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Pete Rose, Ty Cobb's Hits Record, Wrigley Field: Setting The Record Straight

This story's been told before, but a new article gives more detail.

Pete Rose bats at Wrigley Field in September 1985
Pete Rose bats at Wrigley Field in September 1985
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Major League Baseball's official record book states that Pete Rose got his record-breaking 4,192nd career hit off Eric Show of the Padres, a single in the first inning at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati September 11, 1985.

This official "fact" is premised on the official record of MLB, in which Ty Cobb has 4,191 career hits. ("Fact" is in quotes for a reason, which will become evident shortly.)

It's become generally accepted among baseball researchers that Cobb's actual hit total was 4,189. His baseball-reference page says so. Fangraphs says so. Baseball Almanac says so., though, stubbornly clings to 4,191.

The reason I raise this now is this NBC Sports article by Joe Posnanski in which he goes into great detail about how Cobb wound up credited with those two extra hits. You should read the entire article -- Posnanski's a great writer, for one, and for two, there are details about this I hadn't read before -- but the summary is that Cobb and Napoleon Lajoie had been fighting for the American League batting title in 1910. The winner was to get a car, a newfangled and exciting thing in those days.

Only the league office had the official stats in that pre-internet, pre-TV, pre-radio time 105 years ago. So the batting averages generally known to the public were only estimates, and Cobb had a fairly large lead going into the season's last day.

Lajoie won the title because the Browns, essentially, laid down for him, allowing him to bunt for hits over and over and over in a season-ending doubleheader.

For years, Posnanski writes, the story's been told that the Browns did it because they (and many others) just hated Cobb. The real story, says Posnanski, is that there had been heavy betting on Lajoie -- in those days, as you surely know, gambling was widespread in baseball.

The irony of Pete Rose being connected in a distant way to this is not lost on you, I'm certain.

The A.L. President, Ban Johnson, who ran the league with an iron fist, decided to have scorers look at all of Cobb's games, and oh! look here! One wasn't counted, where Cobb went 2-for-3. So that was added to the total, Cobb was declared the winner, but both men were given cars.

Of course, that game had been counted, but the wrong double count stood for decades. Cobb's real total, sussed out by researchers in the 1980s, is 4,189.

But wait, there's more.

So in reality -- even if MLB refuses to admit it -- Rose broke Cobb's record September 8, 1985 at Wrigley Field with his 4,190th hit. Posnanski writes:

The whole thing was weird. Rose believed he started that day two hits shy of tying Cobb and not tied with him. He planned on resting, at least in part so that he could tie and break the record in his hometown Cincinnati.

Then, fate stepped in. Cubs lefty starter Steve Trout cut up his arm when he was out biking with his family. The Cubs, without any other options, replaced him with a pitcher named Reggie Patterson. And Rose, seeing an inexperiened right-handed pitcher, could not help himself. He immediately grabbed the lineup card, crossed out his longtime pal Tony Perez, and inserted himself at first base.

In his first plate appearance, he cracked a single to left-center before 28,269 Cubs fans who were suddenly Rose fans. That was the one that broke the record. The game wasn’t stopped. The ball wasn’t collected. "1 to Ty!" it said on the scoreboard. The moment passed.

I was at this game, which wound up suspended due to darkness, one of the last such games before lights were installed. I wrote about it in the 2011 Maple Street Press annual that I edited, and reposted that article here in August 2014 when the Cubs were faced with the Tarpgate suspended game against the Giants. Here's the portion of that suspended-games article about the 9/8/1985 events:

On September 8, 1985, the Reds were at Wrigley Field and according to current research that has discovered discrepancies in Ty Cobb’s hit total, it was the day Pete Rose really broke Cobb’s hits record with his 4,190th career hit. Officially, it is still the day that Rose tied the record. The day began hot and humid with temperatures in the upper 80s. A tremendous thunderstorm blew through; the game was delayed two hours, and when it resumed, the temperature had dropped into the upper 50s. Eventually the game was suspended for darkness after nine innings, tied 5-5. At the time, the Reds were eight games out of first place and marginally in contention. The National League announced that if the resumption were necessary for playoff consideration, it would be resumed the day after the regular season ended. When the Reds were mathematically eliminated, the game went into the books – Rose tied Ty in a tie.

So now you know the real history. Perhaps someday, as Joe Posnanski suggests, Major League Baseball will acknowledge the truth about when Rose really broke Cobb's record, with a single off Reggie Patterson in the first inning at Wrigley on that 1985 afternoon.

I can't wrap this up without one more quote from Posnanski's article about Rose's decision to play that September day 30 years ago. Rose had a second hit that afternoon, his 4,191st, so based on what was then known, he had officially tied Cobb.

Dick Young, the abrasive and powerful sportswriter, was in the Chicago pressbox that day. He was uncharacteristically touched by Rose’s decision to stay in the game and try to break the record in Chicago rather than wait for his return to Cincinnati. It seemed honorable to Young.

"That’s Pete Rose, the working man’s player," Young wrote. "He doesn’t forget the bleacher fan. Many newsmen thought Pete would remove himself from the game at that point and thus assure that the biggie would be saved for Cincy.

"But Pete Rose, the man of indisputable baseball integrity, proved himself once again."

Thirty years after the event, the thought of Pete Rose as a "man of indisputable baseball integrity" is laughable.