Let there be no naysayers to the imminent glory of Pete Rose, poised now to conquer the unassailable, to surpass the legend, to exceed the 4,191 base hits of Tyrus Raymond Cobb, the original master of the game.
Rose will acccomplish it after 23 years of canny bat managing, and belly-whopping base line maneuvers and the ferocity that even conjured the image of Ty Cobb, Himself. It all added up to his unthinkable challenge of the unapproachable numbers, all those thousands of base hits Cobb put in the books in his own 24 years of play.
Choose any of the recent three decades, the '60s, '70s and '80s, and in any one of those Pete Rose could be decently acclaimed as Player of the Decade. Will this new achievement, more hits than even Cobb, be regarded in baseball lore as a feat equal or superior to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak? It is one for baseball history to debate. But even as it is debatable, it lifts Rose into the company of the game's most acclaimed.
But hearken now to the danger of the careless, unstudied, Rose-colored assumption that Pete Rose can be equated with Ty Cobb as a ballplayer.
To this threatened possibility, baseball's senior purists will rise on their hind legs and scream an ear-bending, "Whoa! What impertinence!" Another Cobb? Indeed, there is insanity in the land.
No matter if the name of the pretender is Pete Rose, there never has been, probably never will be a baseball athlete on the level of Ty Cobb (American League, 1905-1928). The Ballplayer of the Ages. His resume tells that he could give Pete Rose cards, spades and most of the deck and still leave Rose to finish a woeful second in this game.
So Rose finally achieves more hits than Cobb? Truly a magnificent prize among baseball records, and all credit to him. But there are other numbers, and to his credit, Rose, who knows numbers, has not compared himself to Cobb in all things.
At this point in the quest, Rose and his current .265 batting average can be found down around 50th place in the National League statistics. He hasn't hit as much as .300 for four years.
When Cobb chose to retire in 1928 at the age of 42, it was with a .323 average for the season, the 23rd in which he hit .320 or better, and he was hitting against spitballs.
To compare Rose and Cobb as batsmen is a fatuous exercise. They are not in the same league, and this is no reference to the fact that Cobb was in the American and Rose in the National. Up there at the plate, Rose was always trying to manipulate a hit for himself; Cobb was looking down the pitcher's throat, the most feared hitter in the game for a lot of those 24 years.
In 1969, Rose attained the best average of his career, a .348 season. That would be an off year for Cobb. He bettered Rose's best season 16 times, had a career average of .367 (Rose's is .304), won the AL batting title 12 times and throws some years like .420, .410 and .401 at those rushing to acclaim Rose as in the Cobb image.
Even as one must not detract from the splendor of Rose's 4,191-plus hits, one may also note that he required more than 2,000 more at bats than Cobb. Also that Rose had the advantage of artificial turf diamonds that invite streaking hits through slick infields, a popular base hit of his. And those AstroTurf bounces. The other day, he bounced a pitch only feet in front of the plate and it kangaroo-hopped over the second baseman for a single.
If Rose has hit 40-odd more home runs than Cobb did, that may be explained. He, like Rose, sought the line drive, and if he trailed Rose in homers, Cobb doubled Rose's output of the game's most exciting hit, the triple.
If Cobb did not hit a lot of home runs, it wasn't because he couldn't. Sports Illustrated relates that one year when Cobb was chided for his lack of long balls, he declared, "Today, I'm going for home runs the first time in my career." He hit three, in addition to a double and two singles, or six for six.
There is doubt that any batter combined hitting and psychology with the intensity of Cobb. He explained once why he hit Walter Johnson with uncommon frequency. He knew Johnson was in dread fear of maiming a batter with his fast ball, he said, "So I crowded the plate and waited on the outside pitch I knew was coming."
Cobb's ferocity, plus the honed spikes that he carried high, had perhaps its greatest modern prototype in Rose, who also was the terror of the base lines. But whereas Rose achieved enduring fame by knocking down a waiting catcher in an All-Star Game on a play that has become a television replay classic, Cobb made his reputation by cutting down second basemen, third basemen and catchers with equal savagery.
For Cobb, none of those headfirst slides that have made Rose so famous. You can't hurt anybody with a headfirst slide.
In Cobb's own best department, managing the bat to suit the pitch, Cobb does not accept second place. When he was going on 40 years old in 1926 and batting .339, he struck out twice in 233 times up.
The late Harry Heilmann, who as a Detroit rookie began to threaten Cobb's batting titles, once related, "Cobb never spoke to me until years later when they made him manager of the Tigers. Then he knew he needed my help, and began to give me the best batting tips I ever heard. My average went up and I won the league title next year."
Cobb would have been offended at Rose's habit this year of taking himself out of the lineup against right-handed pitchers. Take yourself out of the lineup? How abhorrent. What manner of ballplayer is this, who doesn't pick up a bat whenever there is a pitcher out there? What are bats for? Who is this Pete Rose? By Ty Cobb's lights, a proper question.