Jockbeat: Chafets Gets Underneath Cooperstown

Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York promotes itself as the place fans go for an escape from the often ugly realities of the game. But as veteran journalist and former New York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets proves in Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the reality is that the Hall of Fame is more like a repository of everything baseball would like to forget.

One year Chafets attended the HOF induction ceremony only to encounter, among the former players, "A convicted drug dealer, a reformed cokehead who narrowly beat a lifetime suspension from baseball, a celebrated sex addict, an Elders of Zion conspiracy nut, a pitcher who wrote a book about how he cheated his way into the Hall, a well-known and highly arrested drunk driver, and a couple of nasty bean ball artists.  They had been washed clean by the magical powers of Cooperstown."

The town of Cooperstown, writes Chafets "works hard to maintain itself as what its leading citizen, Jane Forbes Clark, calls, 'A wonderfully accurate record of 19th-century American architectural history.'"  The village may be pristine, but some of the legends within its most famous buildings are often sanitized. Babe Ruth, for instance, was once suspended for using a corked bat and consumed huge amounts of alcohol at a time when it was manifestly illegal.

Two other immortals, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, once conspired to fix a baseball game, a fact which baseball commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis chose to ignore -- but then, Cobb, Ruth, the virulent racist Cap Anson, Rogers Hornsby (a Ku Klux Klan member labeled by historian Bill James as perhaps the biggest "horse's ass" in baseball history), and other great stars were all inducted into the HOF before the institution's Character Clause was adopted.

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The Hall of Fame's errors, as Chafets makes clear, go beyond ignoring the sins of some of its greatest players.  One of the book's most eye-opening chapters reveals in detail how the powers that control the HOF -- clearly the Commissioner's office -- has always pulled the strings behind the scenes, a fact which is never openly admitted. The most notorious example of this is the shutting out of Marvin Miller, the man who founded the Major League Baseball Players Association and who, in the famous words of the late announcer Red Barber, "ranks with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson as one of the three most important men in baseball history." 

Year after year, the HOF has found a way to manipulate the rules to keep Miller from being given his rightful plaque; last year they even found a way to vote in former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the man who was bested by Miller in every labor issue. In the view of another former Commissioner Fay Vincent, "Choosing Kuhn and not Miller was like putting Custer in the Little Big Horn Hall of Fame instead of Sitting Bull."

Cooperstown Confidential is bold, intelligent, and gutsy. Chafets is strongest on what is soon to be the next controversy of the Hall: there is, as he points out, "No proof at all that steroids .... improve baseball performance in a way that challenges the competitive balance of the game ... I didn't say there were not anecdotes, urban legends, theories, supposition or accusations. I'm talking about actual empirical data."

In the end, though, Chafets's attitude is one of live and let live. "The guys on the plaques in Cooperstown are a mixed bag, heroes and scoundrels just like the rest of humanity. The players who arrive in the future won't be any different. The Hall of Fame doesn't enshrine saints, and it never has. It enshrines baseball greatness. And for the millions of people who love the game, that's more than enough."


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