What better time to examine the history of the Hall of Fame than in baseball's Steroid Era -- a time when the very "integrity of the game" has been called into question?
That is exactly what Zev Chafets does in his new book, "Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame," tracing the beginnings of the hall up until the present with a critical eye on the institution that was meant to represent the best of the American pastime.
Chafets renders a very interesting history of the hall going back to the beginnings of baseball and the small and quiet little village of Cooperstown, N.Y., itself.
There is the debate about the origins of the game -- whether it was a descendant of the English game rounders and where the game was first played in the U.S. He debunks the myth that the first game was played at Cooperstown and invented by Abner Doubleday. He also gives a portrayal of the town -- and how the leading family, the Clarks, worked toward drawing the Hall of Fame to it with the institution opening in 1939.
That Chafets, who has written 11 books and is best known for his Middle Eastern coverage, loves baseball (and his hometown Detroit Tigers), there is no doubt. But here he gives a very fair and critical view of the hall, recalling the tribute not only to the game, but some of the more unsavory characters who were admitted -- such as the racist Ty Cobb, who holds the major league record for highest career batting average.
In fact, race is an important part of this book, because Chafets discusses the long omission of blacks from major league play and the inclusion of a special wing in the hall dedicated to the players of the Negro Leagues.
In the course of the book, he also questions the effectiveness of the new generation of baseball statistical experts -- like the legendary Bill James -- who have developed new ways of determining a player's ability. James has gone from writing a private newsletter about baseball statistics to being an executive with the Boston Red Sox.
Chafets calls other prodigious number-crunching researchers "The Monks," equating them with clerics who remove themselves from the world to devote themselves heart and soul to every conceivable aspect of baseball.
He describes what he sees as the moral shortcomings of many of the players who were voted into the hall. He cites a number of alcoholics, racists and cheaters that the baseball writers have voted in over the years. (A name must be on 75% of ballots submitted to be elected.)
He discusses the provision called Rule 5, the so-called "Character Clause," which was created to keep out players who might have been too outspoken or have a questionable history. The biggest controversy the hall faces today is if Steroid Age superstars such as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds will be inducted.
In fact Chafets includes two chapters on Bonds and Clemens. He uses the Bonds case as a launching point to further discuss 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.
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.
In the chapter devoted to Clemens, he writes excellent reportage on the Mitchell Commission, headed by former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, charged with investigating steroids in baseball. Chafets actually advocates for their use in the major leagues, albeit with safeguards, as in their administration only by team doctors.
"Honesty, not fake purity, is what baseball players should be displaying to young fans," he writes. "Right now, every player is a suspected cheater. Legalize the use of [performance enhancing drugs], and the cloud goes away."
The majority of baseball writers will simply not agree.
Speer is a freelance writer.