At 91, merit is still Arnette's badge


September 20, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

Mars Hill, N.C. -- The game of baseball proceeds here at its slow, steady pace, while a baseball life similarly unfolds on the sidelines.

It is fitting that Orioles scout Mack Arnette, at 91 probably the oldest scout in the country, tells his story now.

A strike has ended the major-league season without a World Series for the first time in 90 years. Ken Burns' nine-part miniseries about baseball began Sunday amid oppressive hype.

Arnette is the perfect antidote. He is a throwback to a simpler time in sports and society.

"How many truly good people, good, decent people, do you run into in the course of your life?" says Joe Dodd, 60, manager of the Mars Hill College baseball team, which Arnette scouts regularly. "Well, Mack is among that rare few."

Arnette was a hard-nosed infielder in the minor leagues of the 1920s and '30s. He became a scout for the Orioles in 1958. His biggest find was Sammy Stewart, an Orioles pitcher and fan favorite in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Now in his 36th year rooting out prospects in the mountain towns of western North Carolina, Arnette is a picture of contentment in his lawn chair behind home plate.

"I can sit at home and watch TV, and before you know it, I've got to take a nap," says Arnette, who lives alone in nearby Asheville. "But I can come out here, and I'm just as fresh when I leave as when I came."

How he keeps fresh this day is a burning mystery. It's hotter than the devil, and there's no shade. Yet the trim Arnette, who bakes in the sun without complaint, is the best-dressed fan in attendance -- and the only one wearing a tie and driving cap.

He answers questions amiably, in a soft, Carolina drawl, but his eyes never leave the field. He might be talking about the legendary Satchel Paige, whom he saw pitch in 1935, when a line drive past a flat-footed third baseman prompts him to say: "That boy didn't have to miss that. He just didn't move."

Arnette played or managed (or both at the same time) in minor and semipro leagues from 1924 to 1941. The most he made was $1,000 a month in 1935, when he organized, managed and played for a semipro team that finished third in a national tournament.

That was by far the most Arnette earned in baseball. His biggest salary in the minor leagues was about $500 a month, and the team owner never did pay him all of that.

"Baseball was my life, you may as well say, back then," Arnette says. "I just wanted to play. I would have played for nothing.

"They would send me a contract, and I would sign it no matter what. After I got married, then I'd argue some. But you were just doggone glad to get a contract."

His father, a Baptist minister, wanted him to become a lawyer. So he went to Wake Forest College, as it was called then, and passed the North Carolina bar exam in 1924.

"I had one trial case," Arnette recalls. "I was appointed by a judge to defend a murder case. Well, I just didn't have any place in there. I said to myself, 'I'm going to go back and play ball.' "

What he says after further questioning is that the defendant was black, and that the sheriff's department had the witnesses lined up to say he was guilty whether he was or not. The man was convicted.

"I just didn't feel like I wanted to go through something like that again," Arnette says.

He had played professional baseball the summer before for a team in Danville, Va. He was a scrappy shortstop, a very thin shortstop -- 6 feet 1, 137 pounds.

"They gave me a bonus of $250, which was a million to me at the time," he says.

After his brief law stint, he embarked on a 17-year career, playing for teams in six Southern states in leagues called Piedmont, South Atlantic, Southeastern, Cotton States, Western Carolina and Coastal Plains. He eventually became a third baseman.

"I was a good fielder, and had as good an arm as any third baseman at that time," Arnette says. "As far as power was concerned, my power was not very far out there. But I'll tell you I peppered those singles and doubles. I never missed hitting .300 but one year."

After retiring from the game at 39, he sold commercials for a radio station in Asheville, WWNC (Wonderful Western North Carolina), was promoted to sales manager and later sold real estate. He and his wife, Frances, raised two sons. His wife died 13 years ago -- after 52 years, three months and two days of marriage, Arnette says.

Now, baseball is his life, you may as well say, once again. He drives his 1986 Buick Skyhawk station wagon to about 50 amateur games a year -- senior Babe Ruth leagues, high school, American Legion, college. He doesn't see as many as he once did.

But he feels good, he says, especially after doctors inserted a pacemaker last year. The game ensures he remain vital. He can replay his entire life, reach back to his robust youth, every time he watches young men play his game.

Arnette is what they call a bird-dog scout.

"You know the dog hunts the birds for the hunter?" he says. "Well, I hunt the prospects for the area scouts."

Money still isn't great

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