Baseball scout Red Murff had discovered the talent of a lifetime. If he could only get somebody to believe him.
By Douglas McDaniel
There are secrets to being a scout. He must have the awareness of a big game hunter (or, better yet, a bird watcher), the eye of an art lover, the prescience of a voodoo witch doctor. He must be a gambler, but know, when it comes to a baseball player's potential, that the dealer owns the odds. He must be skeptical, a heartless observer. But he must always hope. Maybe he'll find what he's looking for on a small field, maybe in the box score of some small-town rag: Maybe, someday, unexpectedly, will appear signs of the holy grail.
As a scout, Red Murff put 1.5 million miles on the road, most of that on the endless tar of Texas. Murff was responsible for discovering ballplayers. He sifted through every American Legion ball field from El Paso to the swamplands of Louisiana, sniffed out ex-Little Leaguers from Oklahoma City to the mouth of the Rio Grande, knew every high school coach on a first-name basis in 100 counties. He traveled 50,000 miles a year on the road, most of those in the six-month span from February to July, a prime harvest time for high school and college recruits.
Murff started scouting for the Houston Colt .45s in 1960 and in '62 moved to the New York Mets, and later scouted for the Montreal Expos, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs. By the time he was hired by the Mets, Murff had at least one future star to his credit, a San Antonio catcher named Jerry Grote. All told, Murff sent close to 50 players to the major leagues.
He worked like a detective. Life was a reconnaissance mission. Every shoeshine was an inquisition, every bag boy at the grocery store a potential spy for the cowtown intelligence network. Every grease-soaked gas station attendant was asked the question: "Is there a ballplayer in this area?" Every now and then a waitress in Waco or Waxahachie would say, "Ol' Hotfoot Dingler can really hit a baseball," or, "That Marvis boy sure can play." Parents wrote. Coaches bragged. Some tips paid off. Most did not. When the day came that somebody said so and so could throw a baseball 90 miles per hour, "You were obliged to take note," Murff said.
So after miles and miles of white-line fever, hundreds of dinners in untidy diners, countless nights in claustrophobic motel rooms with paper thin walls transmitting the rumble of cattle trucks at 3 a.m., Murff heard the magic words: "There's a pretty good arm at Alvin High School."
Red Murff took note.
There was no name attached to the arm--although the information was that the arm belonged to an underclassman. Murff promised his spy that he'd go see the pitcher next year.
* * *
In our baseball memories, we all have glimpses, indelible moments, freeze-frames that stand out. The games blend into one, but nothing can add or subtract from the resonating details of that screaming line drive hit by a star-to-be in spring training, the glove reaching for a catch to deny a homer in a big game, the outfielder's thud into the wall. For Murff, that impression lives on in the echo of a fastball exploding into a high school catcher's mitt.
"You don't have to see it but one time to know it's there," says Murff of The Pitch. "Once you know it's there, you don't forget it."
Murff would risk everything for that echo. A pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves in 1956 and '57 (at the time the oldest rookie in major league history at 34), he knew a thing or two about throwing mechanics and exploding fastballs.
On that day in 1964--long before radar guns--Murff's internal speedometer clocked the echo at 95 miles per hour.
When he saw a skinny, "chicken chested" 17-year-old named Nolan Ryan pitch, it was by accident. The scout, who was working for the talent-hungry Mets system, decided to attend a high school tournament in the hopes of catching many birds at once.
"I didn't go to see Nolan Ryan," recalls Murff. "It was a Saturday morning. I went to Galveston to see the finals of a high school tournament and finalized that by 10 o'clock and I needed to be in Houston to see a doubleheader at a college. While I'm drivin' I think about a tournament at Clear Creek High School."
So Murff pulled his Oldsmobile Delta 88 off the road for a light baseball aperitif between enchiladas in Galveston and a T-bone steak in Houston. The big car oozed class, the premonition of money. Five miles off the freeway, the scout drove to a spot that in the future would be near NASA's Mission Control. He just wanted to drop in on a friend, Dub Kelly, the coach at Clear Creek who was running the tourney. Little did he know that this day would be a launch date for history's most prodigious strikeout artist.
Murff, with his glittering dome, trademark dress shirt and tie, was a Texas baseball legend. If the scout appeared at a field, the coaches could always pick him out. Things would get exciting.
"When I got to the ballpark it looked like Alvin High School coach Jim Watson had expected me to show up, 'cause he's motioning to the bullpen and wavin' in a slender right-handed pitcher," Murff says.
Then Murff saw the first blurr and pop of a 95-mile-per-hour fastball into the mitt of a reluctant catcher. The pitch sailed high and zipped into the mitt like a shooting star. Zzzzzwop! The next pitch hit the strike zone and jumped high again. The next pitch, Ryan tried a curve. It was laced for a double.
