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Scout’s Honor?

With just six more folks to choose for the Hall of Miller and Eric’s Pioneer/Executive wing, we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. Between us and you, we’ve whittled down to 28 people for those six slots. Today we’ll finally touch on scouts, a group not served by Cooperstown for reasons we don’t understand.

Scouts are not executives, of course, so they have no literal path to the Hall under its current rule set. They do the work that informs the decisions that the execs make. In this regard, the Hall of Fame has tied its own hands, leaving scouts to molder a while longer with no clear path for the workaday talent hound to get bronzed. Well, except, perhaps, for any scout who might have truly pioneered in their field.

Those true pioneers are the most sensible for Miller and I to elect. But we have to figure out if those folks exist and think about how to determine the advantages they provided. So here I’m going to share my thinking about those points, and I’m going to make what is probably an extremely controversial statement about the nature of scouting and its connection to any Hall of Fame I’d be in charge of.

Scouting the scouts

For Miller’s and my purposes, we want a combination of pioneering and performance from a scout. Being the first scout might be important, but not if it meant the person only signed Moonlight Graham. We need to determine if anyone merits both the label pioneer and high performer.

Scouting is as old as the game itself. Players and especially captains on early amateur clubs always sought out talent to lure to their teams. As the professional game began, teams barnstormed in addition to playing league games, and sometimes they would discover players among the local nines they faced.

By the 1890s, a glimmer of professionalism crept into scouting. Hall of Fame owner/executive Barney Dreyfuss, for example, as early as 1894 is known to have traveled to watch Fred Clarke play for a minor league team before signing him. Teams didn’t have front offices then. The owners did a lot of the operating, and maybe they had a team secretary, so the brunt of the work was theirs to field a competitive team. Dreyfuss signed much of the talent that became the Pirates’ 1900s dynasty. Also in the mid-1800s, The Sporting News began life and soon printed information on many many minor leaguers for the likes of Dreyfuss to get the dope on before going to see them. Connie Mack famously went to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to scout Chief Bender, and in the process also came away with “Gettysburg Eddie” Plank.

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, teams began to employ a scout or two, often freelance, but increasingly full-time, while they also developed a network of bird dogs who would tip them off to promising players. Connie Mack’s legendary discovery of Jimmie Foxx came about because Home Run Baker gave him the scoop on the muscular young phenom. Mack sent scout Mike Drennan to check out Foxx, and Drennan signed him. The rest is history. By the 1930s, scouting departments became a thing. The Yankees created one of the best ever, stocking their system with dozens of high-caliber players by using their in-house scouting talent to outhustle less organized and less financially stable franchises. All teams finally adopted the innovation of professionalized scouting departments by the end of the careers of Clark Griffith and Connie Mack.

Now here comes the controversy. No scout in the draft era will get our consideration. You probably think that’s balderdash, but here’s why. The entire point of the draft was to suppress the market value of bonus babies and other amateurs by eliminating direct competition for the player. Once that happened, the massive benefit that a great scout could provide a team was effectively demolished. No longer could a hyper hustling birddog score a passel of prospects through a combination of spycraft, projection, and negotiation. Now, that golden arm in the middle of Nevada would be available to each team by turn until such time as his selection in the draft. Scouts no longer signed players out from under the other teams, they negotiated to sign a player whose rights the team already held. Additionally, since the advent of Baseball America and other draftwatch publications, there’s no longer such a thing as a secret.

The lone exception to this could be foreign amateur scouting, which still has some of that Wild West feel. But even so, the returns are so low compared to the pre-draft days that there’s no comparison. We don’t mean any slight at all to modern scouts, but any pioneering days have long since gone by, and high-level performers of the modern game can’t compete with their elders for impact.

OK, you’ll probably hammer me in the comments on that, so let’s move on.

Can he scout?

Before we even get to the question of whether a scout was pioneering or not, we have to answer another question. How do we measure scouting success? And who were the most successful scouts? Most of the talk in publications about scouting or obits of scouts has to do with three things:

  • Who’d they sign?
  • How many MLB players did they sign
  • How much did they reel them in for (the lower the better).

For us the matter of cost is somewhat less important, especially because we have no way of determining it for most players. The number of signees is helpful information. We’d rather elect a scout with 10 signings than one. But who they signed is by far the most important information because it reflects the quality of their work and its impact at the MLB level.

So our simple measure is how much BBREF WAR was produced by players they signed.

Did you notice that I didn’t say how much WAR did the player produce for the scout’s team? The quality of a scout’s work can’t be judged based on decisions made by someone else higher on the team’s chain of command. What we want to know is whether the scout had a great eye for talent and an ability to close the deal once he spotted it.

So I combed through numerous books, SABR’s website, the Wikipedia, the Hall of Fame’s incomparable Diamond Minds online scouting database, and more to see who the great scouts before the draft were. I probably didn’t get them all, but here is a list of them with the number of signings and the career WAR of those players. In many cases these listings may be incomplete due to scant information or conflicting information. In some cases (like Joe DiMaggio) credit may be due several individuals. In other cases, there are competing claims, and I left them in for all claimants.

