EDITOR'S NOTE: WCPO is looking back on Ken Griffey Jr.'s life growing up in Cincinnati, stunning success and Hall of Fame career. See all of our coverage at WCPO.com/griffey . Watch Sunday's induction ceremony at 1:30 p.m. ET on MLB Network or www.baseballhall.org .
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Pete Rose looked up at the boy with cancer and remembered.
After a one-year hiatus from Hall of Fame week, Rose is back signing autographs at a baseball card store two blocks from the baseball shrine that rejects him. The fans who lined up at his table included a boy he had met in Las Vegas. At the time, the boy was undergoing chemo and had lost his hair.
Rose smiled at seeing him again and reached up to lift the boy's baseball cap.
"Hey, you got hair again," the Hit King said, and the boy's face lit up.
Even though Baseball won't let Rose in the Hall of Fame, that was a Hall of Fame moment.
Rose, 75, has set up an autograph table at Hall of Fame Week nearly ever year since he was banned for gambling on Reds games.
"I missed last year, but I've been coming a lot of years. It's always a lot of fun because it's all about baseball," he said.
Rose didn't say why he missed last year, but it might have been because he had petitioned for reinstatement and didn't want to take the chance of offending new commissioner Rob Manfred. Over the years, some Hall of Famers have complained about Rose's presence, even though he stays away from official Hall events and the induction ceremony.
But Manfred rejected Rose in December, so Rose must have said what the heck and came back. His popularity has probably increased since his last visit to Cooperstown thanks to his Franchise Four appearance and ovation at the All-Star Game at Great American Ball Park last year and his TV appearances on FOX as a studio analyst. And there was Pete Rose Weekend last month when he was finally inducted in the Reds Hall of Fame and the club retired his famous No. 14.
It's not as if Rose is the only baseball great selling autographs in Cooperstown this week. Reds legends and Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Tony Perez will, too. So will Ken Griffey Sr., whose autograph must be more valuable than ever now that his son is going into the Hall on Sunday.
Autograph signing is a rite at Cooperstown, and fans who make the pilgrimage don't mind paying $50 or $75 to the stars they worshipped when they were kids. And it's not like the some of the old greats are filthy rich. Remember, these guys didn't have hundred million dollar contracts like the best players do today.
There was a nearly continuous stream of fans to Rose's table inside Safe At Home Ballpark Collectibles.
"My buddy owns it," he said of the store.
He signed for nearly two hours, but when there was a short break, he greeted us for a brief interview.
"It's nice to see Junior going in this year and, of course, (Mike) Piazza, probably the best offensive catcher ever," Rose said, then quickly added:
"But Johnny Bench is the best overall catcher ever. Get that in there."
Rose said he came to Cooperstown a day earlier than usual.
"We're pretty lucky. We got 104 teams that come up here and play a week (of) Little League Baseball, 12 and under, and a lot of them are finished today so we're getting a lot of people coming in from that tournament. That's why we're here on Wednesday," he said.
Rose planned to drive to Rochester to throw out the first pitch at the Red Wings Class AAA game Thursday night. Then it's right back to Cooperstown for the crunch of Hall of Fame visitors on Friday through Sunday.
WATCH a video of John Popovich and photographer Philip Lee talking about Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown below. And follow Popo's reports this weekend on WCPO 9 On Your Side and WCPO.com.