On Sept. 11, 1985, Pete Rose became baseball’s all-time hit leader when he broke Ty Cobb’s record with his 4,192nd hit. But many historians of the game believe it happened three days earlier.
Rose, who was pulling double duty as both player and manager for the Cincinnati Reds, didn’t waste much time making history. In the first inning, with one out, the 44-year-old took an inside slider on a 2-1 count from the San Diego Padres’ Eric Show into left-center field.
Rose even displayed the tenacity that earned him the nickname “Charlie Hustle.”
“Pete came around first like he was going for two, and [left fielder] Carmelo [Martinez] had to turn and wheel and get it in,” Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn, who was a few years into a career that would see him join Rose as one of the game’s greatest contact hitters, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “That was Pete Rose.”
The game at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium was put on hold for the celebration, complete with fireworks above the ballpark. Reds owner Marge Schott gave Rose a Corvette with the license plate PR 4192. Then his son and the Reds’ batboy, Pete Rose, Jr., came out to first base and hugged him. Rose had another hit in the game – a triple – and also walked in the Reds’ 2-0 victory.
Rose wrote in his autobiography that he saw the spirits of two men at that moment: “Ty Cobb was in the second row. Dad was in the first.”
Watch Pete Rose Become Baseball’s Hit King
Rose broke into the big leagues with his hometown club in 1963; the Reds became the dominant National League team of the ’70s. The Big Red Machine won the pennant four times between 1970 and 1976, taking the World Series in 1975 and 1976. Rose left the Reds for Philadelphia in 1979, winning another championship a year later. He signed with the Montreal Expos in 1984, but in August that year, he returned to Cincinnati as a player and manager.
Cobb’s record had stood since his retirement in 1928, but his total of 4,191 hits has since been called into question. Apparently, two hits were added to his 1910 total by American League president Ban Johnson, supposedly to give Cobb the batting title after the St. Louis Browns let Napoleon Lajoie go 8-for-8 in a season-ending doubleheader. In 1981, commissioner Bowie Kuhn said there was no point in correcting the record books, noting that 70 years was beyond the “statute of limitation,” because it would require a “complete and thorough review of all team and individual statistics. That is not practical.”
While many experts now accept Cobb’s total as 4,189, Major League Baseball, through its official statisticians the Elias Sports Bureau, still has not changed the number as of 2020.
But that also meant that Rose had already broken the record before he even stepped onto the field the night of Sept. 11, 1985. His 4,190th hit came on Sept. 8 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, with a single off Cubs’ pitcher Reggie Patterson.
Rose lasted one more season as a player, finishing with 4,256 hits, a .303 lifetime batting average and a slew of other records and awards. He remained the Reds’ manager, but his legacy was dealt a blow in 1989 when it was learned that he had regularly bet on baseball games, a violation of the league’s Rule 21. With a few months left in the season, Rose was placed on the permanently ineligible list; two years later, after Rose had served time for tax evasion, the National Baseball Hall of Fame passed a rule preventing banned players from enshrinement.
Rose has applied for reinstatement several times but to no avail. Still, he was allowed to take part in a ceremony prior to Game 2 of the 1999 World Series as a member of the game’s All-Century Team, which was voted by fans.
It took 15 years for the legend to finally admit that he bet on baseball, including his own team’s games, in the 2004 book My Prison Without Bars. ”I’m sure that I’m supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I’ve accepted that I’ve done something wrong,” he wrote. “But you see, I’m just not built that way. … I’m sorry it happened, and I’m sorry for all the people, fans and family that it hurt. Let’s move on.”
Estranged from the game, Rose relocated to Las Vegas, where he sold autographed memorabilia during the day and bet on sports at night. He also spent two years as an analyst for Fox Sports before being fired in 2017 amid allegations that he had a lengthy sexual relationship with an underage girl in the ’70s.
Regardless of the ban, Rose’s record of 4,256 regular-season hits is likely to stand forever. The use of advanced statistics that took over the game in the 21st century led to a greater emphasis on power hitters. As a result, those who hit for average, like Rose and Gwynn, have become devalued. In 2015, the Society for American Baseball Research, which has spearheaded the rise in analytics, examined what’s required to amass 4,256 hits. It determined that Rose’s record is “virtually unbreakable.”