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Photo by AP/Wide World“Do you know where the Pete Rose Museum is?” I ask a local.
“Never heard of it,” he says, “but I can tell you where the National Baseball Hall of Fame is.”
I encounter this response half a dozen times as I walk along the streets of Cooperstown, New York, a sleepy town with American flags unfurled on flagpoles on every block. I’ve been tipped by my rotisserie-league partner about the existence of the museum, but now I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever find it.
In the Hall of Fame itself, I look at Rose’s spikes and helmet from his record-breaking 4,192nd hit, and find a mention on the time line that he was a member of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s. But I’m struck by the absence of a plaque for the onetime Cincinnati captain.
Finally, I ask an official wearing a yellow Henley shirt embroidered with the Hall of Fame logo — a red baseball surrounded by stars and stripes — if he knows about the Pete Rose Museum.
He smiles, a purplish scar running from his chin to his lip. “Are you a Pete Rose fan?” he says.
I contemplate his scar. Perhaps he got it diving into second base, like I did when I was 10 years old. It was 1976. I had remembered Rose breaking up a double play in game seven of the ’75 Series against the Red Sox. He was my favorite player, the consummate team player, competitive yet totally unselfish on the field. So I dove in headfirst and took out the shortstop, just like Rose had, except I did so on a gym floor. Broke my front tooth. Have worn a cap for over 20 years now.
“It’s a couple blocks down the street in a red-brick building,” says the official.
So I’m off down Main Street in Cooperstown, with its baseball-memorabilia stores and baseball-themed cafĂ©s, but I have to circle back a few times before I find a building with a prominent sign for the Baseball Wax Museum. To the left is a small red sign, so small that I passed by it twice without noticing, that says: Pete Rose Museum.
The elevator doors open, and I am alone in the Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle Museum. Interestingly, Mantle too was once barred from baseball for association with gamblers.
The floor is wood, and the walls green like the Green Monster at Fenway Park, a park Rose undoubtedly remembers from ’75. It is almost anticlimactic, though. It’s basically all memorabilia. Bats signed “Pete Rose, Hit King.” Baseball cards in mint condition. Black-and-white photos of Rose throughout his 24-year career, with editorial comments such as “Great ass” and “Oh, what a night.”
What I want is to revive memories of the three-time batting champion, to share them with another fan. But as I wander from one room to the next, I am alone. Just me and the big-band music emanating from the Mickey Mantle wing of the museum.
Then the elevator doors open, and a couple of seniors emerge. At last, kindred Rose fans — except when I approach them, they tell me they’re looking for the wax museum. “I’m a sucker for a wax museum,” says the silver-haired gent, wearing a T-shirt that says “Vintage Person — Well worth the wait.”
He then tells me that his favorite wax museum is the one in Niagara Falls, where he and his wife went in 1959. “Even in a bad wax museum, I’ve generally found somebody well done,” he says. “Like the Debbie Reynolds one was exceptionally good in a really bad museum.”
“So, you’re not particularly Pete Rose fans?” I ask.
“No . . . we’re from Chicago,” he says. “Pete Rose is the guy who got in trouble with gambling?”
I nod. Rose may or may not have bet on baseball, depending on whether one believes the testimony of convicted tax and drug felons, but he certainly consorted with gamblers and bookies, thereby jeopardizing the integrity of baseball. His punishment, though — a lifetime banishment from the game, including appearances at ballparks and old-timers’ games — seems overly severe, even a bit Old Testament.
My friends from Chicago remember him for his gambling, but Rose played the game the way it was supposed to be played: hard-nosed, spirited, all-out. I can still picture him in that pronounced crouch, looking the ball into the catcher’s mitt, or spiking the ball in the infield after the last out. He was MVP of the ’75 Series, arguably the greatest World Series ever played.
In the last room of the museum, there’s a mannequin of Rose in his trademark headfirst slide, hanging from the ceiling — a metaphor, perhaps, for his inability to control his fate in the game. Baseball’s exiled hero still hasn’t made it all the way home.