Cooperstown Confidential

Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story
of the Baseball Hall of Fame

By Zev Chafets

Bloomsbury USA. 237 pp. $25.

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Reviewed by Allen Barra

The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., promotes itself as the place fans go for an escape. But as veteran journalist and novelist Zev Chafets proves in

Cooperstown Confidential

, the reality is that the Hall of Fame is more like a repository of everything baseball would like to forget.

One year Chafets attended the Hall of Fame 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 beanball artists. They had been washed clean by the magical powers of Cooperstown."

That town, writes 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 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 Hall before the institution's Character Clause was adopted.

The Hall of Fame's errors, as 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 commissioner's office has always pulled the strings behind the curtain, something never openly admitted. The most notorious example concerns Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982. In the famous words of the late announcer Red Barber, Miller "ranks with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson as one of the three most important men in baseball history." Yet despite his crucial role in transforming manager-player relations, Miller so far has been shut out of the Hall - presumably because the owners dislike the union.

Year after year, the Hall 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 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."

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." Cooperstown Confidential is bold, intelligent and gutsy. As the Roger Clemens-Alex Rodriguez debates go on, Chafets may be among the first not to jump to conclusions with little or no hard evidence.

Allen Barra's latest book is "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee."