July 28, 2006
Firing Up the Wayback Machine
Just north of Chicago, there's this little store front in a crappy strip mall in some crappy suburb that sells memorabilia. It's a great place. Messy, dusty and unorganized, the place primarily deals in old magazines, and they sit on racks, in piles on the floor and even unopened boxes. You can get lost in this place for a very, very long time.
A couple of years back I found myself in that store with a little discretionary income, and scored a couple of nice finds, including a 1976 Rolling Stone with the Sex Pistols on the cover, and some independently published film rag from the late 1960s with a long feature on Andy Warhol's films.
Then, while perusing some old Street and Smith's annuals, I struck gold in a cardboard box tucked away in a corner. It was packed with somewhere around 100 Baseball Digests from the 1960s. Every March issue I found--seven in total, with dates ranging from 1961-1969--had the same text on the cover: "Exclusive! From The Confidential Files Of Big League Clubs - Official Scouting Reports and Complete Data on XXX Rookies," with XXX equaling a number somewhere between 200 and 400. Naturally, I bought them all.
They're fascinating documents, like a really awful version of Baseball America, with 12-15 players listed for each team (alphabetically, no rankings) along with some statistical information, biographical data, and a one or two sentence quote from a scouting report.
The language is at times fascinating--levels are referred to a 3A, 2A and A--and nationalities are listed for most players. Tim McCarver? Irish. Jim Kaat? Dutch. Ferguson Jenkins? Canadian Negro. Perhaps 1965 was not exactly our proudest hour.
The issues are yellowed and frayed, but I still pull them off of the bookshelf from time to time, and while they always make me sneeze, it's more than worth it for the entertainment factor. Here are some highlights.
1961: Other than the great advertisements that includes a two-year subscription for a whopping $4.95, or the second edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia for just $6.95, the introduction to the rookie reports always gets me here. "So authoritative that the new Houston club is using them as a basis for buying talent for its first National League team," it claims. No wonder they lost 96-plus games in their first four years.
Joe Torre, 20 year-old catcher with the Braves: "Big asset is his bat. Needs work defensively." Pretty astute comment for a guy just getting out of rookie-ball at Eau Claire in Wisconsin. Torre could always hit, but an inability to catch always hurt his value.
Richie Allen, 19-year-old infielder with the Phillies: "Nickname: Sleepy... $60,000 bonus boy... had 41 college offers as a basketball player." All good stuff for one of the toolsiest players of his generation. But then there is this: "He gets to first base from right side in 3.4 seconds." An aggrandizement of the highest order. This makes him a full half-second faster than the fastest players in the game, faster than any Olympic sprinter ever, and somewhere between The Flash and Superman. As a good friend put it, "That makes him a 140 runner on the 20-80 scale."
Richie Allen, now 20, and coming off a .317 season with 21 home runs in the Pioneer League: "Tools are pretty good but bat is a question mark. It's slow." This is commonly referred to in the scouting community as a miss.
Tim McCarver, 20-year-old catcher in Cardinals system. "Average arm, but may be good enough to get by. Youth on his side, so is desire." Even his scouting reports 44 years ago make him sound annoying.
John Powell, 20-year-old outfielder with Orioles. "Not a fast runner--but a strong one once he gets going." This is the last marginally positive thing written about Boog Powell's speed in the known world.
1963: First story in the issue is about Early Wynn suggesting that official scorers should wear an orange jersey and sit right behind home plate so that they have more accountability--Early Wynn was an angry, angry man.
Dan Staub, 20-year-old infielder with Houston Colts. The scouting report is accurate, and thinks he can hit, but they spend half of the report talking about how Rusty is a stamp and coin collector. Highly relevant!
Jim Wynn, 21-year-old infielder also with Colts. "Strong arm and a good personality." Reviewing these makes me wonder when the term 'makeup' was first coined. It's never used in any of these reports.
Mike Lolich, 22-year-old pitcher with Tigers. "Fair curve, changeup and control, but below-average fastball. 2A seems top." Whoops!
1965: Joe Morgan on the cover. Good call, that. Inside cover has photo of Angels outfielder Rick Reichardt with caption, "The Next Mickey Mantle!" Bad call. An entertaining article inside on economics, authored by Shirley Povich, about how the new "lush" television deal will pay each team $300,000 this year! The Yankees could be worth $15 million!
Rick Reichardt, 22-year-old outfielder with Angels. "A-plus hitter with real power. Excellent fielder, fine runner. Powerful boy. Can't miss... Can be the next Mickey Mantle plus!" Reichardt's bonus, reported as $175,000 in this issue, and between $205K and $250K in other sources, is the reason owners finally voted for a draft the following year. He'd hit .261/.325/.414 in an 11-year-career as the final bonus baby bust.
Rod Carew, 20-year-old infielder with the Twins. "Shows some improvement overall in his hitting but overall just an average player. Speed average." Speed average? I'm guessing this is the same scout who clocked Dick Allen to first in 3.4 seconds.
1966: The feature article is about small ball and the success of the Dodgers and Twins. It contains a sentence that even in the age of very little offense, made the BP-like folks of their day cringe. "Baseball managers have learned their lesson well. When a batter gets on first base he is now supposed to be on second with one out."
Ed Barnowski, 22-year-old righty with the Orioles. "Can throw real good fastball and curve. Is hard worker--an A-1 prospect." This one always leaves me puzzled, because I have no idea what happened here. In 1965, Barnowski had a 1.98 ERA at Double-A Elmira and went into the season with 598 strikeouts in 516 career innings. Total major league career: six games, 7.1 innings, 2.45 ERA but eight walks.
John Odom, 20-year-old righthander with the A's. "Has major league arm, but needs to improve his control." The scouting bit tells us very little, but it is Odom's statistical section that always leaves me reeling. In today's age of highly-protected arms, Odom began the season as a teenager in the Northwest League and threw 198 innings. And these were a work-intensive 198 innings as he gave up 207 hits, walked 118, and struck out 184. Hard to imagine people 40 years ago thinking that kind of workload was a good idea.
Rod Carew, 21-year-old infielder with the Twins. "Can go up. Has some power. Good fielder with good arm. Runs bases well." I guess they've realized the Carew is kind of good. Another cultural note--the bio information lets us now that Carew is in the Marines, but due out in April, so I guess he'll miss spring training. Wait a second, isn't he from Panama?
1967: For fans of Ball Four, there is a fine piece on Jim Bouton feeling great again and ready to produce like he did in 1963-64, when he won a combined 39 games--Bouton would pitch just 44.1 innings that year with a 4.67 ERA. That's followed by the optimistically titled, "Will Sandy Koufax pitch again? Don't bet against it!" Or maybe you should.
Mike Epstein, 24-year-old first baseman with the Orioles. "Excellent power. A really top ballplayer even now... can be a sensation." Epstein was coming off a year in which he led the Triple-A International League in home runs, RBI, and total bases one year after leading the California League in bombs. His nickname was, and I'm too busy to make this stuff up, "Superjew." He was the Sporting News minor league player of the year, but there was one problem. Baltimore already had an established young slugging first baseman in Boog Powell. When they sent Epstein back to Triple-A Rochester, he was probably a little too smart to play baseball, and unfortunately knew it, sat out, which led to a midseason trade to Washington. He had his best season with the Senators in 1969, when he hit .274/.414/.551 in 131 games and had the fifth-highest MLVr in the American League. He'd never have another season with a .400+ on-base percentage or slug .500 again, though he did hit 26 home runs for the 1972 world champion Oakland A's.
Johnny Bench, 19-year-old catcher with the Reds. "Best prospect this scout has seen in a couple of years. He can't miss. Superior arm and good or better in every other department. A real hustler." Nice call, and surprisingly strong comments for a kid who just played in the Carolina League. Bench is interestingly enough listed as "English-Irish-Dutch-Indian" and is due to be discharged from the Army at Fort Knox "about April 1." Three years later he'd win the MVP award at the age of 22.
1969: The most interesting feature is a multi-article section on rule changes which discusses a little something that's going to be experimented with in spring training. "Prior to a game, each team will designate a pinch hitter who will bat in place of the pitcher." Buzzie Bavasi, the new GM of the new San Diego Padres, didn't like the idea, saying that while the rule is designed to add offense to the game, it also allows team to leave their best pitchers in the game no matter the score. Good point, but then Bavasi gets a little goofy in suggesting "a 10th man who could bat for anybody in your lineup." Later on, Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press makes some suggestions for making the games shorter (an issue even back then).
Rick Dempsey, 19-year-old catcher with the Twins. "Top catching prospect. Good hitter." Dempsey would play 24 seasons thanks to defense and leadership abilities, but "good hitter" was rarely uttered in reference to his batting skills.
Ron Blomberg, 21-year-old first baseman/outfielder with the Yankees. "Real comer, good speed, good arm and hits with power. When the rough edges are rubbed off, he should be a classy performer." Blomberg actually was a pretty nice hitter for a short time, as long as the opposing pitcher was righthanded, but the thing I love about this scout quote is the use of the word 'classy.' I always picture some scout who looks like Robert Goulet wearing a tux to the ballpark and saying, "I don't know that crazy kid's name or where he came from, but he's classy."
Man, those were the days. Or, maybe not.