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Saturday, May 3, 2014
George Digby and Willie Mays, the one who got away

By Gordon Edes

George Digby, the legendary Red Sox scout who died Friday at the age of 96, signed a Hall of Famer in Wade Boggs and other Sox stars in Mike Greenwell and Jody Reed, but could have altered the course of Sox history if he had not been blocked by the team's racist ownership.

"I had Willie Mays bought for $4,500," Digby told me when I interviewed him in 2005. "I called up the Red Sox. I said, 'I got Willie Mays. He'll break the color line.'"

Digby, who had been a high school baseball coach in New Orleans, was the team's first full-time scout in the South, and in 1949 -- two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball -- recommended a 17-year-old Mays, who was playing for the Birmingham Black Barons. The Sox had a minor league team in Birmingham, the Barons, that shared the same ballpark, Rickwood Field, with the Black Barons.

Digby said he didn't know Sox GM Joe Cronin well enough at the time to make the call himself.

"Eddie Glennon, the GM of our club in Birmingham, called Cronin," recalled Digby. "The owner of the Black Barons had told us we could have Mays for $4,500. I said, 'I'll be back to you by tomorrow.' Glennon had asked me, 'What do you think?' I said, 'I think he's a big leaguer.' We could have had Mays in center and [Ted] Williams in left.

"Cronin sent another scout down to look at him, but [owner Tom] Yawkey and Cronin already had made up their minds they weren't going to take any black players."

Digby called Mays the greatest prospect he'd ever seen. Did it break his heart, to see Mays get away?

"Break my heart, when you can't do anything about it?" he said. "If I could have done something about it, it would have been different."

In a new book about Mays and Mickey Mantle, entitled "Mickey and Willie," author Allen Barra writes that Boston's other big league team, the Braves, also had keen interest in Mays.

"The Boston Braves had two scouts with notebooks full of observations on Mays: Henry Jenkins, also the Braves' farm director, and Bill Maughn, who lived in Cullman, Alabama, about 40 miles north of Birmingham. ... At Maughn's insistence, the Braves had petitioned the commissioner of baseball, Albert 'Happy' Chandler, for permission to approach Willie while he was still in high school -- after all, they reasoned, he was already playing for money.

"They were prepared to offer $7,500 to Black Barons owner Tom Hayes for Willie's contract. Maughn later told Jenkins -- early in May, a few weeks before Willie graduated from Fairfield Industrial -- that Willie was 'the best standout prospect in the nation. When I say he could even pitch for my money, I am not fooling, as he is the fastest human being throwing from 60 feet 6 inches that I have ever seen.'"

The Braves decided not to offer Mays a contract after another Braves scout, who watched Mays play in a doubleheader at Rickwood, concluded that Mays couldn't hit a big league curveball, one of the most spectacular misjudgments in baseball history.

Maughn later told a scout for the New York Giants, Eddie Montague, about what a great prospect Mays was, and the Giants, who already had signed black stars Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin, pounced.