The Superscout, And A Rotten Heartbeat

Hugh Alexander experienced the exploitation of baseball from both sides. His life in the game is the game's life in microcosm.
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Not a good man. Not a kind man. Definitely a baseball man.

This is an excerpt from Primary Sources: Deconstructing baseball's myths through its documented history, a collection of columns by Jack Moore. The collection contains 34 columns like this one covering topics from sabermetrics and the strategies of the game's early hitters to race and labor issues. The e-book can be purchased here for $3 and comes in .EPUB, .MOBI and .PDF formats.

Men like Hugh Alexander, baseball men will tell you, are the bedrock of the sport. Alexander was a baseball lifer, a superscout near the top of the Philadelphia Phillies hierarchy; it was considered one of the best organizations in baseball during the 1980s, at the twilight of Alexander's career. A widely syndicated 1983 story by Philadelphia writer Bill Conlin said Alexander, then 66 and a part of the baseball world for half a century, "personified baseball." He was, Conlin wrote, "a man with a face from a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell, a sage who speaks the earthy poetry of his game and his time from a yeasty treasure trove of reminiscence."

Like most scouts, Alexander had a baseball career before he entered scouting. Alexander was signed by a legend, Cy Slapnicka, who was at the time the only scout in the Cleveland Indians organization. Slapnicka was a classic huckster, the baseball version of The Music Man's smooth-talking protagonist Harold Hill. Kevin Kerrane wrote of Slapnicka in Dollar Sign on the Muscle: "When he became the Indians' general manager in 1936, he began hiring scouts and showing them how to cut corners. He had once been a vaudeville juggler, and he could also juggle the contracts he issued to new prospects, leaving them undated or otherwise non-binding until the prospects proved themselves in the minors."

Alexander was signed to the Indians on one of Slapnicka's "undated or otherwise non-binding" deals as a 17-year-old. In 1936, Alexander's first year at Cleveland training camp, another young player named Tommy Henrich challenged the contract he had signed from Slapnicka. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled that Henrich's contract had been manipulated, and Henrich was made a free agent. Soon after, Slapnicka approached Alexander and asked if he would pursue free agency as Henrich had. As Alexander told Kerrane in Dollar Sign on the Muscle:

I said, 'No sir, Mr. Slap'—that's what I called him—'you've been good to me, and I want to stay with you. I don't want my free agency.' He said, 'Oh, you're a fine boy, and here's what I'm going to do for you.' He opened a drawer and pulled out a thousand dollars in cash, and he said, 'I'm going to give this to you.' But then, instead of handing me the money, he wrote out a little agreement: I'd get one thousand dollars if and when I got called up to the majors.

The next year, 1937, the Indians called me up late in the season. I still had that piece of paper in my wallet, and finally I got up enough nerve to go up to his office one morning. I said, "Mr. Slap, I think you owe me a thousand dollars." And he had forgotten about it—he said, "Oh no, no." I said, "I've got a little piece of paper here that you signed at spring training last year." "Oh yeah," he said, "I remember that." And then he started givin' me the poor-mouth talk—and he could do it, like Branch Rickey—about how times were tough, and the Indians' attendance was low, and all that stuff. He finally said, "I'll tell you what I'll do for you, Alex. I'll give you two hundred and fifty now, and if you're still in this ballpark thirty days after the season opens next year, I'll give you the other seven hundred and fifty dollars."

What went through my mind was: "Well, I'm gonna be on the club. I'm a good young ballplayer and I can play, and I'll just get my seven hundred and fifty next year." So he talked me into the two hundred and fifty, and we wrote up the new agreement. And at the end of that season I went home, and that December I got my hand cut off.

Alexander, like many minor leaguers at the time, worked during the offseason to supplement the low wages of minor league baseball. Alexander, who was raised in Oklahoma, spent the winter of 1937 working the oil fields of Seminole, Oklahoma. On December 6th, Alexander's hand was cut off after it became tangled in the gears of an oil well. His career ended at age 20; his final line was 1-for-11 in seven games. But Cy Slapnicka made good: he sent Alexander the $750 he was owed, and then Slapnicka made Alexander the youngest scout in major league history.

Slapnicka was Alexander's mentor, and Alexander took to his teaching quickly. One of the first players Alexander signed, Dale Mitchell, called Alexander out for an illegal contract. As Alexander told Kerrane, " was a little on the shady side when I signed him. See, sometimes we wouldn't date the contracts, so if a player didn't work out we could just release him with no obligation. It was a common practice in those days, and maybe Dale found out about it from another scout." Alexander and Slapnicka, however, backdated the contract before the case went before Landis. Mitchell was left without proof of wrongdoing and remained property of Cleveland.

