Baltimore Orioles

Scouts of merit lay dynasty's foundation

"We were good, really good," said Jim Russo, of the Orioles' scouting hierarchy. Here at a 1957 meeting are (seated from left) Walter Youse, Del Wilber, Lou D'Annunzio, Jim McLaughlin, Jim Adair, Frank "Beauty" McGowan, Don McShane and (standing from left) Fritz Maisel, Art Ehlers, Hal Newhouser, Russo, Freddie "Bootnose" Hofmann, Bill Herring, George Staller and Barney Lutz.
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.

McLaughlin's headstrong nature got him fired in 1961 because he couldn't get along with Paul Richards, the Orioles' equally headstrong manager. Harry Dalton, McLaughlin's protege, took over and ran the department until becoming general manager in 1966. Dalton then rehired McLaughlin, who worked for the team as a scouting coordinator until his 1979 retirement.

Russo was another key McLaughlin hire. He was a radio announcer in Riverside, Calif., in the late 1940s when he started "bird-dogging" for the Browns. (A "bird dog" is a part-time scout who passes along information to a full-time scout.) He became a full-time scout in 1952.

Shrewd and resourceful, Russo helped the Orioles in many ways. He scouted and signed many high school and college players who became stars. He headed a team of scouts that studied the Los Angeles Dodgers before the 1966 World Series, and their insights helped the Orioles to a sweep.

Later, he scouted National League players available by trade. His word was vital to deals that landed Frank Robinson, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, Ken Singleton, Paul Blair, Steve Stone, Doyle Alexander, Ross Grimsley, Lee May, Earl Williams and Don Stanhouse.

"When we traded for Cuellar, none of us [in the front office] had seen him play," said Frank Cashen, a key decision-maker in the Orioles' front office from 1965 to 1975. "But Russo said, 'The guy is an artist. He paints one side of the plate, then he paints the other side.'"

The Orioles obtained Cuellar from the Houston Astros in 1968 for outfielder Curt Blefary. Cueller went on to win 143 games for the Orioles, and Blefary played one season in Houston.

"Jimmy Russo was probably the best scout I ever saw," said Cashen, later the New York Mets' general manager.

Last year, the Orioles began presenting the Jim Russo Scout of the Year Award annually to one of their full-time scouts. The first winner was Lamar North, 74, from Rossville, Ga.

North, like many scouts, has worked seven days a week from February to November for many years, spending countless nights on the road in small towns.

The Orioles went to several distant outposts years ago to land McNally, a left-hander from Billings, Mont. Jim Wilson, a former major league pitcher, scouted him for the Orioles and gave him a thumbs up. Russo cross-checked at the American Legion World Series in Hastings, Neb., in spring 1960.

Equally impressed, Russo followed McNally back to Montana as the youngster chose between the Orioles and Dodgers.

"McLaughlin called me every day saying, 'Don't you lose that McNally,'" Russo recalled. "As tight as Jim was with money, he knew when it was time to spend. He said, 'I don't care if it takes more, just get him.'

"I told Jim, 'I'm going up against the Dodgers, they have all the money in the world. If it comes down to a bidding war, we're going to lose.' I knew I had to come up with another way to get him."

A lawyer handling the negotiations (McNally's father had died during World War II) asked Russo for more money. Russo held firm, offering an $80,000 signing bonus (less than the Dodgers) while telling the lawyer McNally's father would have preferred Baltimore.

"You had to sell your organization, yourself, whatever it took," Russo said.

The gambit worked. McNally signed and went on to win 184 games for the Orioles.

McNally's case led to another key signing, as Russo had noticed a slender 16-year-old playing shortstop in the American Legion World Series. Belanger, from Pittsfield, Mass., signed in 1962 and played 18 seasons with the Orioles. He won eight Gold Gloves.

Don't touch that phone

The same year Belanger signed, the Orioles' Texas-based scout, Dee Phillips, identified another shortstop, Davey Johnson, as a must-have. Johnson was playing at Texas A&M.

A meeting was arranged at the Johnsons' home. When the Orioles put an attractive offer on the table, Johnson said he wanted to call his college coach before making a decision.

"I told Dave our offer was coming off the table if he called his coach," Russo recalled. "He didn't like that, but he also didn't know that his coach was a scout for Houston."

Johnson didn't make the call and signed that night. He later played second base for the Orioles, teaming with Belanger in the middle infield.

Palmer, the jewel of that era's signings, was an Arizona high school star in 1963, but he injured his knee in a car accident as teams were angling for him.

Paul Richards, by now the general manager in Houston, visited Palmer's home and made an offer, but he offended Palmer's parents with a brazen attitude. An avid golfer, he took Palmer's mother's putter out of her golf bag and practiced putting on the carpet.

"We [the Orioles] came in after Paul and looked good by comparison," Russo said. "But Jim's knee was in a cast. I told him, 'Baltimore will know nothing about this.' I made that decision on the spot. I just felt we had to have the player."

Palmer threw a shutout in a World Series game three years later and went on to win 268 games, becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Other Orioles scouts who excelled during the era included Frank McGowan, a New Englander nicknamed "Beauty" because of his thick mane of silver-white hair; Don McShane, a Bay Area scout who landed Bunker; and Youse, a Baltimore baseball legend who coached national championship amateur teams and rose from a "bird dog" to a regional supervisor.

Youse's first signing, in 1955, was an undersized catcher from Aberdeen named Cal Ripken. He later signed Steve Barber, the Orioles' first 20-game winner, and Phoebus, who threw a no-hitter in 1968.

Kubski, another Baltimore native, covered the West Coast in the late '60s and signed Grich, Coggins and DeCinces.

"When we had myself, Youse and Phillips as regional supervisors, Walter said, 'Ain't no one got three better scouts than us,'" said Kubski, 83, who still scouts for the Braves.

Kubski's son, Gil, is a full-time California-based scout for the Orioles today.

Scouting is an imperfect science, of course; there are more misses than hits, and much money is wasted. The Orioles signed slugger Dave Nicholson to a then-record six-figure bonus in 1958, but he failed to blossom. And pitcher Mike Adamson, a first-round draft pick in 1967, went straight to the majors but never won a game.

Scouting has changed dramatically since those days. International coverage is critical; Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' scout in the Dominican Republic, signed more than three dozen players who began the 2003 season in the organization. And the Major League Scouting Bureau, opened in 1974, offers a central bank of opinions.

But teams still rely heavily on their own scouts.

After a disappointing falloff in the '80s and '90s, the Orioles have again started to produce home-grown major leaguers; Sidney Ponson, Jerry Hairston, Luis Matos, Larry Bigbie and Brian Roberts were all Orioles signees.

"It's hard to stay at the top for 50 years," Schuerholz said. "But the Orioles' overall scouting tradition certainly ranks right there with the best in the game."

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.