Can He Play? edited by Jim Sandoval and Bill Nowlin: a review

A Look at Baseball Scouts and their Profession, says the subtitle. This book, built around a couple dozen biographies in the usual style of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Biography Project, is an exploration of what baseball’s scouts do and how they go about their jobs. As always with SABR’s BioProject books, the biographies are very good to excellent, and much of the supporting material is useful and interesting. Unfortunately the book lacks some helpful contextual information which makes it less than useful to a reader who’s not already aware of the organizational environment scouts work in.

I rather expected the book to begin with an overview of the place scouting occupies in the typical baseball organization, with other chapters explicitly discussing the history and development of scouting practice, the role scouting plays in player development (and perhaps some discussion of how specific organizations have employed different scouting/player development strategies), and an explication of the things scouts look for when they watch a baseball game. The book contains all of that material, at least in part, but only the what do they look for part has a specific discussion, and that is tucked into a rather brief chapter introduction. The other general topics can be gleaned from the book’s material, but at best there are only partial summaries.

The result is a specialist’s book, best suited to a fan who already knows the context. There’s some very valuable material if you fit that profile. Dan Levitt’s chapter describing Ed Barrow’s decision to formalize Yankee scouting and player development is just terrific. Also valuable are the word portraits of Al LaMacchia (by David King), Jack Doyle (Neal Mackertich), Joe Cambria (Brian McKenna) and George Omachi (Bill Nowlin). Less valuable for a scouting book are the portraits of Charley Wagner (Nowlin) and Sam Hairston (Rory Costello); both are excellent biographies but concentrate on the person’s playing career and give few details about their work as scouts.

Not all of the chapters are biographies. While, for instance, the Tom Greenwade (Jim Sandoval & Rory Costello) chapter includes the standard biographical details, including the Mickey Mantle signing which is his most famous success, there’s also a long discussion of the below-the-radar work the Dodgers put into signing Jackie Robinson. Fred Glueckstein nicely tells the story of the signing of Tony Lazzeri, from the standpoint of the Yankees organization. Ron Anderson’s interview with George Digby is, I’m afraid, more interesting for what it shows of Anderson’s excellent interviewing technique than for anything Digby says; personally I’d have edited it, but an introductory note could have been helpful. There’s a short chapter about the Scouting Bureau, and Astros intern Ben Jedlovec offers a dramatic essay about draft day preparations. Bill Nowlin has a great profile of Deacon Jones and what Deacon’s job as an advance scout involved. And Gib Bodet’s disparaging description of his National Cross-Checker job is absolutely delightful.

This is an excellent resource for further research. Virtually every chapter has a bibliography, some of which are quite extensive. Most chapters have footnotes, as well.

I’ve left lots of material out, much of it excellent. It’s a valuable book if you’re looking for what it contains; my only real concern is that there’s too little explanation of why and how scouts matter.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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