Play Hungry: The Making of a Baseball Player
It’s always best to write your memoir before someone writes your biography. Play Hungry joins a lineup of several books about Pete Rose. The last one was My Prison Without Bars which was written with the help of Rick Hill. For some people the Rose still has a stench and a few thorns. It’s doubtful this “flower” will ever find a place in the Hall of Fame. Play Hungry is the type of baseball book that you wished had a few photographs but there are none. The cover of this book shows what’s missing on the inside. Where is the head first slide? Where is the hustle in this memoir?
There is a flatness that turns dull in the opening pages of Play Hungry. The countless references for the need to win sounds too much like the president at another political rally. This desire was instilled in Pete Rose by his father Harry Francis Rose. If there is one person Rose admires it’s his father who was an outstanding football player and boxer in Cincinnati. One wishes this father and son relationship was at the core of the book. It isn’t. The reader will have to wait until chapter 25 for a confession. Unfortunately it comes too late. The man banned from the Hall of Fame in the shortest chapter (three pages) of Play Hungry writes the following:
“Here's one thing I can say for sure: I don’t think if my father had been alive, I’d have ever bet on baseball. I really don’t. Not that I didn’t gamble when my dad was alive—that was part of the world of sports I grew up with. Everybody bet on sports. But it’s one thing to put down a few bucks on a game with a friend and another to place an illegal bet through a bookmaker. My dad would never have bet like that.”
These words coming at the end or Rose’s memoir feels like a passed ball. They are words that bounce in front of the plate of truth and honesty. Was it his desire to always win that push him into the world of betting? In chapter 13, where he writes about playing winter ball in Venezuela it seems the fans in the ballpark are betting on everything. Rose seems to mention this as if to convey that perhaps betting is contagious.
Playing Hungry is all about the game of baseball and Pete Rose’s push to excel at it. It took work and physical development and more work. But this is how manhood was once defined in our society. Rose writes about the times he was born into and the men of those times.
“Our dads were tough. And if your dad is tough, and you’re an athlete, you’re going to be tough.”
While in the minor leagues Pete Rose was known for hitting triples. One can see him accomplishing this in his memoir. This book reaches third base when it finds Rose explaining how the game should be played. There are tips and advice a young baseball player could benefit from if they can avoid the dryness of the narrative. Rose boasts about how he didn’t fare too well in school and how he seldom read a book. Years later we find him struggling to write one.
This baseball author however gets an assist from growing up Cincinnati. Early in his memoir he reflects on this.
“Cincinnati was a baseball city, and we had a good team. If you grew up then where I did, you knew that Cincinnati was the real birthplace of baseball, the real breeding ground, not Cooperstown, which is just a story they tell. The Cincinnati Reds started out in 1869 as the Cincinnati Red Stockings, becoming the first professional baseball team in the country.”
If there is one reason to read this memoir by Pete Rose it’s for how he writes about race. Rose has strong admiration for the African American and Latino baseball players that he played with and against. He admires them for their intellect and approach to the game. One of his closest friends was the great Frank Robinson. Rose played the game like Robinson—fearless at the plate as well as when running the bases. He describes his sadness when learning about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. This is moving because Rose thinks always about baseball and seldom about anything political. Even when he writes about going to Vietnam (in 1967) it’s more about traveling with Joe DiMaggio than the politics behind the war.
If only Pete Rose had opened himself up more maybe this might have been a better book. There is hardly any mention of his wife and family and what is mentioned also comes near the end of this book.
“I always had a close bond with my firstborn son, Pete Rose Jr., born in 1969. When I got the phone call in November 1973, informing me that I’d been named National League MVP, Petey was only four years old, but he might have been more excited about the news than me and his mom Karolyn. He was jumping up and down.”
Many sports books are built around anecdotes and stories that make it from the field to the bar. One wishes Rose had told a few more. The book quotes too much from previously published newspaper articles, summarizing games Rose played in. It’s as exciting as reading box scores in the dark.
There are however a few moments of delightful humor in Play Hungry. One is when Rose was playing in the Instructional League in Tampa, Florida. After games some of the players would frequent a gay bar called Jimmy White’s Tavern. It was a great place to unwind and relax and no one bothered the baseball players. Rose describes how the guys there made for good friends and treated them like kings. Meanwhile the players watched out for them in case someone came in making trouble. Rose even describes a gay marriage he attended and how he couldn’t get over the wedding cake having a big penis on it.
The ability for Rose to navigate between groups that were marginal in society in the late fifties and early sixties is admirable. He has respect for people and he goes to bat for them.
Pete Rose was the player who always ran to first base even when he walked. He had a hunger to win. In the 1970 All Star game when he barreled into the catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run, he ran the bases as if it were the seventh game of the World Series. This hustle is what is perhaps missing from the game today.
Rose wrote Play Hungry for the fans but many of them already know his story. His memoir is more like a tip left on a table for sportswriters. It’s another attempt to document how great a player he was and to give him another chance to be voted into the Hall of Fame. It’s sad but probably many people might never read this book. Rose’s life has become an extra-inning game. Opinions about him remain tied. The “Hit King” keeps fouling off pitches. Play Hungry reads like the ball a fan doesn’t want to catch.