Baseball's Last Great Scout: The Life of Hugh Alexander

Baseball's Last Great Scout: The Life of Hugh Alexander

by Dan Austin, Hugh Alexander


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803245013
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 04/01/2013
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Dan Austin is professor emeritus of business at Nova Southeastern University. He has completed two oral history projects, one for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the other celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Negro Professional Baseball League in Kansas City, Missouri.

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A Stick of Dynamite

It was a cold, raw afternoon on December 5, 1937. Working on an oil well water pump near his family's home in Cromwell, Oklahoma, Hugh "Red" Alexander thought about his debut with the Cleveland Indians only three months earlier. A "stick of dynamite" his teammates had called him since his high school days. Fast, powerful, and cocky, he had the numbers to live up to it.

Called up by the Indians in late August, he had spent most of the time on the bench with a few chances to pinch-run. In three months he would be off to the Indians' spring training camp in New Orleans, but now he was helping his parents do some repair work around their home in the middle of an oil field.

Working on the water pump, he thrust his hand down into the shaft to adjust the cog gears. Suddenly his shirt sleeve was caught by one of the gears, dragging his hand into the churning machinery. He felt a sharp jerk on his left arm. Looking down, he stared momentarily in disbelief and then let out a bellowing scream. His left hand, nearly ripped off, lay enmeshed in the gears. Blood spurted everywhere. His mother, standing nearby, heard him.

"Oh, mother, my hand! It's caught!"

Finally freeing his hand, his mother rushed him to the hospital in Seminole. After an intense examination, the doctor said there was no hope for saving his left hand. He proceeded with the amputation.

The next morning, lying in a hospital bed, the twenty-year-old Cleveland rookie told a reporter from the Seminole Producer, "I don't know yet just what I'll do." His mother stood at his bedside with tears in her eyes. "I think I will go on to college and study coaching. I haven't heard anything from Cleveland yet, but I expect to this afternoon. Cy Slapnicka will wire as soon as he hears about it."

Four months earlier he had gotten off a train in downtown Cleveland, just shy of his twentieth birthday. He had made it to the Big Show with just under two years in the Minors. Fiercely determined, he knew that it would not be just for a cup of coffee. With a wiry frame, packing 180 pounds, he felt cocky and bullheaded and ready to collect the rest of his $1,000 bonus, with $250 already in his pocket.

The Indians had kept their eye on Hughie. Cy Slapnicka, the scout who signed him and was now general manager, knew he had three of the five tools of the trade — running, throwing, and hitting with power — and he proved it in the Minor Leagues.

Now, lying in the hospital bed, he thought his career was over. A one-handed kid with no other job skills in the midst of the Great Depression invited only misery, and not much optimism. Certainly there would be no more headlines in the local newspaper, no more slaps on the back by well-wishers, no more home runs, and no more stolen bases.

However, there was one other thought that entered his head: his parents, Harry and Mae, would not tolerate his feeling sorry for himself. Yes, it was a shame that his playing days were over, but he was young and had a whole life ahead of him.

Hugh Alexander was born on July 10, 1917, in Lead Mine, Missouri, a wide space in the road about forty miles northeast of Springfield. Five years later his parents, Harry and Mae, packed up their belongings and three children and moved to Cromwell, Oklahoma, about fifteen miles northeast of Seminole, to work in the oil fields. His parents knew hard work growing up in the Ozarks. Farming was a tough and unforgiving business, especially there. The soil was so depleted that if you wanted to raise crops, you had to haul in dirt. Even the high agricultural prices during World War I did not spread to the farmers of southern Missouri. Corn, oats, and tobacco became dependable cash crops if there was enough rain and no grasshoppers.

Oklahoma (formerly Indian Territory), which achieved statehood just ten years before the Alexanders' arrival, offered a new beginning. Oil wells had already cropped up around Blackwell, Oklahoma City, and Seminole. Black gold meant jobs, and thousands from Missouri and Arkansas poured into the state looking for any kind of work.

Harry, Mae, and the kids found housing immediately. They lived in a tent, called company housing, in the midst of an oil field. Harry took a job as a roughneck, digging ditches and laying pipe. Mae took care of the kids, cooked for the workers, and did their laundry using a scrub board and lye soap.

