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Kerrane takes readers inside the world of baseball scouting

Professor of English Kevin Kerrane: “Anytime somebody somewhere is playing baseball, there are scouts watching them.”

4:00 p.m., April 3, 2003--“Dollar Sign on the Muscle,” a look at the world of baseball scouting by UD professor of English Kevin Kerrane, has been named as one of the best sports books ever, by “Sports Illustrated” magazine.

In an article compiled by the magazine for its Dec. 16, 2002, issue, “Dollar Sign on the Muscle” was ranked 52 on a list that, the magazine stated, represents “The 100 Best Sports Books of All Time.”

Topping the list is the 1956 boxing classic, “The Sweet Science,” by A.J. Liebling, followed by Roger Kahn’s 1971 bestseller “The Boys of Summer” and “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton’s diary of the 1969 baseball season he spent as a pitcher for the New York Yankees. The list also includes recent controversial works such as the 31st ranked “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life,” by Richard Ben Cramer.

In citing Kerrane’s work, the editors of Sports Illustrated noted that “The author spent a year with the [Philadelphia] Phillies’ scouts when they were arguably the best judges of raw talent in the major leagues. The often hard lives of baseball’s underpaid hunter-gatherers are rendered in lively detail.”

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The book takes its name from the monetary compensation that major league clubs are willing to pay for new talent, based solely on a player’s potential ability. “Other factors,” notes a Phillies’ scouting manual, “such as what the player is asking for, or what you think you can sign him for, cannot be considered when determining a dollar evaluation….Boiled down, it is the `dollar sign on the muscle’ and no more.”

For Kerrane, the idea for the book grew out of his association with Brandy Davis, a full-time baseball scout who worked for 10 different major league baseball clubs.

“I found that these characters were really interesting,” Kerrane said. “I also found that this group represented a subculture within the baseball world.”

Four eras of scouting
Kerrane divides the history of scouting into four basic eras, beginning with the “Bird Dog,” era, which ran from the early days of the baseball era until just after the end of World War I. One of the first full-time scouts, “Sinister” Dick Kinsella worked for John McGraw and added the names of such stars as Heinie Groh and Carl Hubbell to the roster of the New York Giants.

During the years following World War I through the end of the World War II (1919-1946), known as the “Ivory” hunters” era, scouting was dominated by baseball legend Branch Rickey, who, as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers, built baseball’s most productive farm system.

During the “bonus era,” from 1946-1965, scouts roamed the country hoping to come out on top in the bonus bidding wars that put large sums of cash into the hands of highly touted, but unproven big league hopefuls.

The reigns of power in the world of scouting were handed over to the investment analysts during the “draft era,” 1965-present, that emerged as a reaction by owners to the excessive bidding that came to symbolize the later part of the bonus era.

Working with the Phillies
Although the book is based on interviews with scouts form 15 different major league organizations, Kerrane credits the Carpenter family, the former owners of the Philadelphia Phillies, with providing him with an inside look at baseball.

“They opened the door for me,” Kerrane said. “I was allowed to look at their files and sit in on the baseball draft meetings.”

When Kerrane began his reporting during the 1981 scouting season, there were about 500 full-time scouts in the business, working a season that Kerrane said generally ranged from late February to just before the Christmas holiday season.

“Anytime somebody somewhere is playing baseball, there are scouts watching them,” Kerrane said.

Among the scouts that Kerrane observed and interviewed during the 1981 season—and who subsequently moved to other organizations when the Phillies were sold by the Carpenter family—were Brandy Davis, Ruben Amaro, Gordon Goldsberry, Dallas Green, Moose Johnson, Lou Kahn and Hugh Alexander.

While the stories spun by old-timers are both colorful and informative, Kerrane said he believes there also is a science, of sorts, to scouting, and that there is a world of difference in the way that a scout and the average baseball fan watches a game.

“You might be watching the game with them, and be worried about what the score or the situation is,” Kerrane said. “Well, they don’t care a thing about that. They are watching what this guy is doing—how he runs, walks, throws to first and swings the bat.
“They are looking at players, breaking down their tools of speed, strength and personality,” Kerrane said. “By doing this book, I developed a way of looking at baseball that I did not have before.”

Reviewers of the book note that not only do scouts look at the game differently, they pretty much speak a language all their own.

Talking the talk
This colorful vernacular, described by Kerrane as a mixture of slang, superlative and metaphor, includes terms like “quickie,” “anesthesia ballplayer,” “quiet bat” and “wrist wrapper.”

In determining what kind of dollar amount to put on the muscle, scouts look for things like a player’s “wound tightness: potential energy visible in an athletic body,” as opposed to “dead body: an athletic inertia manifested by slow reflexes, a heavy feel and bad hands.”

It’s a condition Brandy Davis would call “bulk as in hulk,” Kerrane said.

A player with a “two-way shot,” might make it to the big leagues either as a hitter or a pitcher, while a “lounge hitter,” or “late-night bar cruiser,” probably isn’t going to make it on either side of the ball.

When a “sign-ability problem” exists, it means there is a significant gap between what a player and a scout think the prospect is worth.

Scouts in the Hall of Fame?
A significant issue that Kerrane addresses in a new afterword to the 1999 University of Nebraska edition, is the fact that while players, managers, executives and even umpires are honored by membership in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, scouts have not been allowed in.

This exclusion, Kerrane said, may be erroneously based on the mistaken notion that “scouts are simple menials whose work could be done by almost anybody; and that the Hall of Fame should be a sacred preserve.”

Birdie Tebbetts, a catcher in the major leagues for 14 years and major league manager for another 11 seasons before becoming a full-time scout in 1967, waged a battle to change that attitude, but, as Kerrane noted, the effort seems to have bogged down in the 1990s.

Still, Kerrane said he believes that what scouts do is special and deserves the same recognition as other groups in the Hall of Fame.

“They have a passion for what they do,” Kerrane said. “It is research and development and they are the future of a ball club and perhaps of baseball itself.”

A member of the UD faculty since, 1967, Kerrane has edited several anthologies of drama and, with UD Department of English professor Ben Yagoda, has coedited “The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism.” Last summer he took the first group of UD students to Ireland for a study abroad course, and much of his current research deals with the world of Irish drama.

Kerrane also is finishing “The Presidential Voice,” a book analyzing the rhetorical styles of 20th-century presidents, from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. The work was begun by the late Robert Hogan, a UD professor of English.

Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photograph by Kathy Flickinger