Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include comment from Pete Rose’s representative.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has enjoyed the support of professional athletes in the past — including former Yankees greats Johnny Damon and Paul O’Neill, but no endorsement from the sports world may be more strategically beneficial to him than the one he covets from embattled former Cincinnati Reds star Pete Rose.
The 74-year-old Rose has been banned from the game of baseball since 1989 for violating Major League rules by regularly gambling on the sport. For decades Rose denied that he had bet on baseball, finally admitting guilt in a 2004 memoir “My Prison Without Bars.” He later acknowledged that he bet on games he managed, and several reports have alleged that he also gambled on games in which he played, although to this day he maintains that he only bet on his teams to win.
Still, despite his protestations, as recently as last December, the MLB’s commissioner decided not to reinstate him, which effectively also continued a ban on consideration for Hall of Fame induction.
Rose has been vilified in many circles for his persistent equivocating on the gambling issue, but he still garners widespread support in Ohio, where he spent his most celebrated years as a player for the Cincinnati Reds, which won two World Series titles during his tenure with the team. Rose is the MLB’s all-time leader in hits and he earned the endearing nickname “Charlie Hustle” for being one of the scrappiest baseball stars, if not the most physically gifted. He also has cultivated a regular guy, blue-collar persona, which has made him both a folk hero and cause célèbre in certain circles.
Much of which likely contributes to why Trump has aligned himself with the hometown hero in the hopes of prying a victory out of the hands of popular Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who narrowly leads Trump in most polls ahead of Tuesday’s winner-take-all GOP primary.
At a campaign rally in Ohio on Sunday, Trump told attendees: “ ‘Charlie Hustle, right? So I watched him and he was a great player. And it’s so ridiculous. Don’t you think he’s paid the price? First of all, he didn’t bet … he bet that he would win, not on the other team or anything. Right? But look, he’s not supposed to do it, it’s a terrible thing, all that stuff. How long has he been waiting like 30 years, 35 years?” Later, Trump added: “We gotta let Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame.”
Trump later shared an image of signed baseball sent to him ostensibly by Rose, imploring him to “Make America Great Again,” in what was widely interpreted as an endorsement:
But later on Monday, a representative for Rose told NBC News in a statement that the ex-athlete “has made a point not to ‘endorse’ any particular presidential candidate. Though he respects everyone who works hard for the country – any outlet that misinterpreted a signed baseball for an endorsement was wrong. Pete did not sent any candidate a signed baseball of a note of endorsement.”
The rep went on to say that Rose believes “who to vote for is a decision each voter should decide for him or herself.”
If Rose did not send the signed baseball in question, it’s unclear who did. And this is not the first time Trump has purported to have the support of a pro-athlete who later claims no endorsement was made. Last fall Trump claimed to be backed by NFL superstar Tom Brady. And while Brady professed to being friends with Trump and has been spotted with some of his campaign gear, he has said he hasn’t endorsed the real estate mogul’s candidacy either.
Meanwhile, Trump is no Johnny-come-lately when it comes to defending Rose. “It’s time to let Pete Rose, the all time hits leader, into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Enough already!!!!!” he tweeted in 2014. And the year before that, he tweeted: “Why has all time hits leader Pete Rose paid a 20 year price whrn [sic] A-Rod gets 200 game penalty. It’s time to let Pete into The Hall of Fame!”
In December 2015, after MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred denied Rose’s appeal for reinstatement again, Trump, now a candidate for president, defended him once more, with some people on social media — perhaps sarcastically — suggesting the real estate mogul should pardon the baseball great (should he be elected) or choose the controversial former player as a his running mate.
“If it’s Hillary vs. Trump and it comes down to Ohio, it could be going to bat for Pete Rose is what gets Trump into the White House,” he wrote.
With both Trump and Clinton stringing together a series of formidable victories in early primary states, their match-up in the general election is looking increasingly likely. And, as always, Ohio will be a major prize for the eventual winner of the presidency. As for right now, Trump will have to wait until Tuesday’s results are in to see if stepping up to plate for “Charlie Hustle” swings any votes.