No one in the Alexander family or their neighbors knew even rudimentary luxury. Hardship enveloped each day in the oil fields. Nearby farmers at least could grow their own vegetables and tend to the family cow. In the oil fields nothing grew, not even weeds.

Kids learned hard work quickly. Scrubbing socks and underwear, then wringing them and hanging them out to dry was a Monday ritual. By age five, everyone had chores, even if the work was perfunctory. One of Hughie's first jobs was cleaning the globes of the kerosene lamps.

In central Oklahoma, where romantic writers describe how "the winds come sweeping down the plains," keeping house with an open doorway was sheer drudgery. The flaps of a tent were the only barrier against dust. Even when the Alexanders later moved to a house, dust constantly sneaked through every window and doorway. Every kid learned quickly about dusting furniture and washing curtains.

Company rules forbade workers to leave the oil fields to eat their meals. On call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, workers never knew when a well would blow or a fire would break out. If they ran off to town, they might not return to work sober. Rounding up a bunch of guys in beer joints or in shacks with prostitutes in the alleys behind took too much time and could prove just as dangerous as putting out a fire in the fields.

Kids in the oil patches grew up on their own while the parents worked. The oil fields became their playground. They played ball, hide-and-go-seek, and other games. The red clay, thickened with runoff crude oil, was as slick as a slab of marble and tough on the body when sliding into "home plate" next to an oil rig.

A game of cowboys and Indians meant fashioning their own toys. From the worn-out leather bands on the rigs, they made peashooters. Nuts and bolts served as pellets to shoot at one another or to kill rats rummaging through the garbage pits.

One day Hughie shot his brother "Doc" right between the eyes as he peeked from behind a rig. He fell unconscious and all the kids thought he was dead. They dragged his body over to a tapped water pump to revive him, but when they turned on the valve, the water pressure almost tore off his face.

Cromwell had only a one-room school house. Most children didn't go to school beyond the eighth grade, as they were then old enough to get a job and help the family. Every morning a bunch of kids, well-scrubbed and with a bowl of hot oatmeal and a teaspoon of cod liver oil in their bellies, ran off to a clapboard building with two outhouses to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.

A kid's education did not end with the school bell ringing at four o'clock in the afternoon. Harry and Mae, although working twelve to fourteen hours a day, meted out a demanding discipline at home.

Mae, a deeply religious woman, didn't tolerate cussing from the children. One day Hughie's brother Doc let out a barrage of profanity, and immediately Mae seized him by the collar and marched him over to the bucket with water and lye soap to "rinse" out his mouth.

Hughie muttered, "I'd like to see her do that to me."

Mae jumped over a chair and dragged him over. "Don't you ever think you're bigger than me!"

Hughie had the makings of a rugged individual, but his mama was boss.

By the late twenties Harry's determination and entrepreneurship got him a promotion to field supervisor. Now, for the first time in six years, they lived in a wood-frame house. Yet the tough work continued for both him and Mae, raising kids and chickens, washing and darning clothes, and fixing meals.

They expected their children to learn quickly about how to work. Harry's rule: when you look big enough, you start working. At age ten Hughie worked in pool halls learning how to play poker. A hustler, he gloated at beating someone out of a quarter. If someone had offered him a diploma, it would have read, "Bachelor of Arts in Street Smarts." He didn't have time to think about the hard, scrubby life. No one else did either. Work meant sweat; if you weren't sweating, then you weren't working.

The way to survive was to be resourceful. In town he cut grass, and when in high school, he lived at the fire hall. He cleaned the movie theater every night for help pay for his room and board. On a good night he made a dollar. Like most Depression kids, Hughie thought that no matter how much money he had in his pocket on one day, the next day he could be broke.

Like his father, Hughie wanted to be in control. His sister and her friends loved to dance, not something that captured his imagination, so he decided to be a manager of dancing contests in Seminole. Arranging the music and dance hall, he collected the admission and charged a handsome commission, something that irked his sister Edith and her friends. However brusque he may have been, Hughie charmed people with a disarming smile and tall tales, traits that he carried with him the rest of his life.

In the early thirties Harry bought a saloon in Seminole, where Hughie worked. Within a few seconds a saloon could change from a low-key atmosphere to hostilities. One night a drunk, slovenly and loud-mouthed, challenged Hughie about the price of a quart of beer. "Twenty-five cents, like hell. I'm paying you only a dime, you little SOB!" Hughie picked up a billy club from behind the bar and clobbered him.

