CINCINNATI — Pete Rose drew a walk on four pitches in his first plate appearance in the major leagues. Then, he sped to first base.
No slowing him down, either then or 4,256 hits later.
Baseball’s all-time hits leader got his start 50 years ago this week, making his debut with the Reds in Cincinnati on April 8, 1963. After getting that walk in his first game and making 11 straight outs in the next few, he finally got on base using his bat — smacking a triple off Pittsburgh’s Bob Friend on April 13.
It wasn’t long before the switch-hitting, barrel-chested player from Cincinnati epitomized a no-holds-barred approach to baseball that others imitated, then and now. A half-century later, Charlie Hustle is still in style.
“I don’t know if anybody ever has played the game as hard as he has,” Washington’s Bryce Harper said. “I try to mirror my game after him every single day I go out there.”
For Rose, it was nothing out of the ordinary to sprint to first base after a walk or fling himself into the next base, leaving dirt on his chest and scrapes on his forearms.
“I was always a good player, but never the best player, and I was always small,” Rose said, in a phone interview. “That’s why all through my Little League career I was a catcher. I got to high school and I was too damn small to be a catcher, so they put me at second base.
“Because I was small, I always had to do things other people didn’t do to try to win games — be risky on the base paths, slide headfirst, run ... from start to go. That’s the way I played.”
He already had a nickname when the Reds made the surprising decision to start him at second base ahead of the popular Don Blasingame on opening day 1963. After Rose sprinted to first after a walk and reached over the outfield fence trying to catch a way-out-of-here home run during spring training, Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford dubbed him “Charlie Hustle.”
It wasn’t that other guys took it easy. There were plenty of great players around. It was just the importance Rose seemed to attach to every pitch, every at-bat.
“That’s the way the game was played, really,” said Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who made it to the big leagues two years later with Baltimore. “He just had the flair for it, had the energy — like a motor that shifted into another gear with his headfirst dives.”
Not everyone appreciated it. Some opposing fans and players considered him a showoff — some of his own teammates, too. Rose understood that some of the Reds veterans resented him for replacing the popular Blasingame in the lineup.
“I’m not blaming those guys,” he said.
Rose was the NL’s rookie of the year in 1963. Soon, some young baseball players were trying to mimic his style.
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt grew up in Dayton, about an hour’s drive north, admiring the Reds and Rose in particular. He had a flat-top hair cut just like Rose, decided to become a switch-hitter in high school to emulate him, and had his grandmother tailor his baseball pants to be skin-tight just like the Reds star.
Schmidt was taken by the way Rose sprinted to first after a walk.
“I know of no other player who has done that before or since,” Schmidt said, in an email. “Pete also brought the headfirst slide to the game, which now is commonplace. In fact, it’s used more often than the standard slide. Pete didn’t just slide headfirst — he dove into the bag with a vengeance, inciting the opposition and igniting the Reds.”
It became his signature move.
“Pete was one of the few that did that, one of the few that was strong enough to do it, you know what I mean?” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “Pete Rose — this guy’s built like a running back. Everybody ain’t as strong as Pete Rose. It really became popular when Rickey Henderson started doing it — all those stolen bases headfirst. But Rickey was as strong as Pete Rose.”
One All-Star play helped define him — running over Indians catcher Ray Fosse to win the 1970 All-Star game at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium.
“Shoot, the biggest thing everybody looks at is probably when he ran over the catcher in the All-Star game,” Harper said. “That’s an All-Star game, and he’s still playing his butt off.”
Rose admires the way some of baseball’s young stars approach the game in the same gritty way.
“I think we’re starting to see a new breed of players that do,” Rose said. “I’m talking about some of the better young players now — Harper, (Mike) Trout, some of the Reds players. I think they’ve finally caught on that if you play hard and show some enthusiasm, people are going to like you. They’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt if you strike out three times one day or make an error.
“There’s a lot of players that play hard, they really do. Just because they don’t run to first on a walk don’t mean they’re not playing hard.”
Harper was thrilled to be singled out by Rose for his exemplary hustle.
“That’s an incredible honor, to have a great like Pete Rose say that,” Harper said. “It’s so humbling.”
Trout visited Cincinnati with the Los Angeles Angels to open the season, playing in a ballpark that has tributes to the hits leader and is located on Pete Rose Way. It was a special visit.
“Growing up, my dad would always tell me about him, the way he played the game and how much fun he was to watch,” Trout said.
“I take pride in that stuff,” the AL’s rookie of the year said. “To hear that coming from Pete, it just makes you feel good inside. It’s extremely humbling. You take pride in going out there, playing every day and giving 100 percent like Bryce and a lot of guys.”
Rose got his final hit in 1986 while player-manager with the Reds. Three years later, he was banned from baseball for betting on his team. He acknowledged in a 2004 autobiography that he bet on Reds games. In the last few years, he has tried to repair relationships with former Big Red Machine teammates and has apologized for how his gambling scandal affected them. He remains ineligible for baseball’s Hall of Fame.
While he was piling up the hits, Rose said there were two things he never did: hit off a tee or watch video of his failed at-bats, two things that are very popular with today’s players.
“I don’t care what color you are or how much money you make or where you’re from, you’re going to make outs seven out of 10 times,” Rose said. “That’s just the way it is. You can watch video all week, you’re still going to go 3-for-10 and go into the Hall of Fame.”
After a moment’s pause, he added:
“Some people. Most people.”