Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions appeared on NBC News’ “Huntley-Brinkley Report” on January 16, 1963. “Yes, I have bet on ballgames,” Karras said. On games in which you were playing? he was asked. “Yes, I have.”
That same month, Paul Hornung was called into the league offices to answer questions about whether he, too, had gambled on football. Hornung even submitted to a lie-detector test. “The Golden Boy,” mere days after Green Bay’s second consecutive championship, at first denied the allegations but soon admitted to an NFL investigator that yes, he had placed bets on Packers games.
As ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” uncovered last week written evidence that Pete Rose bet on baseball while still a player — a violation he had denied for decades — comparisons were made to the Hornung-Karras gambling scandal that rocked the National Football League half a century ago. The question is raised: Why has Rose been a baseball pariah for 26 years, while Hornung is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Karras, who died in 2012, is remembered fondly?
The answer goes beyond the differences in the ways baseball and football are perceived by the fans and presented by the media. Simply put, Hornung and Karras are a lot more likable than Rose in the court of public opinion — mainly because they were honest.
They paid for that honesty, too.
Hornung, the versatile halfback who had been league MVP in 1961, and Karras, a standout defensive tackle later named to the league’s All-Decade Team, were suspended for the entire 1963 season by NFL czar Pete Rozelle. Having met the good-behavior requirements set forth by the commissioner, Hornung and Karras resumed their playing careers in 1964 after Rozelle reinstated them.
Hornung placed his bets through Bernard (Barney) Shapiro, a businessman whom he had befriended at the end of his senior season at Notre Dame. Shapiro split his time between San Francisco and Las Vegas, where his investments included a pinball and slot company called United Coin Machine. After Hornung joined Green Bay in 1956, Shapiro would call him to ask: How do you think the Packers will do this week? By 1959, Hornung was both giving information to help Shapiro with his own bets and asking Shapiro to place bets for him. Shapiro, however, was not a bookie, and Hornung’s wagers were often on the Packers. “Not once did I ever bet against us,” Hornung said.
The wagers were made in Vegas, so they weren’t illegal — except that they violated the terms and conditions of an NFL player’s contract. “I did wrong,” Hornung said at the time. “I should be penalized.”
Sportswriter Dick Schaap recalled that he witnessed Hornung placing a bet on the Packers; when Green Bay covered the point spread, Hornung’s payoff was just $100. And Packers teammate Ron Kramer, likewise reasoning that Hornung’s bets were harmless, had implored Hornung not to incriminate himself at the NFL’s interrogation. “Why he did, I don’t know,” Kramer said. “I guess because he’s an honorable man.”
The same cannot be said of Pete Rose. As columnist Rick Reilly put it in Sports Illustrated in 1993, “Born without shame, Rose does not spend a whole lot of time with regret.”
He’s certainly had more than his share of regrettable moments. In 1990, a year after he was banned from baseball for life by commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, Rose tarnished his image even more and damaged his standing in baseball circles even further when he pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Pete served five months in a federal prison camp, but his issues with the IRS didn’t stop there. In 2004, he was hit with a nearly $1 million lien for unpaid back taxes.
Rose also has associated with a convicted drug dealer and other characters so shady that when Rose managed the Reds, his own players felt uncomfortable around them. Ted Power, a pitcher on Rose’s Reds teams, said he “thought they were Pete’s bodyguards.” And despite a directive from the commissioner prohibiting anyone except club personnel and accredited media from entering a major-league clubhouse, Rose routinely invited his posse behind closed doors. As another former Reds player put it, “I was scared. I didn’t like the kind of people Pete had around him. You would think that a guy of his reputation and stature would be more careful who he’s friends with. But Pete didn’t care.”
Not until 2004 did Rose admit to gambling on baseball, and even then he did so on his own terms. He said he did it only as a manager, and he made the “confession” within the pages of his autobiography. That’s Pete “Charlie Hustle” for you — he’ll tell you the truth, but he wants you to shell out 25 bucks for the hardcover version of it.
Published in 2004, Rose’s book is titled My Prison Without Bars. Karras has written an autobiography, too. Its title: Even Big Guys Cry. It was published in 1978, three years after Karras played George Zaharias, husband of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, in the made-for-TV movie “Babe.” Karras fell in love with the actress who played the title role, Susan Clark, and soon life was imitating art. The couple married, and from 1983 to ’89, they starred together in the situation comedy “Webster,” about a retired football player who adopts a black child, the orphaned young son of a former teammate.
Karras’ most memorable screen role, however, was as Mongo — “only pawn in game of life” — punching a horse in the 1974 Mel Brooks western spoof “Blazing Saddles.” Karras in the mid-’70s also became a commentator in the “Monday Night Football” booth, where he made Howard Cosell chuckle by singing a capella and remarked that Otis Sistrunk, a defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders whose head was completely shaven, looked as if he had played college ball at “the University of Mars.”
Alex Karras made people laugh. Pete Rose makes them groan.
When Karras starred with his real-life wife on “Webster,” he was considered a “lovable TV dad” and the series lasted six years. When Rose appeared with his fiancee in “Pete Rose: Hits and Mrs.” in 2013, the reality show was largely ignored and bombed after just six episodes.
Rose, then 71, co-starred with model Kiana Kim, a buxom beauty roughly half his age who has posed nude for Playboy. One episode deals with Kim’s breast reduction — “It’s no problem. She’s still bigger than most girls,” Rose says, trying to hide his disappointment. In another episode, Kim and her two children, ages 14 and 11, are visiting Cooperstown with Pete, and when they ask whether he’ll join them as they enter the Hall of Fame, Rose says he won’t unless he’s invited. As Pete is left standing on the sidewalk, Kim says, “Because he is this tough guy, he just can’t show to the rest of the world how much it’s hurting. And … it hurts.”
A weak attempt at sympathy if ever there was one. Just another reason why “Charlie Hustle,” in sharp contrast to “The Golden Boy” and “Mongo,” is a very difficult gambler to like.
Filed June 28, 2015
America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, by Michael MacCambridge, Anchor Books (2005).
Paper Lion, by George Plimpton, Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster (1966, 1967)
Sunday’s Heroes: NFL Legends Talk About the Times of Their Lives, by Richard Whittingham, Triumph Books (2003, 2004).
When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, by David Maraniss, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster (1999).
“Rose’s Grim Vigil” by Craig Neff and Jill Lieber, Sports Illustrated, April 3, 1989.
“A Rose Is a Rose” by Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated, Aug. 16, 1993.
CNN.com; thebiglead.com; bleacherreport.com; talkoffamenetwork.com; The Associated Press.