What We Can Learn About Character from Pete Rose and Harmon Killebrew

I wrote a tribute to Harmon Killebrew upon his passing May 17. I was on the phone with Paul Willis and he reminded me that I had written the following piece about Killebrew on January 4, 2004.

By Jim Whitt

My friend Paul Willis gave me the gift of a lifetime last November. His company, Cypress Systems, Inc. sponsors a team in the Harmon Killebrew Invitational Golf Tournament each year in Phoenix and Paul invited me to play on his team.

For someone who grew up idolizing major league players in the 1950s and 60s this was a dream come true. I was like a kid in a candy store. The celebrity playing in our group was Tommie Davis, two-time National League batting champion. I had breakfast with Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher who Willie Mays said was the toughest he ever faced. And the tournament was hosted by Harmon Killebrew, who hit 573 home runs in his stellar career.

Last week, the Hall of Fame announced that two more greats will be inducted this year, Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersly. That’s the good news. The bad news is that’s not what baseball fans are talking about this week. The sports pages and air waves are abuzz about the release of an autobiography by Pete Rose entitled My Prison Without Bars.

In his book, Rose admits that he bet on baseball while he managed the Cincinnati Reds. He not only bet on baseball but bet on his own team. This fact is old news. As a result of his gambling, Rose was banned from baseball years ago, therefore making him ineligible for election to the Hall of Fame.

Since his ban, there has been an ongoing debate about whether or not he should be reinstated so he could be elected to the Hall. Those supporting his cause point to his outstanding career on the field as the reason he should be elected.

Rose, whose hard nosed play earned him the nickname Charlie Hustle, gave a whole new meaning to hustle. He was “hustling” all right but claims that even though he was betting on games involving his own team it never influenced his handling of the team. Yeah, right. And he didn’t do himself any favors by comparing himself to Bill Clinton, Robert Downey, Jr. and Winona Rider.

Harmon Killebrew, wasn’t just a great ballplayer, he’s a great humanitarian who devotes much of his time to philanthropic efforts. His golf tournament raised $300,000 for the VistaCare Hospice Foundation which improves the quality of end-of-life care. Killebrew recruits thirty celebrities to play with 300 amateurs for this cause. Many of his fellow Hall of Fame friends participate.

After meeting Harmon and watching him interact with the participants in his tournament, I walked away feeling that he was a true gentleman who cares about other people. What a treat to get to view one of your childhood heroes up close and personal and find that he was all that you hoped he would be and more.

I think the best case I could give for Rose not being reinstated and elected to the Hall of Fame is this — Pete Rose is all about Pete Rose. While he selfishly promotes his book and lobbies for reinstatement, Killebrew and his friends are unselfishly giving themselves to serving others. Quite a contrast isn’t it?

Rose is self-serving. When you are self-serving you are self-defeating. If he had spent the years since he was banned from the game serving others instead of himself, it would be a lot easier to have some sympathy for him. But he has lied, denied and cried about what a raw deal he got. In reality, Rose is a hustler who just hustled himself.

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