Book Review: Cooperstown Confidentialby Chris Jaffe
June 22, 2009
"Nothing drains an institution's integrity like fake claims to integrity."
- Zev Chafets, Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rouges, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame, page 195.
I told myself I was going to get into this. The plan was to take some time off the subject. Last year, I wrote a slew of columns about baseball's Hall of Fame. In general I'm pretty proud of my herds of words, but it got to feel like a crutch. "In case of emergency, break glass and plop out another 2,000 words on the Hall. Repeat as necessary." Since finishing up with this year's election in January, I've consciously stayed away from the topic.
Yet here I am, getting drawn back in. I was offered a chance to review a new book on Cooperstown, and I must admit it piqued my curiosity: Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame, by Zev Chafets.
The title might make it sound like a warmed-over version of Bill James' seminal The Politics of Glory (alternately called Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?), in which James goes over the Hall's history to understand who got in, who didn't, and why its numerous mistakes have been made. It may very well be James' finest work.
However, this is not some warmed over rehashing of James' book. Chafets looks almost exclusively at contemporary issues facing Cooperstown, so it covers different ground from Bill James' 15-year-old work: the reconfiguration of the Veterans Committee, Barry Bonds and steroids, Marvin Miller's exclusion, controversies involving former Hall head Dale Petrosky, and the financial perks of Hall-of-Famerdom.
Also, Chafets doesn't portray himself as a baseball expert, a la Bill James. He clearly is a fan of the game—and a passionate one—make no mistake about it, but his focus is different. This isn't a book about if the Hall inducted the right players. (The one time Chafets delves heavily into those waters provides the weakest part of the book.) Instead, it's more about how other items unrelated to on-field merits impact selection.
James covered these items as well, (it was called Politics of Glory, after all), but his eye was ultimately on if the right players got inducted. Chafets isn't indifferent to that, but ultimately, it's more about the process. In other words, this book is arguably more heavily about the politics of glory than The Politics of Glory was.
Confidential's main theme is an assault on Rule 5 in Cooperstown's instructions for election. This rule states that "integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s)" are to be considered pertinent for enshrinement. Chafets feels this is a bogus rule arbitrarily defined and enforced. He believes that numerous players already enshrined in the Hall don't belong in Cooperstown, depending on how one defines terms like character and integrity.
For Chafets, there is no real moral dimension to being a Hall of Famer. We like to think there is, and people frequently say that is the case, and the Hall itself surely likes to claim so—it just ain't.
Claiming otherwise has important repercussions. First, it makes the athletic heroes seem like actual heroes—people you can look up to based on the content of their character rather than merely the quantification of their stats. People want to think nice things about what their sporting heroes are like as people because we already look up to them for their abilities, even though we ultimately know that's not a good reason.
Second, and far more importantly, adding on the moral dimension creates considerable layers of hypocrisy. Chafets captures this discrepancy between reality and rhetoric at the 2007 Induction Weekend. Kicking off the day's festivities, Jane Forbes Clark, who controls the Hall (and much of Cooperstown as well) declared to the 80,000 assembled fans, "The men behind me define Hall of Fame character, integrity, sportsmanship, and incredible baseball careers." Chafets notes:
"I couldn't help but wonder how much Ms. Clark actually knew about the men she had introduced with such sincerity. Many of them were, indeed, men of high character and unblemished reputation. But among them I counted 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 in the Hall, a well-known and highly arrested drunk driver, and a couple of nasty beanball artists. They had been washed clean by the magical powers of Cooperstown."
The rest of the book voyages to where the ideals for what the Hall of Fame aspires (or merely claims) to be with what it actually is. This leads to a critical appraisal of the Hall. (In that regard, it is similar to Politics of Glory.)
In some ways, the entire book serves as a preface for its final chapter, in which Chafets takes on the question of steroids. Given the main thrust of the book, it's little surprise to find out he thinks the concern over performance-enhancing drugs is badly overblown. More than that, he thinks it hurts the Hall's credibility, as noted by the quote at the top of this article.
He makes several points to back up his contention. First, players have long been using drugs, most famously amphetamines, to help themselves out—citing various anecdotes and evidence from Jim Brosnan's The Long Season and Jim Bouton's Ball Four.
For example, Chafets notes Mickey Mantle used to get shots consisting of "a home-brewed serum of thirty to fifty milligrams of amphetamine mixed with multivitamins, steroids, enzymes, and solubilized placenta, bone marrow, and animal organ cells" from a Manhattan practitioner nicknamed "Dr. Feelgood."
