Commentary

Scout's Honor

Updated: May 1, 2013, 11:03 AM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

Sandy Koufax Scouting ReportBaseball Hall of FameAlso noted on May 15, 1954: Sandy Koufax's hitting. Click here to see full scouting report.

They took a beating in "Moneyball." In the post-WAR era of BABIP and DIPS and PECOTA, they're thought of as DOA, dinosaurs whose days of roaming the earth are numbered. Maybe if they looked more like Amy Adams. … Nah, that was only one of the troubles with reality in "Trouble With The Curve."

But if you really think about it, what would baseball be without baseball scouts? Behind every Hall of Famer was someone who first saw his greatness and spread the word. For each of the 750 major league players, there's a bird dog who's sharing in his dream and probably looking for another. The more than 5,000 minor leaguers hoping to make the bigs can claim at least one person who packed a stopwatch, radar gun and instincts, who drove, rode or flew (coach) too many miles to count, who sat or stood in the cold, heat or rain to watch him play or pitch on a dusty sandlot or a nondescript high school field or a campo surrounded by poverty.

Ernest Banks Scouting Report
Baseball Hall of FameHugh Wise scouted Ernie Banks in July 28, 1953, and said "Can play now" in the majors. Click here for the full report.

No, scouts don't get nearly the credit they deserve. But starting May 4 in Cooperstown, N.Y., they will get some much-needed recognition when the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opens an exhibit entitled "Diamond Mines," underwritten in part by the Scout of the Year Foundation. In one of the display cases is a quote from Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton that speaks volumes: "I knew the only way to get to the majors was through these amazing men who almost had haloes on their heads: scouts."

If you've ever watched them congregate behind home plate, you know that those haloes are often hidden under straw hats, and a few of those have been collected for the exhibit, which will run for two years, and possibly more, on the second floor of the museum. Says HOF curator John Odell, "We trace the evolution of scouting from the Wild West days through the bonus wars of the 1950s and the advent of the draft, right up until the sophistication and globalization of today. Along the way, we hope to show that scouts were a special breed who truly loved the game."

In one display case alone, visitors will see:

• A plaque given to Washington Senators scout Joe Engel by all the players he had signed to the team that won the American League pennant in 1933.
• The famous $1 contract, written on the back of hotel stationery, that Cleveland Indians scout Cy Slapnicka got 17-year-old Bob Feller to sign, along with the actual check. Slapnicka also threw in an autographed baseball.
• A special code book used by scouts to keep their telegraphed reports secret.
• The first baseman's mitt used by Sandy Koufax when he first caught the attention of Dodger scout Bill Zinser in 1954 at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. Zinser liked him as both a pitcher and a hitter.
• The baseball and football cards of Vic Janowicz, the Heisman Trophy winner and Washington Redskins star, who spent two years (1953-54) on the bench of the Pittsburgh Pirates because bonus rules prevented him from playing in the minors.
• The briefcase of legendary Red Sox scout Charlie Wagner, along with the 2004 World Series ring he had waited so long for; he died at 93 in 2006 while at the ballpark in his hometown of Reading, Pa.
• The glove that scout Al LaMacchia used when he pitched for the St. Louis Browns, and re-used to play catch with such discoveries as Cito Gaston, Dale Murphy, David Wells and George Bell.

In other display cases, there's a knife that longtime scout Bill Clark brought back from an otherwise fruitless trip to Mali; the scouting report that Dodgers scout Mel Didier filed for the 1988 World Series in which he predicted that A's closer Dennis Eckersley would try a backdoor slider with a full count -- which is what he threw to Kirk Gibson in Game 1; the big straw hat worn by Tony Lucadello, who signed Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Mike Schmidt; even the scripts from "A League of Their Own" ("I know the goods when I see the goods, and she's the goods") and "Moneyball."

All this history of scouting comes with the realization that the profession is as necessary and vibrant today as it was when New York Yankees scout Paul Krichell spotted a Columbia University first baseman named Lou Gehrig. Scouts are not just old guys sitting around and swapping stories. They're driven professionals who supplement their wisdom with advanced metrics, their eyes with the latest in digital technology. Some stars are easy to find -- the Giants could not have won the World Series without their 2008 first-round pick, Buster Posey. Others, not so easy -- they also couldn't have won it without their 2005 28th-round pick, Sergio Romo.

That's why the most intriguing element of the HOF tribute is the creation of an interactive, online database of more than 14,000 scouting reports prepared in collaboration with SABR. Visitors onsite in Cooperstown and online at www.baseballhall.org will be able to access a treasure trove of 441 scouts, covering 4,444 players from 1943 through 2006. Here are just a few that show what scouts of different eras were seeing, and thinking:

A 1952 report by Dodgers scout Al Campanis on Robert Clemente didn't spell Puerto Rican correctly, but it did give the 18-year-old all A's and A+s and predicted "will mature into big man."

Tom Seaver Scouting Report
Baseball Hall of FameTom Seaver's curve "could improve with right instructions," according to Tom Lasorda in 1965. Click here for full report.

Braves scout Dewey Griggs only guessed at the nationality of the pitcher from Springfield, Mass., he was scouting in 1959: "Cuban or Puerto Rican." But he had no trouble divining the future of Dominican Juan Marichal: "Never seems to exert himself … very good live fastball … throws mostly overhand … should go all the way."

The 1965 scouting report on a USC sophomore pitcher named Tom Seaver read: "This boy showed a real good fast ball with good life … boy has plenty of desire to pitch and wants to beat you." It was signed by Dodgers scout Tom Lasorda.

In 1992, Rockies scout Ed Santa raved about a Kalamazoo Central High shortstop named Derek Jeter: "This guy is special. You get excited just watching him warm up. All-Star potential as SS at ML level." Santa said that he reminded him of another player: Gary Green of the Reds.

Russ Bove of the Brewers filed this unenthusiastic 1999 report on a third baseman for Maple Woods CC in Kansas City: "Heavy, bulky body … future weight problem … tends to be a hacker. Chases." The player was Jose A. Pujols, whom you probably know from his middle name, Albert.

We could go on. And on. Suffice to say, the beauty of this new resource is that it will give fans the joy of discovery. And that, after all, is what being a scout is all about.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.