Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cooperstown Confidential by Zev Chafets

Zev Chafets thankfully spends little time describing the physical Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, focusing his book Cooperstown Confidential instead on the intangibles that make up the glorified institution: the collection of mortals who make up the rules, the writers who vote on the players, and those in charge who make and remake the rules every couple of years

Of course statistics count more than anything in baseball, yet a lot more goes into getting into the Hall that that: cronyism, prejudice, and financial self-interest play a large part as well. Chafets addresses a variety of factors that have influenced those who make the rules (a committee of f
ormer baseball executives and other such types) and those who vote on the players (the Baseball Writers Association of America, for which one must regularly write about baseball for a major newspaper to be a part). The current big issue surrounds players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens who have been accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs, which theoretically has given them an advantage over the competition.

Rule 5 of the Hall of Fame’s Rules for Election states that a player will be voted on based upon their ‘record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.’ Baseball writers have been keeping Mark McGwire out of the Hall by using such a clause and many are on record as saying they shall do the same for Bonds and Clemens. Yet Chafets duly notes that the Hall presently contains cheaters (spitballer Gaylord Perry), members of the Ku Klux Klan (Rogers Hornsby, Cap Anson), severe alcoholics (Three Finger Brown), and all around sociopaths (Ty Cobb, who legendarily beat up a man with no arms for heckling him). Why are these guys in and people like Bonds and McGwire likely to never make it?

In one of the best chapters in his book, Chafets uses Bonds to launch into a chapter detailing racism in the game and the evolution of blacks in the sport. There are now far fewer blacks playing in the majors than there were as recently as a decade ago while the proportion of Latinos has risen dramatically. Gary Sheffield made headlines a few years ago by claiming that baseball teams preferred signing Latino players over blacks because Latinos were less outspoken. Sheffield's controversial comments reverberated throughout the game, though his opinion has been seconded by Latino players like Neifi Perez. Then Chafets further delves into prejudice in the game going back to the Negro Leagues and the age of Jackie Robinson. Robinson lobbied for black managers in his lifetime but did not live to see his dream come to fruition.

But the piece of this book that makes it worth reading is the chapter on the Mitchell Report, the study of steroids in baseball compiled by former US Senator George Mitchell that named Clemens as a steroid user, among many others. Chafets argues convincingly for something I personally have felt all along: greatness can only be judged by evaluating one against their peers in the same time period, and as the estimates of players using PEDs often being as high as 50-75%, one can’t separate known users from unknown ones and vote accordingly. That steroids might make a great player slightly better, but definitely won't make an average player into a Hal of Famer is also emphasized.

Baseball players are just like the rest of the population, full of faults, some being worse than others. But getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame should have less to do with how nice you are or how many charities you were involved with than with what happened on the field. Chafets even goes so far as to argue that steroids could be legalized and prescribed by doctors to be taken appropriately. Seemingly, this full disclosure would remove a lot of the integrity issues that PEDs have caused. This makes a bit of sense logically, yet I doubt that this idea has any practical application.

While not the best book on the Hall of Fame, which would be Bill James’s Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, Cooperstown Confidential is engaging and addresses important and diverse issues. While the depth isn’t always what a reader might hope, one still feels a greater sense of understanding about the politics behind the institution.

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