|Baseball writer Jay Jaffe, and his 2017 book The Cooperstown Casebook.|
|Chick Hafey, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971.|
Being a baseball fan means enjoying a sport that has a long history full of great players and colorful characters. Of course, you can be a baseball fan and not dive deeply into the history of the game, but it seems as though most of us afflicted with a passion for baseball feel very connected to the great players of yesterday. It seems quite natural for most of us to wonder things like, how good would Walter Johnson be if he were pitching in 2018? Would Mike Trout have terrorized pitching during the 1920’s? What would Mickey Mantle’s career have looked like with good knees?
One of the most hotly debated issues throughout baseball history is: who should be in the Hall of Fame? It’s a question that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, which is why I was excited to read Jay Jaffe’s 2017 book The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques. As a young boy, I had several books that presented short biographies and stats about the members of the Hall of Fame. I devoured those books, but I didn’t spend much time thinking about why those players were in the Hall of Fame. I knew that great players like Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth were in the Hall of Fame, but I also knew that Chick Hafey was in the Hall of Fame as well. Hafey’s biggest claims to fame were collecting the very first hit in an All-Star Game, winning the 1931 batting title by .0002, and being one of the first players to wear glasses. As an adult, I look at Hafey’s career and come to the conclusion that while he was an excellent player for several years, ultimately his resume is a little thin for the Hall of Fame.
In 82 years, the Hall of Fame voting process has not changed much. The various iterations of the Veterans Committee have changed considerably, but the basic premise behind the non-Veterans Committee selections—writers vote for retired players, if you get more than 75% of the vote, you’re in—remains the same.
For all of the controversies surrounding the Hall of Fame, I would argue that the BBWAA writers have done a pretty darn good job. You could argue that their job isn’t actually that hard—it’s pretty easy to say that Mickey Mantle is a Hall of Famer and Placido Polanco is not. Of course, there are more difficult decisions the writers have to make about players who are on the bubble—recent candidates like Steve Garvey, Dale Murphy, and Dave Parker, who spent fifteen years on the ballot without getting elected. (Or just think about all of the ink that was spilled over Jack Morris during his time on the ballot.) Still, their track record is pretty good. Nearly all of the truly awful Hall of Fame selections have come from the various versions of the Veterans Committee. Jesse Haines? Travis Jackson? Ray Schalk? Rick Ferrell? Freddie Lindstrom? All Veterans Committee selections. Of course, the Veterans Committee has also made some excellent selections of players who were unjustly overlooked by the writers, like Johnny Mize, Goose Goslin, Ron Santo, and one of this year’s inductees, Alan Trammell.
Jay Jaffe has been thinking about who should be in the Hall of Fame for a long time, and he’s developed a metric, called the Jaffe WAR Score, or JAWS for short, that tries to assess whether or not a player meets the standard for his position for the Hall of Fame. In The Cooperstown Casebook Jaffe goes through every player who has been inducted to the Hall of Fame, and assess whether or not they meet the standard. Jaffe’s knowledge about these players runs very deep, and unless you’re a baseball historian yourself, you’ll definitely learn something new.
The subtitle makes the book sound more opinionated and controversial than it really is. Jaffe is pretty even-handed, and he’s certainly not disparaging of those players he feels were unworthy of induction. And there’s usually some reason that helps explain why those players were inducted. Chick Hafey was inducted in 1971 by the Veterans Committee, which was headed at that time by Frankie Frisch, himself a Hall of Fame second baseman. Who did Frisch play for? Why, the New York Giants from 1919 to 1926, and then the Saint Louis Cardinals from 1927 to 1937. Say, who did Chick Hafey play for? The Cardinals from 1924 to 1931, and the Reds from 1932 to 1935, and also in 1937. Coincidence? Not likely, as Hafey was just one of several Cardinals and Giants players who were teammates of Frisch’s to be inducted during his tenure on the VC. So there’s a reason Hafey was inducted, even if it wasn’t a good reason.
Jaffe’s writing style is straightforward, and his analysis throughout the book is solid. The Cooperstown Casebook is a deep dive, and as such will probably only appeal to serious Hall of Fame fanatics. That being said, it is an excellent addition to the literature on the Hall of Fame, and one that is sorely needed, as new statistics and metrics to evaluate players gain more and more prominence as baseball fans continue to argue and debate over who deserves the sport’s greatest honor.