Sportswriters have to write something down, find a new angle that other people aren't writing about, so they sometimes back themselves into these corners just for controversy's sake. I get that. Still, you are responsible for what you write, ultimately, so you don't have a good excuse if you write something stupid. When Rickey Henderson was just elected to the Hall of Fame, lots of people referred to him as the greatest leadoff hitter ever. That could be true. But just for controversy, ESPN suggested that Pete Rose might be a better leadoff hitter.
Please, no. Let's not even have that discussion. I admit I have always liked to kick Pete Rose because he's a jerk, but this is just not an intelligent conversation. And the easiest way to illustrate that to you is to compare Rose to a player that you would never in a hundred years consider the best leadoff hitter of all time, and see that Rose loses that comparison.
Carl Yastrzemski would be a better leadoff hitter for your all-star team than Pete Rose. I am not joshing you here. Their careers overlapped almost entirely, eliminating the need to make cross-era comparisons. Everyone gets excited by Rose's 4000+ hits and .300+ batting average, so they figure that of course you would bat him leadoff over Yaz. But you wouldn't. We now know that on-base percentage is a more valuable number than batting average, and Rose is behind Yaz, .379 - .375. Those walks add up over time, and Rose didn't walk much. Yaz did. 300 times more in his career.
Sure it looks really cool, with Charlie Hustle running down to first base on a walk, with the announcers cooing about how he gets on base any way he can, but in strict point of fact, he didn't actually get on base more than Yaz.
Once on base, both of them tried to steal some bases and shouldn't have bothered. We now know that stolen bases are only valuable is you make it 70% of the time, and neither approached that. Yaz stole 168 in 284 attempts, for a 59% average. Rose was worse, stealing 198 out of 347 for 57%.
I am, you will notice, comparing them only as leadoff hitters. I am comparing Rose's strength to Yaz out of place in the lineup, and Rose still loses. It gets worse. If you made Carl Yastrzemski bat leadoff his whole career, if you told him that getting on base was more important to your team than power, do you think he might have done just a bit better still? Already leading Rose in the most important categories, wouldn't he start to pull away even more? At least 40 more AB per season, too. It adds up.
Of course, with Yaz you get power, too. 100 fewer doubles, 80 fewer triples, and 260 more home runs.
Pete Rose is not in the conversation for best leadoff hitter of all time.