Russo's book on scouting is good field but no hit

JOHN STEADMAN

May 20, 1992|By John Steadman

Much of what Jim Russo has to say in his memoirs of being a baseball scout for 35 years -- for the St. Louis Browns and then the Baltimore Orioles -- deals with the players he signed and the trades that were arranged with his vital input. The unfortunate part of the book, entitled "Super Scout," is that the author or his ghost, Bob Hammel, didn't complete what could have been a literary grand slam.

Instead, it's a hump-back liner to centerfield. Russo is smart, articulate and deserves something better than this -- even though there are enough case histories cited to make it far from a zero in appeal.

Come Saturday afternoon, Russo, who contributed much to the Orioles, will be in our midst with a signing appearance at Waldenbooks in Hunt Valley. He's an engaging personality and, like Reader's Digest, always has a story to tell.

That's why it's regrettable he didn't pack more ingredients about scouting experiences into the writing effort. Indeed, Russo takes the reader behind the scenes and spells out the signing of four important Orioles -- John "Boog" Powell, Dave McNally, Jim Palmer and Dave Johnson -- along with the intrigue that accompanied negotiations.

They make for informative and entertaining episodes that contributed bountifully to the Orioles' pennant-winning success that followed.

It will come as a surprise to Powell to learn the reason he only got a $25,000 bonus is that the Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals made a "gentleman's agreement" not to bid against each other. They flipped a coin, Russo hollered "tails" and that's how it came about the Orioles walked in uncontested and dictated the terms.

Imagine what a court of law would do with such an example of blatant collusion? Powell might still be able to collect damages, offering Russo's text as testimony.

McNally became an Oriole when Russo used an emotional ploy, telling the best friend of Dave's late father, who was killed in World War II, that if his dad had lived he would have wanted his son to be with the Orioles and not the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When Palmer signed with the Orioles, his leg was in a cast, the result of an automobile accident, but Russo didn't alert the Orioles to the condition. He merely thought so much of Palmer as a pitcher that he risked the $40,000 bonus on his own and took the gamble -- a chance that was supported by the enormous natural ability of the youngster, who fulfilled the promise by achieving Hall of Fame status.

An interesting sidelight is the Orioles were committed to spending on only one of two potential bonus players that year, Palmer or Ron Swoboda. But when Swoboda elected to enter the University of Maryland that gave then-general manager Lee MacPhail the opening to free the investment and let Russo make the decision on Palmer.

Paul Richards, once the Orioles manager/general manager, had pursued Palmer for the Houston Astros but upset the family by his personal manner, especially when he picked up a golf putter and started to practice his stroke on the living room rug.

The signing of Johnson came via another fortunate break for Russo and the Orioles. Dave had decided to leave Texas A&M before graduating and told Damon "Dee" Phillips, the Orioles' southwestern scout, of his idea. Russo moved in and made the pitch but insisted Dave couldn't even notify his college coach because he feared that would alert the Astros and get them involved in the bidding.

While the Orioles were putting together an organization and spending money with abandon, they were actually a house divided. Richards and the farm director, Jim McLaughlin, didn't get along. There was almost open warfare.

The two operated with little communication, which shows that it didn't deter the team from ultimately becoming a winner. With the Orioles, you were either a Richards man or a McLaughlin man and Russo never made any secret of how he felt. It was McLaughlin all the way.

Russo was with the Orioles when they won their first World Series in 1966 and tells of the 16-page scouting report he prepared, with the assistance of Al Kubski and Harry Craft, regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the Dodgers. It's unfortunate Russo didn't allow his readers the opportunity to have all the classic information that he prepared rather than a mere sample.

Russo, for his own reasons, takes former general manager Hank Peters to task. Too bad. Peters is given little credit by Russo for his contributions and this comes off as a sour reaction, although it's his prerogative to criticize. In the parlance of scouting, the book, despite the depth of information in the author's background, comes off as one of vast potential that's only partially fulfilled.

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