Cooperstown Confidential – Review

Zev Chafets. Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009. Print.

This conversational look at the goings on of the Baseball Hall of Fame has its points of interest. The best parts are simply when the author is describing chats or interviews that he had with a variety of people. We get little views of baseball players, team owners, memorabilia dealers, and record keepers.

Perhaps the most interesting people, because they are the least known, are what Cooperstown Confidential calls the monks. These are the people who maintain all the museum souvenirs and player records in the Hall of Fame. They answer about 60,000 questions a year and otherwise keep track of what went on and goes on in American baseball, especially the major leagues.

The book shares anecdotes, mostly unsavory ones, about some of the players in the Hall of Fame. However, the focus is primarily on people who had been or currently are kept out of the Hall of Fame. It tells of the injustice of keeping Negro League players out but seems mostly satisfied that the Hall, however awkwardly, has corrected this oversight.

The author goes on in some detail about the Clark family, one of the heirs of the Singer sewing machine fortune, that was and is the financial and ethical backer of the Hall of Fame. The author suggests that there might be something scandalous about the relationship of the Clarks to the Hall, but there is not. Indeed, it appears that the family, currently represented by Jane Forbes Clark, is committed to keeping the Hall family friendly and Cooperstown a small town. That might seem provincial to an international journalist like the author, but provincial is not the same as scandalous.

The author does document how the myth of Abner Doubleday’s “invention” of baseball in 1839 came about. Most people today recognize that the story is bogus, but that, too, is hardly scandalous. It was created during a time of well-publicized hokum like P. T. Barnum’s museums or Billy Cody’s wild west shows. The Hall itself did not appear until much later.

The first half of the book contains gossipy background. It is fun to read, though on the light side. The second half attempts to develop a thesis, namely, that Pete Rose and players who used steroids and illegal drugs should be considered for the Hall of Fame. His argument is that other Hall of Fame players were not exactly saints. In the eighties and nineties “everyone was doing it” so what is the big deal? That may be an oversimplification, but that is the gist of the argument.

There are a couple of anecdotes in this part of the book that do perhaps help the reader at least see a different perspective. Barry Bonds believes he has been blackballed from the Hall because he is black. In an earlier generation, Hank Aaron was threatened because of his race (though he did make the Hall on the first ballot).

My initial reaction was one of surprise. I had seen it as a question of drugs, not race. The other names usually thought of not being admitted because of steroids are Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, and Canseco—two whites and two Latinos.

However, Chafets cites a poll which shows that African Americans have a different view of things. He says that 54% of African Americans but only 20% of others believe Bonds is being discriminated against because of his race. Whether the reader agrees with Chafets appeal to give steroid users a pass, this poll reminds all readers that African Americans see things in the culture differently from other Americans.

A high school American history teacher at the school where I teach used to ask students to ask their parents what they considered the most significant events in their lifetimes. At the time (2002 to 2006) most of the parents were born in the fifties or sixties. Parents mentioned a number of events like the Kennedy assassination, the first man on the moon, the fall of the U.S.S.R. (or related events like the tearing down of the Berlin Wall), the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, among others.

What struck the history teacher was that every black parent named the O.J. Simpson trial. No white, Asian, or Latino parent did. To blacks that was an important event. Many others, especially if they were not sports fans, were indifferent. It looks like the perception Barry Bonds’ situation varies with how one views his or her own race.

Chafets suggests a similar problem for Dave Parker. Parker’s stats are similar to some other outfielders in the Hall of Fame, but he openly abused cocaine. The drug use may be the single most important factor keeping him out of the Hall.

I had mentioned elsewhere that I am a Pirates fan. Back when the behavior of Parker and other Pirates was made known, I was disappointed. I had felt that something had happened to the team after their 1979 championship, and especially after Willie Stargell retired in 1982. Most of us recognize that psychoactive drugs like cocaine do keep a person focused on himself with less concern for others. Drugs are not conducive to team unity. I am sorry Mr. Parker is bitter about it today, but news reports at the time surely suggested that the team was a mess. Friends who are Mets fans say similar things about how drugs affected the post-1986 Mets.

Chafets also suggests that Latino ballplayers have supplanted black ballplayers in the majors because they are more “compliant.” In this case there is not even anecdotal evidence. This appears to be more stereotyping of whites than anything else. It is as if somehow even in the 1980s white Americans preferred Stepin Fetchit to Richard Pryor.

The author does hint at a real reason that more and more professional baseball players are coming from south of the border. American kids, be they white or black, do not follow baseball as much as kids used to. As a teacher, I note that the kids for the most part are much better versed on football and basketball nowadays. I believe this has to with baseball management simply not caring or doing as much as the other sports to publicize the game or direct it towards younger people. On the other hand, Cooperstown Confidential dismisses a comment about Bud Selig’s lack of leadership as irrelevant.

Chafets seems to disdain one Pirate who is in the Hall of Fame, Bill Mazeroski. He does give credit to John T. Bird who advocated for Mazeroski’s inclusion, but for some reason names Bird’s book by its subtitle instead of its title, which confused me. The title is Twin Killing. It was a popular book in Pittsburgh in the 1990s. While Bird was making a case, he was also very much indebted to Bill James’ analysis of overall impact on the outcome of games. Because Mazeroski was a such a skilled fielder (a “twin killing” is a double play), even James made a case for Maz at the time.

Speaking of sabermetrics guru Bill James, his The Politics of Glory is still the best book on the admissions procedures of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That came out in 1996 before Mazeroski was admitted (2001) but shortly after Phil Rizzuto had been voted in (1994). James was skeptical of Rizzuto’s qualifications because he had played on such good Yankees teams, but James also noted that the State of New York owns an interest in the Hall of Fame, and it appears that players from New York teams have an easier time getting admitted. Twin Killing came out just a year before The Politics of Glory. When I read James’ book, I knew there had been some lobbying for Mazeroski. I said at the time that if they took in Rizzuto, they had to take in Mazeroski. Which they did.

For some chatty gossip, a plea for getting rid of the character requirement, and some background on Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame, Cooperstown Confidential is your book. For a more serious and analytical approach to Hall of Fame admission, The Politics of Glory is still the book to read.

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