Scouts of merit lay dynasty's foundation

Orioles: With guile and gumption and not a lot of cash, the team's scouts assembled baseball's winningest cast from 1956 through 1985.

Baseball

February 09, 2004|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

In their heyday, the Orioles won three World Series titles and six American League pennants and produced baseball's best regular-season record from 1956 through 1985, winning six more regular-season games than the New York Yankees.

Their enduring success brought fame to many, but obscure operatives in the organization's outermost layer were as responsible as anyone.

Scouts such as Jim Russo, Freddie "Bootnose" Hofmann, Al Kubski and Walter Youse procured much of the talent that made up the winning teams.

"If you don't find high-caliber marble ... you can't create classic statues," said Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz, a Baltimore native who began his front office career in 1967 as an assistant in the Orioles' minor league department.

For many years, no team was better at finding fine marble than the Orioles.

"We were good, really good," said Russo, now 81 and retired in a St. Louis suburb after working for the Orioles from 1954 to 1987. "You don't generate baseball's best record over 30 years by accident."

Orioles scouts signed first baseman Boog Powell and pitcher Dean Chance in 1959; pitchers Dave McNally and Tom Phoebus in 1960; catcher Andy Etchebarren and pitchers Darold Knowles and Eddie Watt in 1961; infielders Davey Johnson and Mark Belanger in 1962; and pitchers Jim Palmer and Wally Bunker in 1963.

All became major leaguers, and many were with the Orioles when they won their first World Series in 1966.

Hofmann, Russo and Jim McLaughlin, the Orioles' first scouting director, worked together to sign Powell. The way he was obtained in 1959 illustrates the wherewithal scouts needed during the freewheeling era before the draft, when any team could sign any player.

Powell, from Key West, Fla., was a top national prospect. Hofmann, a former major league catcher who had roomed with Babe Ruth on the Yankees, was one of many scouts chasing him.

"But `Bootnose' stood out," Powell said last week. "He did some things for me that weren't exactly `under the table,' but nice. Like, I had a new glove. And a nice pair of shoes. There was no money or anything, but I knew he really wanted me."

When a slump in the state championship tournament sent Powell's stock plummeting, Hofmann was one of the few scouts still supportive.

"There were 38 scouts following Powell at the start of the tournament, and only two left at the end," Russo said.

According to Russo, McLaughlin, overseeing the case from Baltimore, suggested the two teams - the Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals - flip a coin for Powell. The Cardinals agreed to the blatant act of collusion.

"I don't know anything about any coin flip; that's news to me," Powell said.

The Orioles won the flip but Powell continued to hold out; he had scholarship offers to play college football, baseball and basketball. The Orioles finally landed the signature during a late-night negotiating session and Powell went on to hit 303 home runs for the team.

"When `Bootnose' thought I wasn't going to sign with the Orioles, he started crying," Powell recalled. "When I signed, he started jumping up and down."

On roll after draft, too

Orioles scouts remained productive after baseball instituted its draft in 1965. The team signed Don Baylor and Bob Grich in 1967; Al Bumbry and Rich Coggins in 1968; Doug DeCinces in 1970; Dennis Martinez, Eddie Murray and Mike Flanagan in 1973; and Rich Dauer in 1974.

"It was their era," Schuerholz said of the Orioles' scouts. "They were on a roll that was impossible to keep up with."

The department's excellence dated to the franchise's days in St. Louis. Although the cash-poor Browns were perennial losers, their scouts consistently uncovered talents such as outfielder/first baseman Roy Sievers (1949 American League Rookie of the Year), pitchers Bob Turley and Don Larsen and slugger Vern Stephens.

Many were traded in their prime for cash needed to keep the team afloat.

McLaughlin was the Browns' scouting director and the only member of the front office to move to Baltimore with the franchise in 1954. He was a central if little-known figure in the Orioles' success, fiercely loyal to the idea of fielding teams dependent on home-grown talent.

An innovator, he pioneered the use of the "cross-checker," a second scout brought in to test the opinion of the first scout, and also was one of baseball's first executives to judge players mentally as well as physically.

In the Orioles' scouting book, each player was represented by a circle, with his physical tools judged in the upper half and his mental abilities below.

"The lower half was guts, competitiveness, work ethic, integrity," Russo said, "and McLaughlin believed that half was just as important. That was an original thought for back then. Jim was years ahead of his time, a brilliant baseball guy."

His impact went beyond scouting, as he was the one who brought Earl Weaver into the organization, giving the future Hall of Famer a minor league team to manage in 1957.

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