- Baseball’s Last Great Scout: The Life of Hugh Alexander by Dan Austin
Many scholars have described baseball as meaningful because it symbolizes the tranquil rhythms of playing in a grassy field in the summer, working with one’s teammates to keep opponents “out,” and taking a roundabout journey to get “home.” In this sense, baseball is the American national pastime, serving as large a place in the country’s collective heart as fireworks, rock and roll, and apple pie.
Dan Austin’s book, Baseball’s Last Great Scout: The Life of Hugh Alexander, does nothing to dispel any of this folkloric symbolism of baseball’s past. Nor does it promote the harsh realities of the game that many other baseball histories have so poignantly described. In fact, Austin’s manuscript further idealizes “the good ol’ days” of baseball—especially the times before the implementation of the amateur player draft and the Curt Flood Act.
Baseball’s Last Great Scout is a biography of Alexander’s extensive career as a professional baseball scout that is based on oral histories the author collected mostly from the title character. The book is simple and moves quickly, reading at times like a memoir, a biography, a compendium of non-fiction baseball short stories, and a coffee table book of popular historical snapshots of American life.
Alexander, most often referred to in the text by his affectionate moniker “Uncle Hughie,” broke into the scouting ranks by default. After a promising 1937 rookie season with the Cleveland Indians, the twenty-year-old outfielder returned to live with his parents in Oklahoma in the off-season. An accident while working in the oil fields that winter [End Page 151] forced him to have his left hand amputated thereby ending his baseball career. Within months Cleveland’s general manager hired the young go-getter as a scout, igniting a career in baseball player evaluation that saw Alexander sign more players who eventually made the major leagues than any other scout in history.
Alexander passed away in 2000, and this manuscript is in many ways a tribute to him. “Uncle Hughie” was a gregarious character who made friends easily and touched many lives in professional baseball throughout his long and well-known career evaluating players. And Austin was transparent about his reasons for writing this chronicle: he wanted to honor Alexander and he wanted to strengthen the legacy of baseball. Therefore Austin is donating all of the royalties from this book’s sales to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Austin’s philanthropy, goodwill, and promotion of the game of baseball are clear throughout this manuscript. It is light reading with short, anecdotally-focused chapters that follow Alexander’s sixty-year career in professional baseball scouting with the Indians, White Sox, Dodgers, Phillies, and Cubs. Perusing each chapter made this reader feel as though he was actually listening to Alexander tell the myriad tales of his scouting exploits he was so famous for reciting late in his life.
These tales will stretch the memories of baseball aficionados regarding former players both memorable and forgettable. Alexander reminisces about such signees as Allie Reynolds, Dale Mitchell, Gene Bearden, Carl Warwick, Derrell Griffith, Frank Howard, Tommy Dean, Marty Bystrom, Dick Calmus, and Don Sutton. While each of the tales depicts the signing of players who went on to have varying levels of success, each story provides a lesson on Alexander’s shrewd negotiations and tactics to inherit the talent: a legendary college basketball coach led him to Reynolds, a bartender tipped him off about Mitchell, he signed Calmus’ older brother to gain his parents’ approval to sign the younger son, he found a tax loophole to sign Dean, and he put his reputation on the line to persuade the Dodgers to sign future Hall of Famer Sutton.
These tales provide a lens into notable social issues that affected baseball throughout Alexander’s career. Austin’s documentation of the scout’s tales includes a healthy, accurate, and impressive amount of descriptive social commentary regarding...