"That Nolie doesn't have much, does he?" remarked Mickey Sullivan, a high school coach and sub-scout for the Philadelphia Phillies. "No, he doesn't have a very good curveball," answered Murff, biting his lip, hoping the other scout would miss the way that fastball jumped, log in the breaking ball that didn't break, and lose interest. The Mets' scout relied on his reputation to warn Sullivan away. "If Red Murff wasn't interested," Murff said, "there was no point in sticking around."
Discretion is another one of those secrets to being a good scout. You don't ever, ever sound off alarms. The idea is to avoid attracting fellow travelers with folding chairs, stopwatches and white straw hats. In the glory days of scouting, before teams waited in line to pick a prospect in the amateur draft, plums were plucked and signed as soon as they were ripe. So Murff put on his poker face. He tried to figure out how he was going to keep his echo under wraps for the next several years.
A cover-up was in order. He approached Watson and asked a favor. Murff was, after all, a local legend, ever since his playing days as one of the winningest pitchers in Texas League history. He commanded respect. Watson was asked not to phone any scores into the Houston newspapers, so as not to give the echo any "undue publicity."
"What's the point of that?" asked Watson, surprised at the scout's interest in this particular player.
"I think too much attention will only break his concentration," Murff answered.
Next, Murff contacted his sub-scouts and issued a stern warning: "Nobody talks about this one."
* * *
"We didn't have a draft situation in 1964 and our knowledge was kept top, top secret," says Murff today, speaking in the cryptic and elusive style of a desk jockey for the CIA. "You didn't wait in line to draft a ballplayer. You kept his interest only for the organization that retains your services, and I was closed-mouth to start with, and didn't give away any of my ability. I made sure that if I liked a ballplayer, I at least tendered a contract to him as soon as he became eligible.
"But Nolan was not eligible in '64. He was a junior, and I made plans with my sub-scout (Robert "Red" Gaskell) that he and I would arrange a schedule and see Nolan Ryan every game he pitched.
"I wrote a report to the Mets that night: 'This skinny, right-handed high school kid has the best arm I've ever seen in my life. I saw him pitch on a Saturday at high noon, and I saw Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati Reds and Turk Farrell pitch against each other in Houston on the Friday night before, and here it is high noon, and the life on this young man's fastball is faster than any one of those two great major leaguers.' "
The scouting report was sent to Wid Mathews, interim director of the Mets scouting department. Murff kept a copy of the report for 10 years, and he used to have it on file, but he doesn't have it now. It was lost in transit after joining the Montreal Expos. Murff regrets this fact.
"That piece of paper would be something they would like to put in the Hall of Fame when Nolan goes in," Murff says.
* * *
It was a brave new world of scouting when Murff hit the road again in the spring of 1965. That year saw the advent of the first major league amateur draft. The scouting profession, once like the gold rush, was now more like waiting in line at the department store to return a gift after a so-so Christmas. The Mets had the second pick in '65. The '64 season had been a lousy Christmas.
The priority going into the 1965 season was grading the talent for the master list. In Murff's mind, Nolan Ryan was at the top of that list. Every memo about a good pitching prospect that he would send to the front office ended with ". . . but he does not have the velocity of Nolan Ryan."
Murff and his "bird dog," Gaskell, made it a point to see every game Ryan pitched. For his own part, Ryan wasn't thinking about a career in baseball. "I don't know if I was mature enough to think about those things," he says. "I was just a kid playing baseball for the enjoyment of it. I wasn't thinking about the possibilities of enjoying it as a career.
"Red would make suggestions," remembers Ryan. "He'd try to work with me to develop a curveball, but I was basically a one-pitch pitcher, and a very crude one at that."
But Murff's faith in Ryan lived on the memory of the pop of that first fastball. Finally, all those notices to the front office with the words ". . . but he does not have the velocity of Nolan Ryan" caught the attention of Bing Devine, the new Mets cross-checker, who was responsible for looking in on players his scouts were high on. He agreed to attend an Alvin High School ballgame on a Friday, arriving at Deer Park, southeast of Houston, with high expectations and an earful of talk about exploding fastballs.
"I wasn't scheduled to pitch that day," Ryan says. "I had thrown 45 minutes the day before, and the coach had run us a lot. He had not planned on pitching me that game. And Red had not checked with the coach prior to Bing setting up his schedule. So that (Thursday) night, Red called the coach to check the schedule of when I was pitching. And he talked the coach into pitching me the next day."
