So, think you know everything there is to know about the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and the players who inhabit it by virtue of . . . their virtues?
Guess again. Zev Chafets dissects the method by which players are inducted (elected, if you will) and indicts the process, the voters and the people for whom they vote in Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball of Fame (Bloomsbury, New York, NY, 2009).
That’s where the media come in: They (we) are the voters and we haven’t done a very good job, according to Mr. Chafets, whose other works include Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit and the equally press-damning Double Vision: How America’s Press Distorts Our View of the Middle East.
Despite his repeated condemnations of the press in his books, Mr. Chafets is still a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and is a former columnist for the New York Daily News. No wonder he knows how unreliable, inconsistent and twofaced we can be—he’s hung out with us long enough.
But enough of what he would consider good news about sports media. Chafets has issues with everything and everybody.
Start with the process. The Hall of Fame, he notes, is the only [End Page 85] one in any major sport that has a “Rule 5:” Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which he played.” Perhaps it’s called “Rule 5” because it was passed in 1944, five years after the Hall opened and welcomed its first class, or because that’s the number of years you’re supposed to be retired before becoming eligible.
Or maybe it’s because the people who vote for membership have five times the ego of the people coming up for prospective membership. As ballplayers and writers have drifted apart over the years, especially because of the gaudy amounts of money the players make, the writers only way to “strike back” over being socially ostracized and financially down-classed is to be bastards over their HoF votes, Chafets argues.
After a long history of traveling with teams, even rooming with players on the road and socializing with them freely and openly, now, snotty PR types and big-time money have driven a spike between writers and players. And despite “Rule 5,” Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) members regularly looked the other way when drunks, racists, criminals, cheaters, spousal-abusers and generally bad guys came up for membership; men like Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Cap Anson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and even Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.
Writers’ vested interests in making sure their local heroes looked good was necessary to sell papers which helped keep stadiums full which helped keep team coffers full which helped generate more media coverage and you see where the loop goes from there. From Grantland Rice (“When athletes are no longer heroes to you anymore, it’s time to stop writing sports”) to Marvin (super-union founder) Miller (“Adding new people dilutes the total,” of HoF members, that is), the high-profiled have maintained the veil that BBWAA voters were smart to enact “Rule 5” but even smarter to acknowledge the unwritten Rule 6: That they would be stupid to live by it or think about it when voting.
Chafets uses HoF’er Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins [End Page 86] as his cause celebre to make his point. Puckett, a Hall of Famer on stats and on the field if there ever was one, had his career cut short by glaucoma. He then had his reputation undercut by allegations of and a trial for assault against the women in his life, especially the ones with whom he engaged in extra-marital affairs.
The local beat writers knew all about it but it took Sports Illustrated to break the story, a national publication. The local media couldn’t afford to alienate the ultimately popular...