The Ethical Significance of Pete Rose’s Corked Bat

To cut to the chase: there is now irrefutable evidence that Pete Rose, Major League Baseball’s all-time hit leader who is currently banned from the game for betting on baseball, used a corked bat. How often he used it, how many other bats were similarly doctored, and what results he got from the illegal bat (s) are all unknown, and probably unknowable. The long, interesting and well-researched article about Rose’s bat on the website “Deadspin” points out that:

  • Corked bats (which have been doctored with a hollow chamber that is filled with cork, on the theory that it lightens the bat without sacrificing power) are forbidden by the rules of baseball, and their use constitutes cheating.
  • Their use is almost impossible to detect; only a handful of players have ever been caught using one, but it is believed that the cheaters are many and notable. Amos Otis, a star for the Kansas City Royals, admitted after he retired that his bats were corked for the majority of his career. Norm Cash, who won a shocking batting championship in 1961 with an average far above any he posted before or after, attributed his career year to a corked bat.
  • It is quite possible that corked bats don’t have any positive effect at all, and might even be worse than regular bats.

The last point cuts no ice with me. Baseball has seen fit to ban corked bats as illegal equipment, and using them surreptitiously, which is the only way they can be used, is cheating whether it actually improves a batter’s performance or not. A card cheat who draws an ace from his shoe and still loses the hand is no more ethical than the cheat who does the same and wins the pot. The argument that ineffective cheating somehow lessens the offense, which I have encountered frequently, is consequentialism at its silliest, in which an act intended to produce an unethical result is considered purified by its incompetence. The act is the same, whether it works or not.

The challenge posed by baseball blogger/lawyer Craig Calcatarra is an intriguing one: Would this be sufficient to justify not voting for Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame if Hell froze over and his permanent ban from the game was lifted? Wily Craig is actually asking several questions in one, which I will address individually:

  1. Would possession of a corked bat by itself disqualify an otherwise fully-qualified player, like Pete Rose, for the Hall of Fame? Clearly not, especially in the absence of any evidence regarding how often it was used. In the Hardball Times 2010 Annual, I wrote an article that attempted to assess how the Hall of Fame should measure a player’s good character and sportsmanship (this is part of the stated criteria), and concluded that single or limited instances of on-field cheating, like throwing a spitball or using a corked bat should not disqualify a player for the honor, but could tip the scales in a borderline case.
  2. Should legitimate and well-founded suspicion that a player like Rose used a corked bat through a significant portion of his career knock him out of Hall consideration? I would think so. If the “legitimate and well-founded suspicion” rose to the level of, for example, existing suspicions regarding Barry Bonds’ steroid use, and voters reasonably concluded that, in Rose’s case, the all-time career hit leader was routinely cheating, they would be justified in concluding that he didn’t meet minimal standards of good character and sportsmanship. The issue, I think,  is whether we are talking about the distinction between an outstanding player who cheated on rare occasions, or a player who was, at his core, a cheater.
  3. Would the corked bat keep Pete Rose out of the Hall of Fame if somehow the lifetime ban for gambling was lifted? No, Rose would be kept out by the combination of his off-field sin of gambling on baseball and lying about it, combined with his on-field transgression of cheating with a corked bat an indeterminate number of times and lying about that (as documented in the Deadspin piece), plus his post-career conviction for tax fraud. The bat by itself isn’t enough to deprive a superstar like Rose of enshrinement, but it puts him squarely in the category of a dishonest, untrustworthy player who cannot be called a credit to his sport—if he wasn’t already in that category.

The best argument for letting Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame despite gambling on baseball as a manager was that on the field as a player, he played hard, fair, and spectacularly. The corked bat destroys that argument, and reaffirms a principle of human nature and ethics that people like to deny. People who are dishonest and unethical in one aspect of their life are very likely to be dishonest and unethical in the other aspects as well.

7 thoughts on “The Ethical Significance of Pete Rose’s Corked Bat

  1. The chain of custody of the bat irrefutably leads to Rose, the way I read the Deadspin piece, which is very thorough. It’s Rose’s bat, and when you X-ray it, it is clearly corked. That’s looks pretty irrefutable to me.

    I referenced the Mythbusters conclusion in the last bullet point. The evidence that a corked bat actually works is slim at best. As I said, that doesn’t matter.

  2. Actually, the best argument for letting Pete Rose into the hall of fame isn’t that he didn’t cheat; it is that if he did gamble he always bet on his own team and he always wanted to win.

    Pete Rose is banned for baseball for gambling. While gambling is a violation of the rules (rule 21d to be exact), is isn’t cheating. Gambling, of course, is such a sin in baseball because it threatens the legitimacy of competition and therefore the legitimacy of the business of baseball. I’d even go as far as to say that such a ban is part of the culture of baseball, being largely rooted in the BlackSox scandal.

    • Even if he did always bet on his own team to win (which honestly I am not convinced of), there are still problems.
      What if he bet more money some nights than others? Would he hold back on using certain relievers because he might have a bigger payday tomorrow? Might he give a position player a day off so they can rest for the game that he has bet more on?
      He always wanted to win, but what did he want to win at more, baseball or gambling?

      As for the corked bat, I wish I was surprised but I simply am not. I have never seen mythbusters, but I wonder if the placebo effect was taken into consideration. Does the fact that you know your bat is corked give you more confidence in your at-bats? Either way, it is against the rules and he knew it.

  3. The betting on his own team excuse indeed is no excuse at all. The reason betting by players and team staff is baseball’s cardinal din is because any betting at all raises legitimate suspicions about the game being influenced by gamblers. The argument also betrays an ignorance of baseball, I’m afraid. Managers in a 162 game baseball season, unlike football coaches, cannot afford to use up every resource in every game. Key relievers are kept out so they will be fresh the rest of the week. Aging star hitters are rested so they will be at their best during the stretch run. Young pitchers are taken out of the game to prevent future injuries. If the manager has money riding on the outcome, he is making decisions based on his own self-interest, not the team’s. Betting on one’s own team is still a conflict of interest, and still harmful to the team as well as baseball’s integrity.

    • I don’t disagree with either of you guys, my point simply was Pete Rose is not banned from baseball for cheating, he is banned for betting. And because betting was his sin, the best argument for reinstatement is that he always tried to win. The argument that “he played hard, fair, and spectacularly” is irrelevant.

      • Point taken. Gambling like Pete did is only breaking the rules, but not cheating. Of course, 99.9% of players play to win. It’s a minimum requirement, not an accomplishment.

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