Hugo Chavez and the Hall of Fame: An excerpt from Zev Chafets’s 2009 book, Cooperstown Confidential

Hugo Chavez.

Hugo Chavez.

By the time the Hall of Fame came to grips with the issue of how to present Latino baseball, there were already seven Hispanic players in Cooperstown (eight if you include Ted Williams)–Martin Dihigo, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Rod Carew, Luis Aparicio, Juan Marichal and Tony Perez—with more on the way. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez, shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, pitchers Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera and sluggers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are sure bets; Vladimir Guerrero, Roberto Alomar and—if the voters get past their steroid use–Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Miguel Tejada have a shot. And there are more where they came from.

Telling the story of Latino baseball was never going to be as easy as tossing a little pepper into the great American melting pot. But Dale Petrosky and his boss, Jane Forbes Clark, complicated matters by going into it with a partner, the CITGO Petroleum Corporation. The Hall announced that CITGO would be the sponsor of permanent Cooperstown exhibit on Hispanic baseball.

The Hall had not previously taken on partners in its museum, but Ernst&Young had sponsored the traveling “Baseball as America” show, and Jane Forbes Clark had pronounced it an example of “a great American tradition—that of patronage—providing support for the artistic and intellectual endeavors that better our society.” But CITGO wasn’t Ernst&Young. It is the national energy company of Venezuela, which means that it is controlled by Hugo Chavez.

How this happened is a mystery, even to Jeff Idelson, the current president of the Hall. “Chavez and his political views didn’t come into play when we were considering the sponsorship with CITGO,” he told me. Idelson is an experienced public relations expert and I’m sure he wouldn’t lie. Evidently, the two Republicans running the Hall of Fame joined forces with the biggest American hater in the Western Hemisphere without giving it a thought.

In April 2006 the !Baseball Beisbol! project was launched with great fanfare. “We want to explore the growing Latino influence in the game, the way the game is played and loved throughout Latin America,” Dale Petrosky announced. “Over the next five years, we want to bring the rich history of Latin American baseball to the largest American audience ever.”

Frank Gygax, CITGO Chief Operating Officer, confirmed that his company had given a five-year commitment to the Hall of Fame, and contemplated a long and happy partnership. “We hope this display will find a permanent home in Cooperstown,” he said.

For the next few months, a temporary “panel” exhibit was displayed in major league parks, under the Hall of Fame/CITGO banner. This early edition of !Beisbol Baseball! was seen by fans in Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, San Diego, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati and it was still  circulating when Hugo Chavez appeared before the United Nations General Assembly in September. There, in an unforgettable televised speech, he denounced George W. Bush, President of the United States (and former owner of the Texas Rangers) as the incarnation of Satan.

“The devil came here yesterday,” Chavez said from the podium of the UN General Assembly, “and it smells of sulfur still today…As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world…The American empire is doing all it can to consolidate its hegemonistic system of domination, and we cannot allow him to do that. We cannot allow world dictatorship to be consolidated.”

Chavez’s feelings about the US were not exactly a secret.

The previous May, as !Baseball Beisbol! toured the country, Chavez accused America of committing genocide. Somehow this had escaped the attention of the Hall’s Board of Directors, but the televised diatribe at the UN was hard to miss. Not all of them loved George W. Bush, but he if was an imperialist, what did that make them?  They suddenly noticed that Chavez was accusing Major League Baseball of “exploiting” Latino raw material, in the form of talent, for decades. He was even talking about taxing the majors for the privilege of mining ballplayers.  Who had decided to go into partnership with this guy?

Of course nobody asked this question out loud; Cooperstown is a shrine, and shrines keep their secrets.

Besides, the answer was clear. President Petrosky had proposed the deal, and the Directors themselves, led by Jane Forbes Clark, had approved it.

The agreement with CITGO was suspended in the spring of 2007 and then very quietly cancelled.   There was virtually no press coverage.

In March of 2008, the Hall of Fame announced that Petrosky was out. “The resignation is the result of our finding that Dale Petrosky failed to exercise proper fiduciary responsibility, and it follows other business judgments that were not in the best interest of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.”

“Fiduciary” is the English word for Chavez.

Once again, there was barely a ripple in the media. One of America’s most iconic national institutions had made, and cancelled, an alliance with Hugo Chavez, and nobody noticed.

Jeff Idelson, who was one of the few people who had counseled against the deal, was appointed president. When I asked him what had happened, he answered that, “it is our policy not to reveal financial considerations.” According to him, the project fell apart because the Hall of Fame couldn’t find suitable locations—an odd answer considering that the permanent exhibition was intended for Cooperstown.

Petrosky went quietly. “After almost nine productive years at the Hall of Fame, I have offered my resignation to the Hall’s Executive Committee, and it has been accepted,” he said.

“The Hall of Fame is a world-class institution, and I am proud of all we have accomplished through vision, hard work, and teamwork. I serve at the pleasure of the Board, and accept the judgment of the Executive Committee.”

Petrosky moved to Texas, where he was hired by George Bush’s old team, the Rangers, as director of marketing. CITGO swore on a stack of bibles that the cancellation had nothing to do with Hugo Chavez. Jane Forbes Clark said absolutely nothing. It is good to be the Queen.

This spring, the Hall of Fame will mount Viva Béisbol! It will, in Jeff Idelson’s words, “explore the exciting story of Latin American baseball, viewing the game through both its cultural history in the Caribbean Basin and the impact of Latino players on Major League Baseball.” Presumably there will be no problem finding space for it.

“We have not yet begun to look for sponsors for this compelling exhibit but plan to do so in the very near future,” Idelson said. Castro, anyone?