Remember Pete Rose the baseball player, the unparalleled competitor who played nearly every inning of every game for more than two decades and got more hits than anyone in Major League Baseball history?
It’s been almost a quarter century since Rose put on a Cincinnati Reds uniform. An entire generation has grown up knowing more about the guy’s failings as a person than his accomplishments as a baseball player. Terry Lukemire’s new documentary, 4192: The Crowning of the Hit King, aims to put the spotlight back on a singular career that’s been overshadowed by its subject’s admittedly self-inflicted mistakes.
Rose was an undeniable part of Cincinnati’s cultural landscape for just about everyone who came of age between the mid-1960s and the late-’80s. He was a blue-collar guy whose sheer grit and determination propelled him from an unremarkable high school baseball player into one of the world’s more successful and recognizable figures. And, as a West Side native, he was one of us.
“I grew up in Cincinnati as a huge fan of the Big Red Machine, and I just wanted to remind people what he was like (as a player),” Lukemire says. “The haters out there certainly take any chance they can to point out anytime something bad has happened to him. So I just felt like, ‘Well, here’s the facts of his playing career.’ ”
The facts, of course, are staggering: Rose holds more than a dozen MLB records, none more impressive than his mark for career hits.
“It just seemed like the timing was right because the 25th anniversary of the record-breaking hit was this year,” Lukemire says of desire to make 4192. “There are only a couple of records in Major League Baseball that people care about that are untouchable, and this is one of them.”
Lukemire’s deftly crafted, surprisingly emotional 90-minute documentary, which was produced locally by Barking Fish Entertainment, features a musical score from Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard (“He was more excited to be connected to a project involving Pete Rose than he was with Paul McCartney,” Lukemire says of Pollard), narration by actor J.K. Simmons and interviews with a handful of Rose-related baseball figures. But the backbone of 4192 is formed by Pete himself.
“I had a list of a few more guys I wanted to talk to, even outside of the Big Red Machine — people like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays,” Lukemire says. “But in trying to coordinate all these interviews, I decided, ‘Well, let me get Pete, and then I’ll tailor a lot of the interview questions to support what he says.’ I had about 25 hours of this stuff already in the can before we shot anybody else, and I just found that, ‘Wow, this is more compelling just having him say most of it.’ So I only needed a couple of other guys to tell the story.”
The other integral “guys” ended up being, not coincidently, three Hall of Famers, all of whom add context and color: longtime Red Tony Perez, who broke into professional baseball with Rose back in 1960; Mike Schmidt, who represents Rose’s years with the Philadelphia Phillies; and Marty Brennaman, who became the Reds play-by-play radio voice in 1974.
Lukemire also incorporates an impressive collection of vintage photos and selected footage that illuminate just how much baseball and Rose have changed over the last half-century, a story that culminates with the fateful hit on Sept. 11, 1985.
But, again, it’s Pete’s own words that make the biggest impression. After years of hearing him speak almost exclusively within the context of his various post-career controversies, it’s something of a revelation to hear Rose reminisce about his 24 years (1963-1986) on the field. The words “Hit King” embroidered on his shirt collar as he gazes directly into the camera, Rose clearly relishes the chance to talk baseball again — a perpetual smile and jovial attitude permeate his entire being as he discusses the sport he loved playing more than anything in the world.
“It was insane to hear him bring up a pitch count of a game in ’78,” Lukemire says of Rose’s still razor-sharp baseball memory. “You see that little-kid smile when he talks about Ty Cobb and Cap Anson — they were baseball players, and that’s what he was. So for him to be able to tell the stories and the things that he loved — and that came through on camera — I couldn’t be more thrilled. I think it humanizes him and shows who I got to know.”
Lukemire — a veteran filmmaker whose most recent documentary, Rebound, recounted the dramatic story of the 1980-81 Simon Kenton High School basketball team — was just as eager to convey the unique father-son relationship at the heart of 4192.
“I intended to start with his rookie year,” Lukemire says. “I wasn’t going to go into his childhood, but through the interviews I just realized how much of an impact his father had and the theme of work ethic and him growing up in a working-class family. So that expanded it.”
The most poignant moment of the film occurs via a vintage audio clip of Pete’s father, Harry Rose, discussing the ultimate goal he’d like to see for his son: “If Pete works hard enough and stays healthy, he might have a chance to make the Hall of Fame.” Harry died of a heart attack in 1970.
Pete agrees that his father was the driving force behind his baseball success.
“The documentary is a lot about a father-and-son relationship — a father that drove his son to be successful, a son who didn’t have overwhelming talent but still became a very successful baseball player through hard work and dedication and having a lot of fun,” Rose says by phone from Los Angeles.
While Pete didn’t have control over the final film, he did stress to Lukemire what he didn’t want it to cover.
“I didn’t want anything about reinstatement in there, I didn’t want anything about the commissioner, I didn’t want anything in there about gambling,” Rose says. “You get tired of people rehashing things that happened in ’88 and ’89. It’s 21 years ago — get over it. The documentary is strictly my first game to my last game, and Terry and his team did a great job with it.”
Inevitably some have criticized the film as an incomplete look at Rose’s career, including former Reds beat-writer Hal McCoy.
“I was surprised Hal would make those comments, because I guarantee he didn’t see it when he said that,” Rose says. “I’m not going to listen to anyone who comments on it who didn’t see it. ... Hal’s just one of those guys who disagreed with what I did, and he should, because I was absolutely wrong. But he just won’t ever let it go. He’s one of those guys that, no matter what you do and how sincere you are about your apology, he’s not going to give you a second chance.”
4192 had its local premiere with two sold-out screenings July 14. Rose addressed the crowd before each screening, concluding his brief introduction with this revealing statement: “Enjoy not just my ride but our ride.”
“I was just an extension of the fans,” Rose says when asked about his pointed intro. “I always played that way, I always felt that way. I believe Cincinnati is the baseball capital of the world. I believe we’ve got the greatest fans in the world. The fans stimulated me and made me bust my ass because I always felt like I was playing for them and they were a big part of my ride.”
Will that ride one day include his reinstatement to the game he loves?
“As an American and believing in the American way — that everybody gets a second chance — based on those things right there, you have to think so,” Rose says. “But am I going to be alive when it happens? I can’t answer that question. I hope so. All you can do is be a good citizen and live a clean life and go from there.”
The film's director, Terry Lukemire, will be on hand at the Esquire for a post-screening Q&A at 7:35 p.m. Friday.
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