Alexander was aggressive and took pride in his ability to sign the ballplayer, no matter the odds. In the offseason, when most scouts were working a second job, Alexander continued to pursue players. "One might say, ‘Mr. Alexander, I want to get married so bad, but I don't have any money.’ Or another one might be broke, and Christmas is comin' up. And maybe I'd sign each of those boys for less than a thousand. Then one of the other scouts might say, ‘You son of a bitch! You went and signed my player out of college.’ I'd say, ‘I sure did. While you was out bein' a carpenter, I was still workin'.’"

Alexander described brushing up on tax law and using under the table payments to scoop players from other scouts. He talked of having to convince families their boys would be taken care of, how to convince mothers to let their kids "go a thousand miles to play baseball, and not see him ’til September."

"I might've told their mothers that I'd look after the boys personally," Alexander said, "But it finally got to a point that when I signed a ballplayer, I forgot about him."

Alexander rose quickly. His first signing for Cleveland was Allie Reynolds, who led the American League in strikeouts with 151 in his rookie year in 1943 and reached five All-Star games, all with the Yankees in his thirties. Mitchell reached a pair of All-Star games with Cleveland. After a move to the Dodgers, Alexander signed MVP and 10-time All-Star Steve Garvey, six-time All-Star Ron Cey, and a host of other future major leaguers. In 1972, the Phillies plucked him out of the Dodgers organization and made him a special-assignment scout, one of the few highly paid—$30,000 yearly in the early 1980s, worth roughly $85,000 today—scouting positions available.

Alexander had finally made it to the top. What did it take?

I was kind of a loner. I think you have to be a certain breed to be a baseball scout, I really do. You couldn't take just anybody and put him out to it. It's a lonesome goddamn life, to begin with. And it ruins marriages. I know for sure how many it ruined of me—I've been married five times. And I have a daughter, she's married now with children of her own, and I never really got to know her. Sometimes a scout gets to a point where his wife just says: "Hey, here it is. I'm gonna put the ultimatum on you. You gotta get out of the scoutin' business and be a father, and stay home, or I'm gonna pack my bags and leave." And that becomes a hell of a decision for a baseball scout. I always said, "Well, I've gotta stay in baseball, so..."—what's the old saying?—vaya con Dios.

Alexander was recruited and trained by one of the first real scouts, one of the "bird dogs." He scouted through the Branch Rickey era, as the farm system and the chain store and "quality through quantity" became the status quo. He scouted through the breaking of the color line, the institution of the draft, and MLB's entrance into Latin America. Alexander said he would drive 60,000 miles per year when he was with the Dodgers. "Many a time we slept in our cars. Drive all night long—no air conditioners in automobiles in those days, so we drove at night when it would be a little cooler, plus the fact that we might have to get to a town five or six hundred miles away."

Because of the stump where his left hand used to be, scouts across the circuit called Alexander "Poor Old Hughie." According to Conlin, in Poor Old Hughie's story you can hear "the heartbeat of a nation."

Let us recap this story. Alexander, one of the few promising talents out of his rural area, was paid so poorly by original superscout Cy Slapnicka and his bosses in Cleveland's owners box that he was forced to risk his health working in his hometown oil fields. His employers routinely lied about payments and deceived players on contract negotiations.

In a rare moment of compassion, the Cleveland organization gave him a job. His job was to run the same con on the next generation of baseball players, the one that Slapnicka ran on him when he was 17. His job was to figure out how to save his owners' money, at the expense of kids who had bought the line, like Alexander had, that baseball was the way out, their path to a better life. He did this job well, and he took extensive pride in it.

For every Steve Garvey and Allie Reynolds signed by Alexander, there were many others who flamed out before they reached the majors. Others had careers cut short by injuries. Alexander himself said he immediately forgot about them. Perhaps the organization would remember them, as Slapnicka remembered Alexander in 1937, and reward them with a chance to work for peanuts for half a century, at a job requiring them to sacrifice family and friends. Perhaps not, and they were left to fend for themselves, untrained, perhaps without even a high school degree, with the wear and tear of a life of baseball on their bodies, and perhaps without the money owed them on one of the unbinding or undated contracts Slapnicka and Alexander were so fond of.

It's a story of exploitation across generations. The methods evolved over time, but the objective remained the same, to provide the plutocrats in the owners box with as cheap a labor force as the law—or manipulations of it—would allow. I don't know if Poor Old Hughie Alexander personifies baseball. But he personifies the business of baseball, of Major League Baseball, and in this story, the heartbeat of America is unmistakable.

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