Benson’s Baseball Book Reviews: Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball

March 21, 2024

I started seriously following baseball and collecting baseball cards in 1983 when I was nine. Even though Pete Rose was at the tail end of his career, my brothers and I knew his baseball card was special.

I played in the local Little League, and we called diving head-first into a base "doing a Pete Rose." As an adult, I once saw Rose in Las Vegas. He was sitting by himself at a little table in a little memorabilia shop in one of the casinos, apparently waiting for someone to ask him to sign something. No one seemed to care. 

Keith O’Brien’s new book Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball captures the Rose that I first knew as a nine-year-old boy in Des Moines, Iowa and the Rose I encountered in Vegas as an adult. Charlie Hustle both cements and destroys Rose’s legacy. Rose was the epitome of a winner on the field, a player who wrung all the talent that he possibly could have out of his body, who played to win at all costs, who sprinted to first base after earning a walk, and who played every game like it was game seven of the World Series.

Rose was also an inveterate and terrible gambler. One bookie noted that Rose was the worst gambler he’d ever met, not just in terms of his habit, but also in terms of his betting acumen. He was a loser.

Inside the lines, he was a hotdog who used amphetamines while he played and very likely corked his bat as he was closing in on Ty Cobb’s all time hits record at the end of his career.

O’Brien confirms and details all the stories that made Pete Rose one of the most beloved baseball players of all time. There was no one who wanted to win more than Pete Rose, arguably no one who got more out of his God given abilities, and no one who played harder. From running over catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All Star Game, to the 1975 World Series greatest game ever played, to Rose’s hard-scrabble upbringing in the predominantly white working class West side of Cincinnati, O'Brien details how the legend of Pete Rose was built and perpetuated largely through the grit and determination of the book’s subject.

However, this is not a puff piece. O’Brien spends as much time dismantling the legend of Rose as he does documenting its rise. In short, Rose was a deeply flawed man whose addiction to gambling ruined his career, if not his life. 

Gambling wasn’t the only chink in the armor of the legend of Pete Rose. Charlie Hustle was also a deeply selfish man who lacked moral restraint when it came to pursuing his goals and fulfilling his desires, whether they were sexual, competitive, or financial.

O’Brien’s Rose is garish, unsophisticated, and dense, radiating a physical survivor’s mentality that thrived in the game of baseball in post-World War II America but crumbled as the country crept toward the new millennium.

It’s all there: Rose’s infidelities, including a sexual relationship with a fourteen-year-old girl, and his dealings with the Cincinnati underworld, filled with drug smugglers, steroid peddlers, inveterate gamblers, mobsters, and proper criminals of all stripes. O’Brien’s Rose is a dirtbag who fathered a child with his mistress but refused to support that child in any way, forcing the woman to file a paternity suit against him.

The baseball stories are there, too, and there is no question that Rose was one of the most fascinating and greatest baseball players of all time.

Charlie Hustle is an excellent book, a cautionary tale for aspiring athletes, about what it takes to be a great ball player and a decent human being.  

Rose agreed to be interviewed by O’Brien until the author started asking tough questions. Then Rose quit returning O’Brien’s calls. This inconsistency is not apparent in the book. The image I’m left with is of Andy Warhol’s 1987 portrait of the star commissioned by the Cincinnati Art Museum. Warhol was a notorious trouble maker, whose work is often infused with an ironic wink. Perhaps he sensed in Rose in 87 what was to come, an Icarus type figure who was flying too close to the sun, diving headlong into it, doing a Pete Rose.

About the author 

Josef Benson

Josef is the co-founder of BaseballCentric.

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