Golden sunlight on a baseball field carved out of pristine Iowa farmland. A row of stands where immaculately dressed spectators wave little banners. Beer out of a paper cup, a nickel a pop. And young men, nine to a side, playing a game that’s as entrenched in the heart of pastoral America as the pasture itself.
Only, this Norman Rockwell painting hides the full truth, because among the spectators is a man working for a major league baseball team. He’ll drive ten thousand miles this year, going from park to park looking not for narrative or iconography but a live arm and the good face. This scout will sit and watch a sixteen-year old pitcher mow down opposing batters with a fastball that defies belief. After the game the scout will sign the player for a single dollar and an autographed baseball, and within a year that player is mowing down opposing players in The Show. The pitcher’s name is Bob Feller, baseball Hall of Famer. The scout’s name? Ah, well, that’s a good question.
Scouts are the unsung members of the baseball world. These men (and they are, with exceptionally rare exception, men, and white men at that) travel the country, and hemisphere, even the world, looking for talent. They’re the crusty guys spitting tobacco and jawing behind home plate. But they’re also the men who go into living rooms and try and convince a player and his family to sign on the dotted line. They’re the men who see a pitcher and declare him “horseshit,” but they’re also the men who call up the front office and say, “I’ve seen the future of our franchise.” They are baseball men, for whom “there’s no line anymore between him and the game, no point where baseball leaves off and he begins.”
Scouts are colorful, often profane, and always razor-smart. Unfortunately, in this day and age, they’re often given short shrift in the public eye. At least part of this can be traced to the phenomenal success of Moneyball, both the book and the Brad Pitt movie. In the latter, there’s a scene where Pitt, playing Oakland general manager Billy Beane, is having a Come-To-Jesus meeting with his scouts, who to a man are resistant to Beane’s new philosophy of exploiting market inefficiencies in order to build a winning baseball team cheaply. They are in essence the antagonists of the story, which is pretty damn unfair.
A full diegesis of the stats-vs-scouts debate would be out of place here, as it would either be too brief to satisfy baseball fans or too long to interest, well, anyone else. Suffice to say that, like all venerable institutions, baseball is often resistant to new ways of thinking. That baseball clubs themselves have been less resistant than the people that cover the sport is more entertaining than illuminating, though I would suggest that anyone wishing to know more spend some time at fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus or the late, lamented firejoemorgan. In fact, today every baseball club save one has some sort of advanced information-gathering apparatus (someday your prince will come, Phillies fans), while crusty old sportswriters will be misunderstanding the lessons of Moneyball for decades to come.
At its heart, the stats-vs-scouts debate can be boiled down to art vs science. The good face versus the good on-base percentage. The player a scout can dream on versus the player with skills that have been mathematically shown to be transferable to Major League competition. The Moneyball A’s didn’t necessarily hate art, they simply couldn’t afford to pay the going rate for it.
Now that I’ve chased off most of you, let’s get down to the book itself. Much in the way that Moneyball was at its heart a book about Bill James, Dollar Sign on the Muscle is a book about Branch Rickey. Most people know one significant datum about Rickey, that he was the man who signed Jackie Robinson, thus helping break baseball’s color barrier. I’m a longtime baseball fan, and I couldn’t have told you much more about the man. But Rickey had an impact on the game befitting a man who made it his profession, in one way or another, for sixty years: first as a player before WWI, then as an executive for five different teams. To say that Rickey single-handedly created the farm system might be a bit of an exaggeration, but he was one of its early pioneers. His belief in “quality out of quantity” dictated the creation of minor-league teams to nurture talent and establish a pipeline of players to the major league club. Of course, to properly stock such teams, you need people to find players in out-of-the-way places. And you need people who can soberly evaluate how much money the player might be worth to the team, someone who can put the dollar sign on the muscle. Thus, scouts.
Author Kevin Kerrane spent the 1981 season embedded with the Philadelphia Phillies, and the book follows the predictable motions of a baseball season: spring training, the hope of the early season, the summer doldrums, playoffs in the fall, and the long winter offseason. Well, perhaps not so predictable, as 1981 was marred by a lengthy player strike. Plus the longtime owners of the Phillies, the Carpenter family, suddenly put the team up for sale, citing increased player salaries as a motivating factor. But rather than give us a synopsis of the season, Kerrane spent most of his time with scouts, from the Phillies and other teams, and takes us inside the world of these oft-maligned, frequently-ignored members of the baseball family. Throughout the book Kerrane offers a highly entertaining history of scouting itself. If you’re a baseball fan, this book is a must-read.
The book also speaks presciently of issues that are relevant to this very day. Money was a big issue, as free agency, still in its relative infancy, had led to baseball’s first two-million-dollar man, George Foster, who’d just signed a 5-year, $10 million deal with the Mets. Money was also at the heart of the 1981 strike. There are glimmers of the war over advanced statistics, as executives tried to rationalize the scouting process through consolidation or the development of psychological profiling. The amateur draft, also in its infancy, was decried as socialist. Race is an issue, as certain scouts refused to sign black players. Thankfully, performance-enhancing drugs sit this one out, though it’s well-known now that 1981 was well within the time that the use of “greenies” (amphetamines) was widespread.
Pages at a time are given over the scouts telling all sorts of stories, from how they broke into the business, to their often brief playing careers, to their reminiscences of Branch Rickey, to tall tales of The One That Got Away. And always, there’s the search for the Good Face, the rather nebulous catchall term that encompasses not just a player’s physical talents, but also his mental and emotional makeup. Scouts have a particularly difficult job, in that they have to project how a teenager playing against other teenagers will project into the future. Sometimes a talented scout can tell from a hitch in a swing or the arm angle of a curveball that a teenager won’t make it. Other times they swim in murkier waters, convincing themselves that one kid is a “bulldog”, whereas another doesn’t have the stones to survive.
And it all feels like a giant crapshoot. With rare exception, every ballplayer, no matter how talented, had someone look at them and think, “that kid will never make it.” A chapter of the book is spent discussing the Phillies’ strategy in the amateur draft, and despite all the time and money and expertise brought to bear, no one so much as mentions future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who was drafted in the second round.
Baseball is a game of failure, however. The greatest hitter who ever lived will fail six out of ever ten times he comes to the plate. Only 23 perfect games have been recorded since 1900. And even the greatest evaluators of talent will swing and miss a few times. Branch Rickey doubted Sandy Koufax. Mike Piazza was famously drafted in the 62nd round as a favor to his father. A number of teams passed on Willie Mays. What makes it all worthwhile is finding “the arm behind the barn”, unearthing a great ballplayer that others had either missed or overlooked. In the days before the draft (and even before the modern farm system), if a scout happened to see a player that impressed him, he would try and sign him on the spot. And on the rare occasion that a scout found true, transcendent greatness? That’s the sort of thing that can make a career. Legendary talent evaluator Cy Slapnicka can see a 16-year-old farmboy pitch in a semipro game outside Des Moines in 1935 and somehow know that farmboy will become Bob Feller.