The author: Dan Austin
The vital stats: University of Nebraska Press, 168 pages, $24.95
The pitch: The name “Uncle Hughie” rang a bell, and it took a while to figure out why.
The story about the Cleveland Indians rookie outfielder who only got into scouting at the age of 20 because he had his left hand torn off in an oil rig accident in Oklahoma is compelling in and of itself.
But his name is even more familiar because of his link to the Dodgers, first in Brooklyn in late 1955 and eventually when he came West and was a vital part of the franchise’s rebuilding process after the move in ’58.
It’s not exaggeration that, under his discovery or negotiating prowess, the Dodgers were able to sign players such as Don Sutton, Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Frank Howard.
A classic excerpt of how Alexander worked his magic comes from page 80:
“The year 1961 was not a fun year. … The whole (Dodgers) organization went haywire. Buzzie Bavasi, the general manager, saw the handwriting on the wall. The farm club system was a failure. What the Dodgers had done during the past couple of years was make some trades by giving up young players. Buzzie called a meeting in Los Angeles. He invited (owner Walter) O’Malley, his son Peter, Fresco Thompson, (scouting director) Al Campanis, Bert Wells and Hughie. He opened the meeting by announcing that the Dodgers had a horseshit scouting staff and a horseshit farm system.
“‘That’s exactly what he said, and dammit, you could have heard a pin drop,’ remarked Hughie.”
Bavasi’s plan was to sign 100 players to fill the Dodgers’ minor league system and he allocated $800,000 in bonuses for it. Somehow, this could have got the franchise in trouble with Major League Baseball.
“‘Here’s something else (Bavasi said). I want you right now to get a hold of your scouts and tell them that the two best scouts we got are Alexander and Bert Wells … Let them negotiate the damn deal on that ballplayer because they can handle it.’”
That was a year of expansion — including the Angels — and teams were going more into finding players in the Dominican and Central America. As it turned out, the Dodgers did sign 108 players and were ready to operate 10 minor-league teams the next year.
With Alexander as a key deal-maker and talent-hawk in the Dodgers’ resurgence through the 1960s, their World Series runs tell the rest of the story.
Austin writes that he began the process of doing this book long before Alexander’s passing in 2000, as a project for the Baseball Hall of Fame on the history of scouts. His collection of interviews with Alexander are finally put to the page, if not written all that exquisitely.
Since the bulk of Alexander’s 62 years in baseball were with the Dodgers before he left in the early ’70s to become part of the Philadelphia Phillies’ front-office rebuilding process, the most poignant stories might be in the reconstruction of his pursuit of Dodger prospects such as Carl Warwick, Frank Howard, Derrell Griffith, Dick Calmus, Bill Grabarkewitz and finally Sutton.
The story goes that the team originally passed on Sutton until Alexander interceded. Campanis, still the head of scouting, had discouraged Alexander from going to see Sutton because another Dodger scout had already turned Sutton down.
“‘Oh, bullshit,’ Hughie hollered. ‘That’s not the right way to handle this.’”
Alexander went over Campanis’ head and talked to Bavasi, then worked out a face-saving plan to where the original scout, Leon Hamilton, would actually get the credit and finder’s fee for getting Sutton back. But that wasn’t so easy. Even though Sutton got the $20,000 he was asking for – “pretty high for a ballplayer with no prospect tag on him, but Hughie thought he was worth it” — Sutton and his father wouldn’t allow Hamilton back in their home. He only signed after another scout, Marty Bascomb, was sent to close it up.
Whatever way it took to getting players signed in the pre-draft era — without a radar gun — Alexander seemed to be in the middle of it.
More to know:
== Alexander’s obituary in the New York Times paints him as a far more colorful character than Austin’s book. As for the injury that took his left hand, this version says: “He drove 14 miles to find a country doctor, who amputated the hand. The anesthetic was two gulps of whiskey.” None of that was mentioned in Austin’s book.
== Another missing story from the book: Alexander lamenting how he misjudged Mickey Mantle, included in this 1987 piece by Jerome Holtzman for the Chicago Tribune.
== Track down “Prophet of the Sandlots” by Mark Winegardner, “Eye For Talent” by P.J. Dragseth or “Dollar Sign on the Muscle” by Kevin Kerrane for more depth on how the business of scouting works.
== A link to the Professional Baseball Scout Foundation based in Calabasas.