- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

COOPERSTOWN CONFIDENTIAL: HEROES, ROGUES, AND THE INSIDE STORY OF THE BASEBALL HALL OF FAME
By Zev Chafets
Bloomsbury USA, $25, 237 pages

AMERICAN ICON: THE FALL OF ROGER CLEMENS AND THE RISE OF STEROIDS IN AMERICA’S PASTIME
By Teri Thompson, Nathaniel Vinton, Michael O’Keefe, and Christian Red
Knopf, $26.95, 454 pages
REVIEWED BY ALLEN BARRA

Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., promotes itself as the place fans go for an escape from the often ugly realities of the game. But as veteran journalist and novelist Zev Chafets proves in “Cooperstown Confidential,” the reality is that the Hall of Fame (HOF) is more like a repository of everything baseball would like to forget. One year, he attended the HOF induction ceremony only to encounter, among the former players, “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 into the Hall, a well-known and highly arrested drunk driver, and a couple of nasty bean ball artists. They had been washed clean by the magical powers of Cooperstown.”

The town of Cooperstown, writes Mr. Chafets “works hard to maintain itself as what its leading citizen, Jane Forbes Clark, calls, ‘A wonderfully accurate record of 19th-century American architectural history.’” The village may be pristine, but some of the legends within its most famous buildings are often sanitized. Babe Ruth, for instance, was once suspended for using a corked bat and consumed huge amounts of alcohol at a time when it was manifestly illegal.

Two other immortals, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, once conspired to fix a baseball game, a fact that baseball commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis chose to ignore - but then, Cobb, Ruth, the virulent racist Cap Anson, Rogers Hornsby (a Ku Klux Klan member labeled by historian Bill James as perhaps the biggest “horse’s ass” in baseball history, and other great stars were all inducted into the HOF before the institution’s Character Clause was adopted. The Hall of Fame’s errors, as Mr. Chafets makes clear, go beyond ignoring the sins of some of its greatest players.

One of the book’s most eye-opening chapters reveals in detail how the powers that control the HOF - clearly the commissioner’s office - have always pulled the strings behind the curtain, a fact that is never openly admitted. The most notorious example of this is the shutting out of Marvin Miller, the man who founded the Major League Baseball Players Association and who, in the famous words of announcer Red Barber, “ranks with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson as one of the three most important men in baseball history.”

Year after year, the HOF has found a way to manipulate the rules to keep Miller from being given his rightful plaque; last year they even found a way to vote in former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the man who was bested by Miller in every labor issue. In the view of another former commissioner Fay Vincent, “Choosing Kuhn and not Miller was like putting Custer in the Little Big Horn Hall of Fame instead of Sitting Bull.”

“Cooperstown Confidential” is bold, intelligent, gutsy. Mr. Chafets is strongest on what is soon to be the next controversy of the Hall: There is, as he points out, “No proof at all that steroids … improve baseball performance in a way that challenges the competitive balance of the game. … I didn’t say there were not anecdotes, urban legends, theories, supposition or accusations. I’m talking about actual empirical data.”

The four New York Daily News reporters who wrote “American Icon” should have read Mr. Chafets’ book first, because those things are just about all that comprise this book. If you don’t like Roger Clemens - and there’s always been enough who have never liked the intimidating right-handed fireballer to make one question why the authors would call him an “icon” - the book is a treasure trove of unflattering innuendoes. (For instance: He once threw a pitch high and inside to his own son, a minor league prospect and “Clemens may not have publicly identified himself as a Republican … [but] the GOP was the team he rooted for,” it being assumed that this was something evil.)

Beyond this kind of gossip-mongering, the reader will find little evidence that Mr. Clemens took any kind of performance enhancing drugs beyond what we already knew, or that his own real accuser is his former trainer, Brian McNamee, who is described by the Daily News writers as “not a perfect witness” (rather an understatement for a former drug dealer who lied about his 2001 sexual assault case).

That’s more evidence than the authors can present that any kind of drug use actually boosted Mr. Clemens’ performance. Much space is devoted to Mr. Clemens’ “freakish, late career surge,” when, as numerous analysts have pointed out, there wasn’t any. Typical of the level of investigative reporting in “American Icon” is the citing of a Gallup Poll that only 31 percent of those surveyed thought that Mr. Clemens was telling the truth when he testified at a congressional hearing that he had never used performance enhancing drugs.

In a news world that increasingly accepts trial-by-tabloid, this kind of lazy reporting is accepted as journalism. Just take a poll and convince readers of what they already think. Never mind that what they think is based in large part on what the tabloids have already written. One justifies the other, and so the anecdotes and urban legends are transformed into fact.

Allen Barra’s latest book is “Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee,” just out from W.W. Norton.

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