—and the subsequent correction attempts– that generated the most media attention. There is little doubt the early months of that historic year were dominated by collectors, fans and even other folks getting in on the hubbub and picking up at least one copy while youngsters and dealers who sold to them clamored for Griffey.
The other driver of baseball news that year wasn’t quite as fun but even from a collecting standpoint, impactful. Pete Rose was being accused of gambling on games while managing the Cincinnati Reds.
Today, with all the instantaneous social media including sites such as Twitter and Facebook, it is hard to understand that merely a generation ago we depended mostly on mainstream media to disseminate information to everyone—rarely more than once an hour and for many, consumption was at most, three times a day with the morning paper and nightly newscasts on TV or radio. One has to remember that for more than a decade, Pete Rose had been the most famous name in the name thanks to his chase of Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record. Rose dominated the headlines and water cooler debates across the country.
Pete had been a huge hit in the hobby for much longer. Although his 1978 hitting streak pre-dated the printed price guides by just a few months, his free-agent journey to Philadelphia helped to put him atop the hobby’s Mount Rushmore since the famed Willow Grove show was so important that Beckett would debut its yearly prince guide at that show and that show, which was perhaps the most important sports card event east of the Mississippi.
Topps cards were printed in the winter and Rose was still pictured as a Cincinnati Reds but when the company printed cards for a Burger King promotion in eastern Pennsylvania that summer, Rose appeared in his Phillies cap and the card was heavily traded at the time. In addition the 1979 Hostess and O-Pee-Chee cards both show Rose as a Phillie. In a pre-rookie card world, such developments were of intense interest among collectors of all types.
Rose seemed to live a charmed live as a hobby icon as the Phillies would then win the 1980 World Series. Even his little side trip to Montreal produced one of the most interesting cards which is his 1984 Fleer Update card showing him as an Expo. All the while, the chase of Ty Cobb’s longstanding record was in the distance.
His playing career concluded with a return to his hometown, where he set the hit record and became the Reds player/manager. While Rose was a really key player when he was with the Phils (along with Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt), most felt he belonged to Cincinnati. I cannot tell you how many times I was asked at shows if I had any cards of the Phillies terrific trio as Philadelphia is only about 90 minutes from New York City and even closer from most of New Jersey. No matter where he played, Rose was one of those guys who were collected heavily.
However, all that was prelude to 1989. Many collectors were chasing his cards, perhaps even more actively than up to that point. That was because the general public joined avid collectors in wanting at least one Rose card.
Fortunately, other than the last series 1963 rookie card, almost none of the cards issued during his career are super scarce or rare. While the 1970 and 1972 cards were in the semi-hi series, they’re not hard to find or all that expensive. And during that summer, despite the questions, yes you could still sell a ton of Pete Rose cards.
Although the evidence seemed to grow every day, so many people wanted to believe Rose’s proclamations of innocence. I maintain that Pete Rose might have been at his absolute hobby peak during the 1989 season.
While my personal opinion is that Rose is fairly typical in that his biggest strength– the drive that led him to be an all-time great– was also his biggest weakness. He was driven and determined to beat baseball’s investigation, refusing to say what he eventually admitted years later on scores of signed balls: “I’m Sorry I Bet on Baseball”.
Today, he is still hugely popular with fans, with a regular signing gig In Las Vegas and other opportunities to profit from writing that clear, neatly penned eight-letter name, so much so that prices are almost depressed. But the market is still there. Results of a recent ESPN poll showed fans overwhelmingly in favor of his reinstatement to baseball. He’s even poking fun at his absence from the Hall of Fame in a new Skechers commercial.
Today, Pete Rose is much like Joe Jackson, believed to be a sure fire Hall of Famer if only this ban could be lifted. Yet you wonder if the ban and vision for many that he’s a tragic figure makes Rose even more popular than if he had continued without betting on baseball. Would his cards still be as popular? I’d love to hear your thoughts about Rose’s current place in the hobby.