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His life-long interest in baseball came into play when he became President of the National League in 1986, and later Commissioner of Baseball in 1989. One of his main acts was the banishment for life of Pete Rose from baseball for betting on the sport and associating with known gamblers, detailed in the Dowd Report. He died, at a young age, of a heart attack weeks after banishing Rose.
Rose voluntarily accepted a permanent place on the ineligible list from commissioner Bart Giamatti following allegations presented in a March 21, 1989 Sports Illustrated article that tied him to baseball gambling, and formally detailed in the Dowd Report. Rose accepted that there was a material reason for the ban. In return, Major League Baseball agreed to make no finding of fact with regard to the gambling allegations. On February 4, 1991 the Hall of Fame voted to exclude players banned from baseball.