"If you're going to fight, throw the first punch," was Harry's advice to all his boys.

Other than drinking, a poker game in the darkened rear of the saloon invited the regulars to stick around. As with all other saloonkeepers, part of the action belonged to the house. No one ever said much about the rule. It was just understood.

Of course, a drunkard would easily forget the rule or get greedy, as often happened. One night a drunkard hit Harry over the head with a beer bottle, shattering the bottle and cutting him across the forehead and cheek. They struggled on the floor. Finally Harry grabbed the drunkard's ear, sank his teeth into it, and bit it cleanly off his head.

Headstrong and cocky, Hughie loved to challenge orders. When he was a teenager, his parents decided to visit some relatives in Missouri. Harry drove his car, and Mae's car remained at the house with its key under the control of Henry, Hughie's older brother.

As soon as they left town, Hughie told his brother that he was driving the car to town.

"No, you're not, Hugh!"

"Yes, I am!"

After a few more words, Henry pulled out a penknife and stabbed Hughie in the left knee. (One needed the left foot to operate the clutch pedal.) The bleeding did not stop, so Henry drove Hughie to the doctor's office in Seminole. The doc stitched him up, wrapped a bandage around the wound, and sent him home.

"Now you better not be hobbling around when Mom and Dad get back home or I'll tell them what you tried to do, Hugh," Henry ordered.

Hugh obeyed, and it wasn't until six months later when Mae went to town that she accidentally saw the doctor who treated Hugh. "How's Hugh doing?" the doctor asked.

"What do you mean?" she answered. Then she heard half the story. Returning home, she learned the rest of the story.

If the twenties proved burdensome for the Alexanders, the thirties brought the apocalypse. By 1934 a drought spread misery beyond the memory of any living Americans. Dust rolled up on the horizon. The years of drought and over farming the land now harvested misery. The scene spawned despair and the novel The Grapes of Wrath.

In the early thirties Hughie, better known as "Red," witnessed the Great Trek unfolding. Folks piled some bedding and clothing atop their black Model A, children hopped into the back seat, and they simply left their land. To reclaim a farm wrecked by wind and buffeted by economic forces appeared beyond hope. They just picked up and headed west for a new beginning in California. The Alexanders remained in Cromwell, working in the oil fields.

Seminole, like all boom towns, had a surplus of three ill-gotten commodities: guns, booze, and prostitutes. Life was tough and raw. Most people carried guns strapped around their hips, and armed posses roamed the streets at night to protect their belongings. Even in the twenties and early thirties, streets remained unpaved. After heavy rains, mules dragged their bellies in the piles of mud, pulling wagons full of machinery and food.

However poignant the lives of many Oklahomans were, children mustered a resilience to survive. Everybody struggled. No one escaped suffering. It broke some people's spirit and determination. Life just continued one day at a time, day after day after day. As Hugh's parents reminded the Alexander children, if you play it smart, there's nothing you can't do, and don't let anyone tell you differently.

In earlier years Harry had publicized himself as a boxer and took on all comers who arrived in town, especially the carnival people. In late spring and summer carnies spread across the Midwest, paying hawkers to spread the word about them coming to town. One troupe included a 250-pound behemoth advertising himself as a world champ. If anybody could stay in the ring for more than one round, he won ten dollars. Harry took them on.

The odds of any "boxer" collecting a bounty were nil, except for Harry. He knew how to survive in the ring, getting a lot of experience in some beer joint brawls, and it was a quick way to pick up a few bucks.

Harry wanted to know what was inside his son's head. Did Hugh (Harry always called him "Bill," as he never liked his given name) have any guts to stick around? So he decided to put him in a boxing ring with bruisers forty to fifty pounds heavier. That was the first test.

"Now, defend yourself, or I'll beat the hell out of you. You're fast. Start skipping, dart in and out. Big guys can't move. They got lead in their ass." If Hugh didn't mix it up, Harry would outline a boxing "ring" in the dirt, put on some boxing gloves, and get into the ring himself.

Yeah, Harry taught his son to fight! That's right. "Bill, that's when people respect you. You're quick and strong. Dance around them. With your speed, you'll wear any 250-pounder out in three rounds. Protect your territory, and then give him the sucker punch. That's the plan."

