Digby Didn’t Let Many Get Away

DENVER--George Digby was credited with signing more than 50 players who made it to the big leagues, including Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, who might not have been drafted by the Red Sox if not for Digby's convincing argument in 1976.

George Digby, right, enters the Red Sox hall of fame with Mo Vaughn (Brita Meng Outzen/Boston Red Sox)

George Digby, right, enters the Red Sox hall of fame with Mo Vaughn (Brita Meng Outzen/Boston Red Sox)

But like any great fisherman, there's always the story of the one who got away. In Digby's case, it was Willie Mays, who he recommended in 1949, but Boston declined.

Digby died in early May at the age of 94 at his home in Nashville, having retired only five years ago after spending 50 years as a scout and 14 years as a consultant for the Red Sox. He was born in New Orleans on Aug. 31, 1917.

Digby and the Red Sox developed a long-term relationship out of an incident in 1944, when the Red Sox signed pitcher Richard Callahan. Digby was Callahan's high school coach in New Orleans, and he drove such a hard bargain, not only did the Red Sox pony up to sign Callahan, they offered Digby a job and he became the franchise's first full-time scout in the South.

Callahan never played a day in the big leagues. There are, however, the names of 53 big league players he's credited with signing on Digby's Florida sports hall of fame plaque, which hangs outside the press box at Tropicana Field. The list includes Haywood Sullivan, a catcher who eventually became part of the ownership group in Boston in 1952, and 27 years later he signed Sullivan's son Marc.

Frank Bolling was among the players Digby signed in 1945, his first year with the Red Sox. Three years later, Bolling became the first Digby signee to make it to the big leagues.

Digby watched Boggs play shortstop for Plant City (Fla.) High and was enamored with the “smooth swing.'' The Major League Scouting Bureau, however, had Boggs as a non prospect and the Red Sox weren't convinced he was big league material.

Haywood Sullivan was the scouting director at the time, and he said, 'George, we have to take him off our list.' " Digby told the Boston Globe at the time of Boggs' Hall of Fame induction. “I said, 'The hell with the bureau. Leave him on.' I didn't know about him being a shortstop, but he could hit."

Digby didn't take no for an answer, and the Red Sox took Boggs in the seventh round of the 1976 draft. They signed him for a $7,500 bonus plus money for college, which Boggs never used. It took six years, however, for Boggs to make it to the big leagues, including one year when the Red Sox left him off the 40-man roster and won the gamble when no other team selected him in the Rule 5 draft.

Sox Say Nay To The Kid

Digby wasn't as fortunate with Mays. But then Digby was still a relative newcomer to pro ball in 1949, and he didn't have a relationship with the decision-makers in Boston. He, however, had a feeling about Mays, who was playing with the Negro League's Birmingham Black Barons, which shared the ballpark with the Birmingham Barons, then the Red Sox affiliate.

“I had Willie Mays bought for $4,500," Digby told the Boston Globe in 2005. “I called up the Red Sox. I said, 'I got Willie Mays. He'll break the color line (for the Red Sox).' "

With Jackie Robinson having broke baseball's color barrier only two years earlier, a hesitant Boston front office declined. It wasn't until 11 years later that Pumpsie Green became the first black player to appear in a game with the Red Sox, making them the last pre-expansion franchise to integrate their roster.

Mays signed with the New York Giants in 1950, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The impact Digby had on the Red Sox franchise was never overlooked. In 2008, he became the first scout inducted into the Red Sox hall of fame, a tribute for a man whose list of signings includes not only Boggs and the Sullivans, but also Bob Montgomery, Mike Greenwell, Reid Nichols, Jerry Moses and Mike Smithson.

“Top 10 scouts in the history of baseball," Cubs special assignment scout Tim Wilken tweeted upon learning of Digby's death. “Ted Williams is probably cussing George for taking so long."

Not that Digby would have cared. He always did things his way.

And as the Red Sox learned over time, Digby's way was usually the right way when it came to scouting players.