'Last Great Scout:' Alexander embodied old school
Book details one of baseball's all-time great characters in a forgotten era
Earlier this summer, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened a two-year exhibit to celebrate the contributions of scouts to the national pastime. So the publication of "Baseball's Last Great Scout" is perfectly timed.
Hugh Alexander is, without question, one of the great characters of the game. A promising 20-year-old prospect for the Indians, he lost his left hand in an offseason Oklahoma oil field accident. By the time the next season rolled around, Alexander had already embarked on his new career, driving thousands of miles on back roads to find players for the Cleveland organization.
Whether Alexander was actually the last great scout is sort of beside the point. The reality is that he exemplified the pre-Draft era where talent hunters relied on their wits and their guile to convince prospects to sign with them, even if another club was offering more money.
It required developing a wide network of contacts who would supply tips. Sometimes it meant also signing a brother, even though Uncle Hughie knew he'd never make it. Sometimes it involved exploiting a loophole in baseball's rules. Almost always it involved getting to know the family, especially the mother. By all accounts, Alexander was as good as it got employing those arcane skills.
The project began with a phone call from author Dan Austin, a professor emeritus of business at Nova Southeastern University, to Alexander in the early 1990s. At their first meeting, they resolved to write a book. They met infrequently at his ranch in Brooksville, Fla., and supplemented that information with phone calls. Their last face-to-face meeting occurred a few months before Alexander's death in November 2000.
The result of that collaboration is a slim volume that wonderfully evokes a simpler time in baseball, as well as growing up in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, beer joints, pool halls, Model A Fords, fleabag hotels, small-town politics, the World War II era and more. It tells the behind-the-scenes story of some of the 63 players Alexander claimed to have signed that played in the big leagues, as well as the tale of a few that got away.
Alexander later worked for the Dodgers, White Sox, Phillies and Cubs. Scouting changed once Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, and Alexander changed with it. After the First-Year Player Draft became established, he adjusted again when he segued into becoming a Major League scout, digging up information that could later be used to make advantageous trades. Alexander was proud of the fact that each organization he worked for became a winner. Later in his career, he enjoyed mentoring the next generation of scouts.
The narrative would have been strengthened, though, with a little more directly from Alexander. This was a man with hundreds of stories and even more opinions. Some are included. More are paraphrased with general declarative sentences. "Hughie detested being invisible or boring." "Nothing deterred Hughie if he wanted a certain player." "Hughie learned quickly to have a quick tongue. No one would outtalk him."
It's not that these statements aren't true. It's not that they're completely unsupported. It's just that they would have carried additional weight with a few more quotes and anecdotes.
None of that detracts from the fact that Alexander is one of the most memorable personalities baseball has ever produced. It's a little surprising that he wasn't the subject of a biography years ago.
Then again, the bibliography of books about scouting is short. Kevin Kerrane's seminal "Dollar Sign on the Muscle." Mike Winegardner's "Prophet of the Sandlots." Scouts have been ignored in literature pretty much the way they've gone largely overlooked in the sport in general.
Maybe the Hall of Fame exhibit and this book will help change that.