Hughie surprised everybody. Fast, wiry, and cocky, he wasn't scared of anyone.

Within a few weeks Red made his boxing debut as the first carnival hit town. Harry put up the entry fee. The cash pot: five dollars if the local stayed upright in the ring for one round, ten dollars for two rounds. No one in recent memory had ever collected a dime, despite town bullies, assorted juvenile delinquents, and star athletes taking a stab for a quick dollar.

Red made some good money, and by late summer everybody knew about him. Just before one fight with a big purse, Harry took him aside. No one would ever suspect a scrawny teenager tampering with the rules of the game.

"Bill [Hughie], I'm goin' to wrap your fists [even as a teenager, Hughie's fist was half again as big as a man's] with tape and then tape a band of steel to your knuckles. Keep your mouth shut. After you knock him out, just get out of the ring and leave. I'll collect the money later. Understand that!"

He won a few pots. No one in the crowds suspected him, but the carnies did, as he darted out of the ring each time and ran behind the tent to have Harry get rid of any tainted evidence. Word got around the carnival circuit not to let Hughie get into the ring. Well, he made some good money while it lasted.

Always find a way to beat your competitor. Harry kept beating the idea into Hugh's head. He taught Hugh to be aggressive, but with a smile. Know people's names, know their weaknesses and strengths and what they like and don't like if you're going to be around them for a while. You just never know when an old customer or rival will reappear.

Harry got his break working with a wildcat oil company by buying mineral rights from farmers. His tools of the trade: an envelope full of cash, legal descriptions of each farmer's land, blank contracts, and a fountain pen.

Harry talked like a seasoned traveling salesman, always looking for a deal to sign. Undoubtedly, Hugh picked up a lot of pointers from his father to use later in his scouting career. "Just sign here on this piece of paper. You got it made."

Convincing farmers to sell their mineral rights, Harry roamed the countryside earning a reputation of never taking no for an answer. Farmers couldn't afford to drill for oil, and they probably would be stuck with a dry one anyway. "Here's the deal," he'd say as he pulled some green bills out of his pocket. Holding the money in his hand, Harry found that it cut out a lot of unnecessary talking.

A farmer and his wife trying to raise a bunch of kids on the dusty prairie saw instant relief. Seeing all that cash on the kitchen table brought a moment of hope. "Cash is hot!" Ain't that America? Cash is the name of the game.


Excerpted from "Baseball's Last Great Scout"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 A Stick of Dynamite 5

2 Enter Cy Slapnicka 16

3 On the Road Again and Again 24

4 Striking Gold in His Own Backyard 37

5 You Gotta Have a Plan 46

6 Scouting in Wartime 53

7 After the War, the Show Goes On 60

8 Watch, but Don't Pick 65

9 Miles Behind, Miles Ahead, but No U-turns 71

10 First Brooklyn, Then Dodging His Way to the West Coast 77

11 A Mythical Combination 83

12 A Three-Traffic-Light Town and Loads of Talent 87

13 Hondo Hits Them High and Deep 90

14 Getting a Twofer 94

15 He Made Me Keep Coming Back 96

16 From No Prospect to Future Hall of Famer 101

17 Where There's a Tryout Camp, There's Hope 104

18 Make Way for Tomorrow 110

19 Building a New Dream 116

20 Let's Get Real about Rebuilding This Club 122

21 Trading Who, and Trading When 127

22 You Can Lose If You Don't Know the Rules 137

23 Finally a Winner 140

24 Looking at Another Scoreboard 144

25 History Repeats Itself 153

26 Overcoming Pitfalls in Seeking Certainty 161

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Baseball's Last Great Scout: The Life of Hugh Alexander 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you're a baseball fan or simply enjoy an uplifting story, Dan Austin's new book about legendary baseball scout Hugh Alexander is a gripping read. With Dr. Austin's unprecedented access to "Uncle Hughie" during years of in-depth interviews, Dan spins a superbly written and inspiring tale about a cocky, self-confident, and colorful character who claims to have signed more players to the major leagues than any other scout. This riveting book "names names" and takes you behind-the-scenes during baseball's glory years. By the last chapter, you feel as if you knew Uncle Hughie personally.