By Marty Appel
As with so many elements of the Yankees organization, you go back to the roots of the “Team of the Century” to see where it all came from. As much as the current team invites comparisons with the 1961, the 1939 and the 1927 Yankees, so too does the current state of the team’s scouting operation.
For if the Yankees are built on pride and tradition, the bloodlines are in place.
It really goes back to Paul Krichell, the man who scouted and signed Lou Gehrig.
Krichell was the first great Yankee scout. Hired in 1920 at 37 by general manager Ed Barrow, for whom he had worked in the minors and at Boston, Krichell would soon after find a slugger in a Columbia uniform named Lou Gehrig. The signing made his reputation, and he was still on the payroll 37 years later when he passed away, having added Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford to his discoveries. If ever an early century figure defined the role of “scout,” it was Krichell, a good candidate for the Hall of Fame should they ever get around to scouts.
Then there were a couple of gentlemen named Bill Essick and Joe Devine.
Essick, who pitched nine games for the Reds in 1906-07, went on to become a manager and an owner in the Pacific Coast League. In 1926, he was hired to scout the PCL for the Yankees. Barrow, not a bad judge of talent himself, had convinced owner Jacob Ruppert that more full-time scouts were needed, and that a successful team could not merely rely on tips from friends around the country, as John McGraw did with the Giants.
Six years after Essick joined the organization, Barrow added Joe Devine. Devine had been a west coast Pirate scout, and had signed four future Hall of Famers in his eight years on the Pirates payroll – Paul and Lloyd Waner, Joe Cronin, and Arky Vaughn. After two seasons as a PCL manager, Barrow grabbed him up. The Yankees now had two top scouts on their payroll patrolling the west coast, a growing hotbed for talent.
Triple-A baseball in those days was flowing with up and coming stars. But not everyone who performed well in Triple-A was going to become a big league hitter. Stats could be deceiving; it was a hitter’s league. It took a keen eye to pick the true winners.
In their first year working together, Essick and Devine spotted a kid named Joe DiMaggio playing in San Francisco. You might think that only a fool would pass on Joe, who had had a 61-game hitting streak in 1933, but a knee injury the following year made every other club shy away from him. Only Essick and Devine said “sign him!”
You don’t need to be reminded how that one turned out. And with that signing, the reputations of Essick and Devine were made. They would forever be considered among the elite scouts in the game’s history. Both died in 1951, DiMaggio’s final year. Devine managed to nab a kid named Billy Martin before he was through too.
Tom Greenwade was the very picture of a baseball scout, a soft-spoken, straw-hit guy with a stopwatch and a notebook, and one can only imagine what went through his mind the first time he saw an 18-year old shortstop named Mickey Mantle. Scouts live for such a moment, and few ever experience it. In the late ‘40s, you could still find these diamonds in the rough all by yourself. You found him, you kept it quiet, you befriended his family, and you signed him. It was a beautiful time to be a big league scout.
The Yankee dynasty helped to bring that to a close, when baseball adopted the free agent, amateur draft in 1965. Designed to level the playing field, it fairly eliminated the need for exclusive scouts, and thus was soon born a Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau, which would share reports of amateur prospects. Communications were too sophisticated for a Mantle situation to happen again. Everyone knew everything about every kid playing in any college conference or top amateur league.
But the old baseball people still valued the unique gifts of top scouts. I was privileged, as the team’s public relations director, to witness a heated debate in 1976 over which players to protect and which to expose in the draft designed to stock the new Seattle and Toronto teams. People presented different points of view, but Gabe Paul, the general manager, settled it by saying, “It has to come down to the scouts. You pay them to know their stuff, and you have to live or die with that advice. Based on that, I say that even though we may not have seen much yet, we have to protect Guidry.”
Score one for the scouts.
High-profile scouts were becoming scarce. The ones who toiled in the nation’s colleges and amateur fields filed similar looking reports and tended to mirror one another’s perceptions. Attention shifted to the agents, and away from the scouts.
But the Yankees, badly victimized by the amateur draft, were not going down that easily.
When Gene “Stick” Michael was General Manager of the Yankees, the farm system really started to kick in, and the efforts of scouts were being rewarded. The Yankees were always at or near the top of organizational winning percentage and pennants won.
“But for a long time, we weren’t really producing like we should there,” Michael says. “We went a long time between Ron Guidry and Andy Petitte in developing a top flight starting pitcher. But this organization has never been afraid of putting money into player development, and in recent years, not afraid to move players up and test them under fire. We weren’t always doing that, and we tended to trade prospects for established, win-now players.”
In fact, there were years in which not a single drafted player ever made it to the Yankees. But in the mid-‘80s, that began to turn around. Latin American players, who are excluded from the draft, form a special niche in the hearts of scouts, for it is the one area in which a scout can still find a prospect and not lose him to the free agent draft.
Still, according the Yankee general manager Brian Cashman, even that is fading from the scene.
“Once these areas become hotbeds of talent,” he says, “agents move in. They hire local representatives, find the top prospects, and come to the teams. We signed Mariano Rivera and Ramiro Mendoza out of Panama before this became the way business was done. And we got Bernie Williams in Puerto Rico the old fashioned way – found him, hid him, and signed him before anyone knew about him. But those days are gone. You can’t do it anymore”
Now, player development can be what separates one organization from another.
“I remember when Rivera was first coming on,” recalled Michael. “He was throwing between 88-92 on the gun at Columbus. Seldom does a pitcher gain speed – you have what you have. Then one day I came into my office and saw a report that he had thrown 94-95 the night before. I thought the gun must have been broken, so I called Columbus and they said it was right. Just for the helluva it, I called a scout from another organization who was at the game and asked what he had. I didn’t tell him about the 88-92 part. And he said he had him at 94-95 too.
“Well, I thought, what’s going on here? This never happens. And then, don’t you know, after a few more starts, the reports start coming in at 95-96. It was unbelievable. And then I knew, we had something here. Somehow, he had suddenly just let it out. There was a time I would have traded him, but I had a hunch. I even protected him against the Rule 5 Draft one year when I really didn’t have to – no one would take him. But I played it safe, and boy, did it turn out right.”
“With Petitte, it was Tony Cloninger who told me to hang with him. He was developing on pace with Sterling Hitchcock, and we could see him coming on. It had been so long since we’d developed a starting pitcher who was a keeper. Tony called that one.
“With Bernie, well, there were trades we considered early on, but then he’d get a little hotter each year as the talks continued. He was always a slow starter, and he always played himself back into favor.”
There was a time when Yankee scouts included a lot of former players, and with their home addresses published, they got as many autograph requests as they did tips. Now, the scouts are of a more professional nature, names not known by the fans. There is a more businesslike approach. The Yanks have 16 scouts in the US and Canada – and 13 in Latin America, where the competition to sign players is tougher. The results seem to speak for themselves. The Yankees continue to be at or near the top in Organization of the Year voting every season, and find themselves with more and more homegrown players on their championship roster.
Even in these days of communal scouting and widely passed along information, a scout will still find that the Yankee organization provides the most sophisticated support. And in the end, when a player meets a guy with a stopwatch and a clipboard who sticks out his hand and says “I’m with the New York Yankees,” it means a lot.