Every Shrine Has Its Secrets

Zev Chafets, Author of 'Cooperstown Confidential,' on the Politics of Baseball's Hall of Fame

Big Hitters: From left, Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer and
Pete Fox, all of the Detroit Tigers, on the dugout steps at Boston’s Fenway Park in
September 1935.
getty images
Big Hitters: From left, Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer and Pete Fox, all of the Detroit Tigers, on the dugout steps at Boston’s Fenway Park in September 1935.

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Published July 21, 2009, issue of August 07, 2009.
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Zev Chafets grew up a Detroit Tiger’s fan alongside a Yiddish-speaking uncle who taught him that Hank Greenberg’s team was the Jews, and that their adversaries were the “goyim.” Since then, he has moved to Israel, where he worked in the administration of Menachem Begin, and back. He reported for the New York Times and the New York Daily News, and wrote 11 books — all the while baseball was never far from his mind. His latest book, “Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame” (Bloomsbury) recounts the historical glory of the Hall, while confronting the very modern problems it faces surrounding whom to let in and keep out. He spoke recently with the Forward’s Allison Gaudet Yarrow about the ongoing steroids controversy, Jewish players’ mafia ties and the future of America’s game.

Allison Gaudet Yarrow: What made you want to write about the Hall of Fame?

Zev Chafets: Having lived in Jerusalem for many years, I was aware that shrines all have secrets. I was interested in what the secrets were.

You advocate not keeping players out of the Hall for moral reasons, that members should be “a mixed bag of heroes and scoundrels, just like humanity.”

That’s exactly right. The Clark family who established the Hall didn’t put in any criteria for membership except the character clause — members of the Hall have to be exemplars of integrity, good character and sportsmanship. When you take today’s players who are subject to more scrutiny and transparency and compare them with the old timers, a lot of people think players today are less virtuous or worthy — that’s completely untrue. Baseball writers who tend to be aging white men use the character clause as a way to punish people. They’re using the use of steroids as a means of excommunicating players they don’t like.

What do you have to do to get in to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

It helps to play in New York, which is where the bulk of the sports writers and national attention are located. Another thing is to have a great nickname. This is a lot about image. A third thing is that you have to be very nice to baseball writers who are the voters. If you’re not you might never get in even though you belong there. Players have begun to take agents and managers … others hire political consultants to run campaigns for them. The dictator of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez hired a lobbyist in Washington to try to get Dave Concepción into the Hall of Fame.

So it’s like running for office?

It’s like running for office in a secret campaign because the convention is that you’re not trying. It’s worth a fortune of money when you get in. Overnight everything that you touch triples or quadruples in value.

How has major league baseball managed to stay afloat through all the scandals and controversies surrounding players?

Nothing seems to be able to sink baseball. In the African-American community people have lost interest. Barry Bonds is the transcendent black star of our generation and as Commissioner Bud Selig can stand demonstratively not applauding Bonds breaking the homerun record, it sends a message. I’m afraid that a similar thing is going to happen with Hispanic fans. A-Rod, Sosa, Ramirez … When people talk about keeping them out of the hall of fame, that sends a message that America doesn’t think these stars are as worthy as Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby who were members of the Ku Klux Klan or Mickey Mantle, who used both steroids and amphetamines or the guys in the 1980s who were selling and using cocaine who are in the Hall of Fame. It’s better for the Hall to say that it’s not an institution dedicated to good citizenship, but to honoring baseball excellence. Let the fans decide about the character of the players.

More Jews play baseball today than they did up until very recently. What do you make of that?

I love it. I’m a big Jewish baseball fan. Last season and maybe again this season will be the only time when there were three Jews in the All-Star game. I was told by a memorabilia dealer that the only two groups that collect memorabilia primarily from their own communities are the Cubans and the Jews.

Why didn’t baseball work in Israel?

Baseball’s complicated. You have to grow up with it. They had no infrastructure. There are only a few fields — one of them was the Baptist Village, which banned beer sales, so that went down the drain. They can’t play on Saturdays and they can’t play on Friday nights. The fact that they tried was cute, but it wasn’t going to succeed.

Talk about Greenberg’s decision not to play on Yom Kippur, you call it one of the greatest public relations moves in baseball history.

People still remember it. Even now they ask players if they’re going to play on Jewish holidays. Greenberg wasn’t religious. He did what he did out of obligation to his parents, to the Jewish community of Detroit. It’s not very well known but Greenberg was so friendly with the head of the Purple Gang (the Jewish mob in Detroit) that he once went to Jackson prison and played an exhibition game because the head of the Purple Gang asked him to – his brother was doing life for murder and they wanted to get on good terms with the warden.

Do you think the most famous Jewish baseball players — Greenberg and Koufax — were aware of the impact they were having on the game?

They did and they were disconcerted by it. Greenberg plays it down in his autobiography. He didn’t really like being a Jewish role model. Koufax, of course, was so reclusive that he barely ever speaks about anything. I have no reason to think that either one of them is unhappy with the idea but I don’t think they made much of it.

Will baseball be affected by this economy?

I don’t think so. One of the people who is considered the best investment is a pitcher named Ed Reulbach, who pitched years ago for the Cubs. The reason he’s considered a good investment — people do invest in Hall of Fame players like futures — is because people think that he’s Jewish. He wasn’t Jewish, but there’s a persistent rumor that he was.

What does the future hold for the Hall of Fame?

The great players of today are players who played in the conditions of today. If [the Hall of Fame] insist(s) that the guys playing now are a third rate product, then they can expect baseball to go the way of horseshoes. It will be an anachronism.

Watch Zev Chafets on The Colbert Report below:

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