The very earliest days of professional wrestling in this country stretch back over a century ago, with some of the first promoted matches taking place in a post-Civil War United States. While this puts it well ahead of other popular contemporary sports like football and basketball, the beginnings of baseball stretch back even further. While this is certainly not going to be a thorough and complete look at the history of baseball and wrestling, you’d think with the two existing concurrently for so long, maybe there would be a little more overlap?
In the baseball world throughout the mid 1970s–1980s, there weren’t many bigger names than Pete Rose. “Charlie Hustle” was one of the greatest to ever play the game, though his actual legacy would be much different than that of a baseball player. Officially recognized as Major League Baseball’s all time hits king, Rose would be effectively banished from the game following an incident where he was found to have been betting on the very team he was managing. What it’s meant is that despite being an iconic figure of the sport’s history, Pete Rose has never been inducted into the hallowed Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. This has remained a point of contention for baseball purists and progressives alike, as whether he should one day be allowed to enter or remain on the outside is still debated to this day.
This brings us to March 29, 1998 and the evening of WrestleMania 14. Prior to the semi-main event, Howard Finkel excitedly welcomed Pete Rose to the ring, much to the chagrin of the assembled Boston crowd. Finkel notes Rose as one of the all time greats and includes he was “undoubtedly, a future Hall of Famer!” before handing the ring announcing duties off to him. Rose, decked out in a tuxedo and large grin, gave a double thumbs up as he power walked down the aisle. He entered to some genuine late-’90s Jim Johnston filler music, like the first draft of the theme to LiveWire or something, electric symbol crashes and all.
Pete Rose then cuts, in 1998, what amounts to a blistering heel promo on the city of Boston. He mentioned that the last time he was here, he kicked their ass, and mentioned they cannot win a World Series. While the Red Sox would break their “curse” five years later and win their first championship since trading Babe Ruth, in 1999 those were fighting words to Beantown Boys or Girls. Rose mentioning that his “friend” Bucky Dent sent his regards, or that he left tickets for Bill Buckner, who “couldn’t pick them up” is the kind of smarky baseball talk I bet Vince Russo broke several pencils trying to write down fast enough when he thought of it.
This, of course, got nuclear heat. After some more crowd work, Rose went to start his ring announcing duties when he was cut off as the lights went out. As Kane made his way to the ring to face the Undertaker, Rose stood in the ring and appeared awestruck at the sight of Kane. Before anything else could happen, Kane grabed Pete Rose as if to chokeslam him. He ultimately thought better of that . . . then delivered a Tombstone Piledriver to the Hit King himself.
This came off wonderfully live, as the crowd went absolutely crazy when Kane actually did the move. I don’t know if they figured it wouldn’t actually happen, but it did. Rose sold like death, lying unconscious with his eyes close as referees swarm to check on him. Kane stood menacingly to the side, as a proud Paul Bearer held him off from doing any more damage. This also worked well on television, as Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler both howled in disbelief on commentary at what Kane had done. Years later on his podcast, Ross implied Pete took his payment in cash that night so he could hit the casinos afterwards.
As they rolled the completely rag-dolled and unresponsive Pete Rose onto a stretcher, Kane looked like the kind of psycho that could just maybe win his blood feud with the Undertaker. Beyond its immediate impact, over the years this has been considered a vanguard WrestleMania moment. This moment was the kind of dragon the company would continue to chase for years, whether with other celebrities, or with Rose himself.
Kane would end up losing that night to the Undertaker, who would do pretty well at WrestleMania over the years. Kane would be a fixture at many more WrestleManias, too, including the very next year where he faced Triple H. As he made his way to the ring, bathed in the traditional red light he’s used for decades, he would be suddenly attacked by… the San Diego Chicken?
Sigh. OK, so for the record, WrestleMania 15 took place in Philadelphia, Penn., and San Diego is roughly 2,700 miles from Philadelphia. Now that we’ve established that, a little about the San Diego Chicken: While primarily the San Diego Padres mascot, the SD Chicken is somewhat of a pioneer. The character is considered quite influential to what we see in mascots nowadays, perhaps a little rougher around the edges than the more clean cut Philly Fanatic, though, who’s from, ya know, Philadelphia.
While it’s hard to know whether WWE intended for the hometown Phanatic to attack Pete Rose, it’s not hard to imagine the Phillies organization quietly declining to get involved. It’s also not hard to imagine a certain promotor shouting into a telephone somewhere in Stamford, Connecticut “GODDAMNIT, GET ME THE SAN DIEGO CHICKEN!!”
When we left off at WrestleMania 15, the San Diego Chicken had just attacked Kane before his match. Kane would shrug this attack off pretty quickly, and unmask the Chicken to reveal none other than Pete Rose! This did not go over nearly as well live, as only some of the crowd recognized Rose after the unmasking. Most people just thought it was some guy in a chicken suit. Kane would quickly serve up another Tombstone Piledriver and performed his lovely four post pyro taunt to close.
This moment was the kind of dragon the company would continue to chase for years, whether with other celebrities, or with Rose himself.
This was not meant to be the end of their blood feud however, as the trilogy would be completed at WrestleMania 2000 in Anaheim, California. After falling slightly down the card the year before, Rose would again appear following the semi-main event of the show, as Kane and Rikishi defeated Road Dogg and X-Pac in a tag match. Since this was the year 2000, Scott Taylor and Brian Christopher joined Rikishi in the ring for a celebratory dance, as was the style at the time. The trio were joined by . . . The San Diego Chicken! And it makes much more geographic sense this time!
Kane, who was still hanging around after all the dancing, was suspicious and immediately attacked the Chicken, backing him into a corner with a choke. Suddenly, a wild Pete Rose appeared and attempted to swing a baseball bat at Kane. Say what you will about the strategy beforehand, but at least he came prepared for a fight this time. Rikishi would grab the bat from Rose before Kane hit him with a chokeslam. The humiliation didn’t stop there, as Paul Bearer did a wildly out-of-character series of crotch chops directed at Rose before the ultimate indignity of the Attitude Era befell him: a Stinkface from the big, bad Samoan.
In 2004, Pete Rose would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, in a bit I am certain Vince McMahon cooked up back in 1998 to one day grab some publicity for the idea of “putting Pete Rose in a Hall of Fame . . . but not the one you’re thinking of!” Rose was inducted by—who else?—Kane. Beyond this, Rose would make one final appearance as one of the guest hosts during the abysmal 2010 season of Monday Night RAW.
When we look at the crossover of baseball with professional wrestling, we have examples such as WWE jobber character Abe “Knuckleball” Schwartz. We have instances where former players such as Johnny Damon appeared at Total Nonstop Action’s BaseBrawl show. We have whatever AJ Pierzynski did for that same company. But no baseball crossover was ever more ambitious than the seven year plan to put Pete Rose in the WWE Hall of Fame.