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Pete Rose and the role of TV in his arrival: 35 years ago today

Pete Rose was signed as a free agent by the Phillies on December 5th, 1978, and little WPHL-17 was a big reason why.

Two days earlier, the Phillies had announced the dramatic signing of Pete Rose away from the Cincinnati Reds, the only team he had known in his 16-year career, but it was made official 35 years ago today, on December 5th, 1978.

The deal made Rose the highest paid player in baseball: 4 years, $3.2 million, $800,000 per year. Rose was being signed for his age 38-41 seasons, and the advanced stats tell a mixed story:

1979 (38): .331/.418/.430 (134 wRC+, 3.4 fWAR) - led league in OBP
1980 (39): .282/.352/.354 (100 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR)
1981 (40): .325/.391/.390 (124 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR) - led league in hits
1982 (41): .271/.345/.338 (92 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR)

He was then extended for one more year:
1983 (42): .245/.316/.286 (68 wRC+, -1.9 fWAR)

His fWAR was depressed by defensive ratings that averaged 8 runs below average over his five years in a Phillies uniform, but his hitting was actually very good in two of the first four years, and about average the other two. His additional year in 1983 was awful, and I'm sure many wrote him off, but he still went on to post wRC+s of 101 and 107 in his age 43 and 44 seasons, including a .395 OBP at age 44.

The story of Rose's time in Philadelphia is of course much bigger than those stats -- as the narrative puts it, he took a team that was very good, but which couldn't get through the playoffs, and put them over the top. He was signed after they had just been bounced from the NLCS for the third year in a row, but he "taught them how to win", and was instrumental in bringing home the franchise's first championship in its 98-year history.

In the late 1970s there was much less money in the game than there is today, and free agency was still in its infancy. 88Lindros88 has done an excellent job in laying out here and here the current TV landscape and its impact on baseball's finances (and those of the Phillies in particular), but what I had forgotten, and haven't heard discussed recently, was the role that television played in bringing Rose to Philadelphia.

An article on this from Sports Illustrated in January 1979, titled The Greenbacking of Pete Rose, is fascinating -- quaint in some ways, but at the same time prophetic about the impact that TV was already starting to have, and its huge potential:

The dramatic deal in which Pete Rose moved from the Cincinnati Reds to the Philadelphia Phillies is still sending ripples through baseball, from the hot stove to the bank vault. The transaction has been widely discussed since it was announced last Dec. 3, but one aspect that hasn't attracted much analysis has to do with the crucial role that television played in making it all happen.

The influence of TV—specifically, the influence of WPHL-TV, the Phillies' local outlet—was unprecedented. The charismatic power of Rose as a force in raising the ratings of WPHL-TV's baseball telecasts, and consequently the station's advertising revenues, was paramount in striking the deal. The motives were the same that prevail when a TV station hires a hot newscaster or talk-show host: the buying of a star to get a quick jump of a point or two in the ratings.

Essentially the Phillies had drawn the line at 3 years/$2.2 million in their negotiations with Rose and wouldn't go higher, but WPHL-TV agreed to guarantee $600,000 of additional ad revenues (3/4 of Rose's annual salary) for the first three years of the contract. Station general manager Steve McCurdy pitched it to WPHL's owners based on the anticipation that Rose's presence would raise viewership enough to increase ad revenues and make the deal profitable:

As it turned out, the Providence Journal Co. had bought the station only days earlier; insiders say that the former owners of WPHL-TV would have said no. But the Journal Co. said yes. And so did Pete Rose a couple of days later.

Would that team have won a championship without Rose? Given the age of the team, and how difficult it is to go all the way, probably not. That's not to say that Rose was the reason they won, only that to win a championship requires all the stars to align, and changing any one significant component likely would have meant that they would have fallen short.

In addition, the SI article linked above had some other interesting bits:

  • In late November 1978, Rose went on a Lear jet tour from city to city selling his services, and (according to another article) showing teams a 25-minute film about how great he was.
  • He supposedly had a higher offer from Ted Turner, owner of the Braves and the burgeoning WTCG (soon to be renamed TBS, the Super Station) of $1 million for "three years, four years, five years, whatever you want," but turned it down to take the Phillies' deal.
  • In addition to a share of ad revenue, the entirety of the Phillies' TV deal, which they had only recently signed, was for only $1.35 million per year.
Times certainly have changed.