Baseball’s Last Great Scout:
The Life Of Hugh Alexander
By Dan Austin
University of Nebraska Press
In the seminal book on scouting, Kevin Kerrane’s “Dollar Sign On The Muscle,” Hugh Alexander is the first talent evaluator who gets an extensive profile. Over 16 pages (in my well-worn 1985 paperback edition), Kerrane outlines Alexander’s fascinating life story, from making his major league debut with the Indians at age 19 in 1937 before losing his left hand in an oil-rig accident during the offseason, leading to him becoming the youngest scout in baseball history and signing five dozen future big leaguers during a six-decade career.
Alexander’s scouting wisdom helped the Indians, Dodgers and Phillies win World Series titles, aided the White Sox in capturing their lone pennant in an 85-year span and assisted the Cubs in taking a rare division title. It’s a story that cries for a full-length biography—which is what makes “Baseball’s Last Great Scout: The Life Of Hugh Alexander” so promising and ultimately somewhat disappointing.
Dan Austin, a professor emeritus of business at Nova Southeastern University, befriended Alexander in the 1990s and recorded their conversations for seven years before the scout’s death in 2000. Those discussions form the basis of Austin’s first book, but unfortunately the author doesn’t go much beyond them. The result is less a biography than a collection of anecdotes.
Alexander didn’t dwell on the accident that cost him his playing career, so neither does the book. It’s covered in the first couple of pages, and that’s that. Legend has it that Alexander drove 14 miles to find a doctor who amputated the hand after giving him whiskey as an anesthetic, but that’s not addressed.
Neither is the story that Alexander liked to tell on himself about how he missed out on Mickey Mantle. Alexander got an early tip on the future Hall of Famer, but also learned that Mantle had been hurt playing football and developed arthritis in his legs. Alexander figured that it was difficult enough to reach the big leagues if a player was completely healthy, so he didn’t pursue Mantle.
“Baseball’s Last Great Scout” isn’t short on interesting stories, however. Cy Slapnicka, the legendary scout who signed Alexander for the Indians, taught him how to evaluate talent. Alexander trusted his eyes and never believed in using radar guns and stopwatches once they came into vogue.
Pitchers were a mysterious breed to decipher, but Slapnicka stressed the importance of watching how they employed their legs in their delivery, and how they used their forearm and wrist when throwing the ball. Alexander took those lessons to heart, and the first player he ever signed stood out to him because of the extension in his release: Oklahoma A&M righthander Allie Reynolds, who would win 182 games in the majors and play a part on six World Series championship clubs.
Because he didn’t want to let Reynolds get away, Alexander borrowed $1,000 in cash from a bank so he could literally lay cash on his table. Throughout his career, Alexander would do whatever it took to sign a player. He said his top strategy was earning the trust of their mothers, whom he estimated made the final call on signing 75-80 percent of the time, and it paid off in the signing of several players, including Frank Howard for the Dodgers.
Alexander could get creative, too. Houston Colt .45s GM Paul Richards offered Oklahoma high school righthander Dick Calmus $100,000 in 1962, but Alexander landed him by agreeing to sign Dick and his older brother Myrle—for a total of $60,000. Two years later, Richard went to $100,000 for Mississippi prep shortstop Tommy Dean, only to lose out to another $60,000 bid from Alexander, who showed the Dean family how to exploit an income tax loophole.
Alexander hated the institution of the amateur draft in 1965, which he viewed as a form of socialism. Contacts, personal relationships and imagination no longer mattered as much, so he shifted gears and spent the second half of his career as a major league scout. He played a part in the Phillies trading for Garry Maddox and Tug McGraw, and in the Cubs dealing for Sammy Sosa.
Uncle Hughie, as he was known in baseball circles, had as much flair for telling an entertaining tale as he did acumen for appraising baseball talent. “Baseball’s Last Great Scout” captures some of that, but a definitive biography of Alexander still begs to be written.