CHARLEY BARRETT 1909–39  65  474  Bottomley, R.Ferrell, Hafey, P.Martin
JOE CAMBRIA     1932–62  80  396  E.Wynn, Oliva, Pascual, Vernon
BOB CONNERY     1912–24  16  279  Hornsby, Combs, Meadows, B.Meusel
JOE DEVINE      1924–51  32  576  J.DiMaggio, P.Waner, Cronin, J.Gordon
JACK DOYLE      1920–58  17  431  By.Herman, Hack, Hartnett, Galan
MIKE DRENNAN   ~1910–32  18  479  Foxx, H.R.Baker, Rommell, Schang
JOE ENGLE       1920–33  11  365  Goslin, Cronin, Myer, Hadley
BILL ESSICK     1925–50  33  333  J.DiMaggio J.Gordon, Lazzeri, Gomez
TOM GREENWADE   1940–64  38  541  Mantle, J.Robinson, Reese, Campanella
POP KELCHNER    1912–58  88  715  Musial, Medwick, Shawkey, Maranville
DICK KINSELLA   1907–30  42  858  Frisch, Hubbell, Groh, Fletcher
PAUL KRICHELL   1920–55  62  670  Gehrig, Ford, Lazzeri, Keller
GENE MCCANN     1927–43  11  126  Keller, Sauer, McQuinn, Raschi
JOHNNY NEE      1927–49  12  228  Dickey, Dx.Walker, B.Chapman, Werber
ALEX POMPEZ     1948–71  27  534  Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cedpeda
FRANK RICKEY    19??–53  24  312  Mize, Slaughter, Marion, Maglie
CY SLAPNICKA    1921–60  29  489  Feller, Boudreau, Averill, Harder
LARRY SUTTON    1909–36  31  537  Vance, Wheat, Daubert, Ehmke

This is the information we have on these guys, and they are the most notable scouts of the period that we’ve located in various searches. There must be scores more scouts, perhaps many of them great, but we don’t know about them from the limited information we have.

You can see that DiMaggio, Lazzeri, Keller, and several others are allotted to at least two scouts. DiMag, in particular, was the result of a team scouting effort. But others, well, who can say? I haven’t noted it above, but in many cases, the players you see are attributed by various sources to different or several scouts who may not appear on this list. It’s not entirely clear that Alex Pompez literally signed all those Latino players. He frequently teamed with Giants colleague George Genovese. We do know that he generally had a hand in signing them, but I don’t have access to team contracts to know for sure who did what.

And this is why as we’ve explored all these guys, we determined that scouting excellence is not the most important factor for HoME consideration. Doing something pioneering in the position is. But you should be excellent too. So the question is whether any of these guys were pioneers.

Diamonds in the rough?

If we only went by the number of players or the WAR they generated, we’d be in on Pop Kelchner and Dick Kinsella. The latter, as John McGraw’s right-hand man did huge work to propel the Giants fortunes in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s when they battled with the Cardinals for the distinction of the NL’s best team. We’re not in on them. If we went only by reputation, we’d be keeping Paul Krichell around for Final Jeopardy. We’re not. None of these guys did pioneering work. All were part of a wave of innovation, but not demonstrably responsible for it.

In fact, the only scout we thought long and hard about bringing to the final dance was Tom Greenwade. The reason for this is simple. Greenwade was the scout Branch Rickey sent on the mission to break the color line. He spent three years watching players of color. All in secret. The situation took several turns along the way, but ultimately, Greenwade trailed Jackie Robinson, watching him 20 times before Robinson signed. [Incidentally, Greenwade didn’t sign Jackie; the scout took a very lucrative offer from the Yankees shortly before the signing took place.] Consider the monumental level of risk to Greenwade’s own career, to his team, to the entire African American population of the US. All of it rode on his evaluations of the many highly capable players of color in the world. Never before had scouting meant so much, achieved so much. Never, we hope, will it have to again. And Tom Greenwade was the man in the middle of it all.

But…to read the story of it, Greenwade didn’t find Robinson. Jackie was recommended to Branch Rickey by a sportswriter in the African American community. Greenwade was more a lever Rickey pulled as part of a grand scheme than an agentive actor in the pioneer mold. Greenwade did his job fabulously, and, yet, I can’t say that means quite enough. To put it in crasser terms, Greenwade was a platoon sergeant, while Rickey was the general who won the war.

I don’t feel great to cross the scouts off the list of remaining candidates, but I do feel that we’ve thought through the pros and cons of electing a scout pretty thoroughly. Certainly as thoroughly as we can given the information available to us. Theirs is a plight, along with that of coaches, that really ought to be recitified by the Hall of Fame. We are hewing close to their example to retain an apples-to-apples comparison, even if we are Pink Lady apples and they are Red Delicious. So we can’t willy-nilly throw open the doors to a scout simply for excellence. It’s more nuanced than that. Once the Hall moves in that regard, we’ll be at liberty to do so as well, and we will gladly do so.



2 thoughts on “Scout’s Honor?

  1. For what it’s worth, Alex Pompez is already in the Hall of Fame for his work leading the New York Cubans Negro League team. If you’re going to do Negro Leaguers (and you should) you’ve just added to his value for later consideration.
    Nice and thoughtful piece.

    Posted by verdun2 | September 30, 2016, 8:16 am

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