For the latest edition of the Burning River Bookclub, we’ll take at not only a (relatively) new release, but one that is ever topical. With a huge class heading for the Hall of Fame this summer, there’s no better time to check out Jay Jaffe’s The Cooperstown Casebook.
Discussions of who deserves to be in the Hall have been a part of baseball since they first built the museum in Cooperstown, but they are generally limited to personal opinion. No one can possibly be educated on every team let alone every player who ever lived. Without advanced statistical research, the average fan may in their life only see a handful of players they could truly say deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. What Jaffe has done, however, is simplify the process with his JAWS system. While JAWS is available on Baseball-Reference.com and doesn’t require a full book to describe (that’s only a small part of the book), it provides a baseline to at least give a list of players for Jaffe to look into. JAWS isn’t the be-all-end-all (it really overlooks relievers and players who did more than their stats would show, like Larry Doby), but it’s a great starting point.
As for the Cooperstown Casebook, it’s really two separate books. The first half is a history of the Hall, a deep explanation of who votes and who has voted over that history and the different aspects of the game that make voters more or less likely to choose a player. This last includes the explanation of JAWS and other advanced statistics as well as a look into the current PED conundrum.
The second half of the book could be considered an encyclopedia. It includes every single player in the Hall as a player (those in primarily for off-the-field accomplishments are not included) as well as those who are most worthy of enshrinement, but aren’t as of yet (or as of 2017 when the book came out). Separated by position (excluding a DH category), each chapter begins with an incredibly detailed description of one or two players who deserve to be enshrined at that position.
While the history of the Hall is very informative, it is information that could be found elsewhere and at times gets a bit repetitive. The true value of the book lies in the second half with the player bios. In addition to the lengthy look at the beginning of each chapter, every player gets at least a short bio, showing their positive and negative attributes. Rather than a strict yes or no, however, Jaffe gives the argument and allows the reader to make up his own mind on worthiness in all but the most extreme examples (sorry, Jesse Haines).
Of course, the extreme low end and those on the borderline are the most interesting cases. No one needs to write a book about why Ted Williams and Babe Ruth should be in the Hall. However, the arguments for tainted players like Curt Schilling and Mark McGwire as well as those for traditional statistic failures who stand out now that we have more information like Bobby Grich and Jack Glasscock are very interesting.
Since our focus is on the Tribe, I think it’s worth mentioning which Indians Hall of Famers Jaffe has as particularly high or low among their position, although for the reasoning you’ll have to pick up the book. By position, Jim Thome ranks 10th among first baseman, Nap Lajoie third among 2B with Roberto Alomar and Joe Gordon surprisingly coming in at #14 and #16 respectively. While Tribe fans are rightly proud of their short stop lineage, they don’t show well in JAWS with Lou Boudreau popping in at #15, Joe Sewell at #19 and Omar Vizquel at #42. Based on the numbers shown, Vizquel would essentially be the absolute worst short stop in the Hall of Fame if he were to be elected.
At third base (there’s an entire chapter dedicated to how few 3B are in the Hall), the Indians have no representatives yet and, Jaffe took a different route by looking at Graig Nettles and Buddy Bell as options while ignoring Ken Keltner and Bill Bradley, who we have discussed on this site as possible Hall of Fame worthy players.
Everything the Indians are missing at short stop is made up for in center. Tris Speaker is considered the third best at the position ever behind Willie Mays and Ty Cobb while Larry Doby comes in 21st without any consideration for his off-the-field contributions. Earl Averill ranks 28th as a compiler more than a high peak player. Most importantly to the modern fan, Kenny Lofton is given all the love that Vizquel wasn’t as he’s considered the 9th best of all time. He was going to be the long form player for this chapter except he isn’t eligible for the Hall again until 2023. At the final position, Elmer Flick is considered among the weaker right fielders selected, but Shoeless Joe Jackson is the #1 player not in the Hall.
The vast majority of Indians in the Hall are pitchers and they also rank lower than expected (except Cy Young, who is #2). Since so many pitchers are in the Hall overall, it isn’t odd that most of the players who didn’t deserve entry are at the position and Jaffe includes Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Addie Joss among the back end starters. This shows one of the issues of coming up with any statistical system, however, as I would personally consider Joss among the top two pitchers in Indians history. He is the only player in the Hall with less than ten years service due to his untimely death.
Again, this is why a book like Jaffe’s is much better than a list. While questioning the credentials of some ranked earlier than Joss and much of those who came after, he doesn’t directly say that Joss didn’t deserve election.
Overall, the Cooperstown Casebook was extremely beneficial if a little long winded at times. There can’t be many who have put the kind of research Jaffe has into the Hall of Fame and I’ve personally never seen such a systematic list of who should and shouldn’t be in the Hall. Possibly most importantly, he shows how those who didn’t deserve election were able to sneak in, hopefully something that will help such things from happening in the future.