baseball's last great scout
Reviewed by Will Bishop, University of Kansas
2 july 2013 archive
Though Dan Austin's biography of legendary baseball scout Hugh Alexander, entitled Baseball's Last Great Scout: The Life of Hugh Alexander, makes no direct reference to 2011's Oscar-nominated baseball film, Moneyball, it is difficult not to think of that movie while reading the book. In fact, as one follows Alexander's astonishingly-long career as a Major League scout from 1938 through 1998, as he helped build World Series-winning teams for the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Philadelphia Phillies, there is one particular scene from the Brad Pitt-produced and Bennett Miller-directed film that repeatedly comes to mind.
In this scene, Billy Beane (Pitt), general manager for the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics, sits with his crew of scouts discussing strategies on how to replace the stars they lost to free agency. Moneyball portrays these aging scouts as irrelevant relics of the past. They reveal themselves to be not only out of touch with the wave of the future—computer-assisted analysis of Sabermetric statistics—but out of touch with reality itself, with their talk of "ugly girlfriends" and failure of "the eye-candy test" as signs that a player doesn't have what it takes. The frustrated Beane rejects his scouts' stale advice and turns to the non-traditional council of his Ivy League stats geek, which eventually gives the A's the renewed life they need to defy the odds by winning the American League West and setting a new league record by winning twenty games in a row. Historical inaccuracies aside, the message Moneyball implies is clear: the established, traditional line of thought about how to evaluate players and manage a team is being replaced by some plucky, nerdish underdogs and their revolution of superior-thinking based in modern statistical analysis. The old-fashioned scout plays the role of villain.
Baseball's Last Great Scout would take exception to this perspective, as it stands as much as a celebration of the underappreciated art of scouting as of the life of Hugh Alexander. And after reading Austin's account, one gets the impression this is a good thing, for he presents a good case for the value of the insider's experience, knowledge, and craft that the baseball scout represents. With the increasing attention and authority granted by many to statistical measurements of a player's value—"only part of the baseball story" (162), to use the author's words—Austin's ode as the quintessential scout and his traditional methods are actually quite timely. Whether one's inclinations lean towards the Sabermetric camp or not, this biography participates in a broader contemporary dialogue about baseball's quantifiability.
Austin's argument for the value of the human element and the traditional methods of the scout are colorfully brought to life through his narrative of Alexander's life and career, which the author pieces together from interviews with Alexander, his family, and his colleagues. From a rough-and-tumble oil boom town in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, Hugh Alexander was signed to play outfield by the Cleveland Indians in 1936. Getting the call up to the Big Leagues towards the end of the following season, Alexander took only eleven at-bats and scored only one hit in the majors before losing his left hand in an oil rig accident. This turn of fate effectively ended his career as a baseball player, but enabled Alexander to begin and unusually long stint as a baseball scout—an occupation usually taken up by former players once their bodies' athletic abilities have been compromised by advancing age. Through sixty years of scouting Alexander brought more than his share of baseball luminaries to the Major Leagues, including Allie Reynolds, Dale Mitchell, Gene Bearden, Frank Howard, Don Sutton, Bill Russell, and Davey Lopes. But it is frequently the tactics Alexander employed to sign these players rather than their star power that makes Austin's book engaging. These tactics include giving competing scouts false "red herring" leads, going out of his way to address the fears and desires of a player's mother, signing a talented prospect's less-gifted brother, exploiting tax loopholes, and, most importantly, establishing a network of connections at high schools, watering holes, and newspapers in nearly every podunk town from Texas to North Dakota (Alexander's "territory"). This insider's perspective on the craft of scouting is what truly justifies the existence of Austin's book. Casual fans, seasoned students of the game, and serious sports historians should all find something of value in Austin's account of one man's experience as part of this less-examined facet of baseball.
Austin largely keeps his prose simple and free of frills, a tactic that mostly works towards the book's advantage, letting Alexander's eccentric adventures on the scouting trail speak for themselves. Usually this is enough to hold the reader's interest. Direct quotes from Alexander and reconstructed dialogue add liveliness to the stories. Sometimes skimping on details of the more personal aspects of Alexander's life, Baseball's Last Great Scout provides better coverage of how his job as a scout changed with the tides of baseball history, including integration, free agency, and the creation of the draft in the mid-'60s which dramatically altered the baseball scout's role and pushed Alexander to more of an advisory position.
Strengths aside, the book could use another pass by an editor and fact checker as the occasional typographical errors and glaring misstatements about baseball history become a bit distracting. (For instance, the Dodgers beat the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series, not in '64 (80). And, though they did not win, the Cubs played in the 1945 World Series (144).) Furthermore, Baseball's Last Great Scout contains no bibliography, reference notes, or index. Though Austin does provide something of a list of interviewees and sources in the "Acknowledgements" section, his book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, will likely see more of an academic rather than popular audience, and the lack of these features will be a disappointment to many.
That having been said, Baseball's Last Great Scout remains a worthwhile read. Even for those who beat the drums of the baseball statistics revolution, Austin's book clearly demonstrates through the life and career of Hugh Alexander the significant but too-often underappreciated contribution the human touch of baseball scouts has made to the history of the game. "Up in the grandstand," Austin writes of the undervaluing of the scout, "the fan wants to see the unexpected, a remarkable time at bat, another thrill of a double play. Never does he see the invisible corps of scouts who brought the players from the sandlots to the Big Show. That's the way it is and will always be" (160). But now with the publication of Baseball's Last Great Scout, perhaps it doesn't have to always be that way for every fan.
Dan Austin. Baseball's Last Great Scout: The Life of Hugh Alexander (University of Nebraska Press, 2013)
Copyright © 2013 by Will Bishop