Chafets' main contention is that either the Hall will have to get out of the morality business and dump Rule 5, or future elections will only highlight the Hall's traditional disconnect between its avowed interest in character and its actual precedents for standards. Chafets believes this disconnect will only diminish Cooperstown's overall credibility and importance to baseball fandom.
The book is at its best when it discusses financial matters circling Cooperstown. Upon election to the Hall of Fame, former players can affix the letters "HOF" to their signatures, and double or triple their signing fees. They can similarly upgrade their take from public speaking and product endorsement.
The above paragraph contains much that was familiar to me, but Chafets takes it a step further and notes that many players have consultants run what are essentially campaign operations on their behalf. It's a tricky thing to negotiate. Anyone seeming too eager or pushy will risk a backlash from the BBWAA writers, who guard the main door for election. Then again, don't do enough and one might fall out of sight, out of mind. Sometimes teams even get involved.
If a person was a good enough player and/or had a smooth enough campaign operating on his behalf to win him enshrinement, the financial angle becomes especially interesting. Beginning in 1995, the immortals have received a cut from the Hall's own memorabilia. That is worth $6,000,000 in all (and counting), which is evenly divvied up among all living enshrines.
That is especially key because in 2001 the Hall blew up the old Veterans Committee, replacing it with a new super-sized body consisting of all living Hall of Famers (as well as writers and broadcasters honored by Cooperstown). The members of this super-duper VC have a very real financial interest in denying membership to others.
And sure enough, the super-sized committee has yet to elect anyone (though some truncated version in charge of particular areas, such as non-players, has finally elected some players this century). Many of the Famers are very wealthy, but not all of them are. At any rate, more Hall of Famers also dilutes the "HOF" brand for autograph shoppers.
The book does have one annoying feature: I think Chafets gets a little carried away with his caustic attitude. Any time an issue is brought up, he shows how it creates a tension between the Hall's official standards and stature and reality. By and large this works well, but seems reflexive.
For example, one chapter uses Barry Bonds as a jumping off point for dealing with race and Cooperstown. Chafets spends most of the chapter arguing (or at least implying) that black players are held to different standards for enshrinement, citing a multitude of borderline players who are on the outside looking in.
Chafets notes the accomplishments of players like Dave Parker, Dick Allen, and Albert Belle, and then mentions whatever arguments have been made on their behalf over the years (whether by themselves or others) before concluding that they would make reasonable Hall of Famers.
One can make a good argument about the role race plays in the Hall game, but this doesn't do it. Just because Dave Parker asserts that he was the best player in baseball from 1985 to 1990 doesn't mean it's true. (Really, Parker is quoted saying that.) Quoting Parker's numbers and personal opinion is insufficient. You need more context. While he had numbers similar to a lot of Hall of Famers, he also had numbers similar to a lot of those who aren't enshrined. You could just as easily focus on Dale Murphy or Alan Trammell or Bert Blyleven or Don Mattingly. That's the nature of a gray area: valid information exists to support both the pro and con sides.
There are a series of minor errors made throughout. Chafets says Rich Gossage was inducted in his 15th and final year of eligibility. He says Jim Bunning threw a no-hitter (Bunning threw two—one a perfect game), and so on. Occasional mistakes like these are unavoidable in something as lengthy as a book, and this work isn't littered with them, but it furthers the sense that Chafets is more fan than expert.
Despite its flaws, it's a good book, if not a great one. It's the fullest argument against Rule 5 I've ever seen, and Chafets does a very effective job making his case. Personally, I have little interest in defending those nailed for using steroids, but have become increasingly weary of the overblown morally sanctimonious and shrill bombast spouted on the issue, especially since those most willing to support congressional hearings about PEDs in baseball seem utterly indifferent to the issue in any and all other sports.
Ultimately, I'm less certain than Chafets that Rule 5 will lead to a complete disaster in future voting. In my interpretation, the BBWAA functions as a 15-year conversation moving toward consensus, which helps work out these issues. That being said, the current steroids whirligig is like no other controversy the BBWAA has dealt with in the history of Cooperstown voting.
It's a book worth reading if you're interested in Cooperstown's contemporary controversies, but not if you're looking for analysis on who belongs in/out based on his playing ability.
References and Resources
Chafets, Zev. Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues,and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.