As it turned out, Ryan pitched terribly. Not wild, so much--in fact his pitches were right over the plate, where they hung for a painfully long time. Ryan was rocked, but good. He left in the third inning, behind, 7-0. With Murff muttering and Devine leading the way back to the parking lot shaking his head, the two men drove back to Houston. Devine remembers that it was a gray day. "Nolan didn't have that good of a day," he says. "Red was almost in tears. He said, 'Oh, I guess I've blown that one.' "
Ryan remembers how "horrible" he was. "I figured it was my last chance of signing with the Mets. I was pretty disappointed," he says. "I saw Red and Bing get out and go out of the stands at about the third inning. I figured they'd seen enough."
Bing had seen enough. But his scout was still insistent. "Red wouldn't leave you alone," Devine says. "He's down to earth, talks the language of baseball and knew something about pitching. And if he had something, he was perfectly willing to put everything on the line." Devine then made a deal: He'd send Murff around the country to see some of the best pitching prospects in the country in order to give the scout some perspective. Murff went on the trip and when he came back, he told Devine, "They don't have the arm of Nolan Ryan."
Still, it was hard for him to convince Devine that Ryan had a great arm. But, at least, he won this: "I told him I wouldn't negate him," Devine says.
Says Murff: "He saw Nolan in such a bad performance that every time I'd mention a pitcher, and say, 'This guy is a major league prospect and should be considered for high draft, but he doesn't have Nolan Ryan's velocity,' he got tired of me saying that."
So at the front office, "velocity of Nolan Ryan" became a cue for rolling eyes: There goes Murff again.
In June the Mets scouts convened for the 1965 draft at the Commodore Hotel in New York; Murff insisted they take Ryan in the first round. But Ryan wasn't even on their list. Sitting at one of the many team tables stacked with scouting reports and data, "I was the only one with a high enough regard of him to draft Nolan," Murff says.
The Mets, after losing 109 games the year before, picked second and took Les Rohr, a tall lefty from Billings, Montana. Murff had said he liked Rohr, but he "didn't have Nolan Ryan's velocity." The kiss of death.
Ken Boswell, another one of Murff's prospects, this one from the Houston area, went in the fourth round. The Mets took several more shots at pitchers that eventually turned up zeros: Doug Brittele in the fifth round, Harold Roberson in the sixth round, Roger Harrington in the eighth round.
Then, as the draft wore on, Murff decided to make his move. Carefully, with as much respect as he could muster--because, after all, he didn't want to end up scouting for players in the Australian Outback--he approached Devine about Nolan Ryan. "I took the bull by the horns and handed him the Nolan Ryan report," Murff says. "I picked up the paper, handed it to him, and said, 'We better pick him now. We ought to draft Nolan Ryan now.' He looked at me and said, 'Let's do it.'
"Bing went along not because he had faith in Nolan Ryan, but because he had faith in me."
Ryan was picked in the 10th round, the 295th choice in the draft.
Despite his success fighting city hall, Murff went to Ryan's home in Alvin a humbled man. For three years he'd been telling the high school pitcher how good he was. Now Murff was crestfallen. Murff made his offer at the signing, a $30,000 package, with a $7,500 incentive clause if Ryan made the majors. For the scout, it was an embarrassing amount, considering he was handing the pen to the next Bob Feller.
"After I got him signed, I told him: 'Now Nolan, if you are as good as you think you are, and you have a lot of confidence in your ability, you are going to make so much money in the game of baseball that when you and I talk about it, we're both gonna be embarrassed.' "
* * *
Now Nolan Ryan owns a bank. A couple of branches, in fact. With the pitcher's 5,714 major league strikeouts and a post-retirement headwind stiff enough to knock down the doors at the Hall of Fame, that past "embarrassment" is now the scout's greatest honor. "I could see what Nolan Ryan had," Murff says. "The part I can't understand is why no one else could."
Ryan and Murff have maintained a friendship over the years. Often, Ryan has consulted Murff on the art of pitching, helping him through the many phases of his 25-year major league career, with many chats about exploding fastballs and the mechanics of the changeup and echoes heard long ago.
"There are people's paths that you cross that are influential during your life. Red is one of those because of his commitment to me at a very early age," Ryan says. "He gave me an opportunity with his persistence with the Mets."
Yes, the one-time hidden prospect has repaid the stubborn scout's faith many times over. For example, in 1972, Murff established a baseball program at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor in Belton, in central Texas, because the school's president wanted to attract male students to the all-women's college. The program Murff started now is a National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics powerhouse. The college has built a new ballpark named, aptly, Red Murff Field. And Nolan Ryan has been there for his mentor, raising funds for the ballpark by sponsoring an annual golf tournament benefit which has, to date, raised approximately $200,000.
For a scout, there's nothing quite like saying, "I told you so."