SABR

Bob Zuk

This article was written by John Klima.

Among the last generation of legendary ivory hunters who covered Southern California in the 1960s to 1980s, no name inspired more fear, trepidation, intimidation, antagonism, and grudging respect than that of Bob Zuk.

The cigar-chomping son of Russian immigrants who fashioned a 46-year professional scouting career out of little more than energy, intellect, hustle, and desire, Zuk won fame in the scouting world for signing Hall of Famers Willie Stargell, Reggie Jackson, and Gary Carter with a combination of luck, deception, hard work, and old-fashioned character study.

Zuk’s own character was molded from his childhood in Detroit. He was born on April 12, 1927, to parents who spoke only Russian and insisted that he speak only Russian. Zuk Americanized the pronunciation of his name, discarding the Russian “Zook” and calling himself “Zuck.” The name stuck.

The first signs of Zuk’s legendary defiance became evident at an early age. He clashed with his father and told him he would speak English the best he could. When his father disapproved, Zuk continued speaking English, acclimating himself to the American way of life, and found refuge at Briggs Stadium to watch the Detroit Tigers.

The first power hitter he remembered studying was right-handed-hitting first baseman Rudy York. Zuk served in the Army in 1946 and 1947. A right-handed pitcher in the amateur Detroit Federation, Zuk pitched well enough to be signed before the start of the 1948 season by the New York Giants. However, a month into his pro career, Zuk retired. He had suffered a career-ending rotator-cuff injury. He was only 21.

A new career path was starting. He graduated from the University of California-Berkeley on the GI Bill. Looking for a way to stay involved in baseball and in the lives of youngsters, he was befriended by George Powles, a coach who helped get him a job as director of baseball for the city of Oakland. Zuk was in charge of managing and maintaining the city’s baseball fields, including Bushrod Park in North Oakland. Zuk said he was greatly influenced by Powles, who coached baseball, football, and basketball at McClymonds High School in Oakland.

Powles, who was white, was important to the lives of many black athletes, including Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, and basketball great Bill Russell. Powles’s ability to nurture young athletes regardless of race deeply influenced Zuk, who said he related to black athletes because, as a Russian child, he understood what it was like to be discriminated against. In time, Zuk exhibited the same compassionate characteristics and sense of justice as an area scout, in an industry that was not as progressive privately as it was in the public eye.  

Bushrod Park had produced several major leaguers over the years and was a regular haunt for ivory hunters. It put Zuk into direct contact with scouts on a regular basis. He learned the language and befriended former major leaguers Dario Lodigiani and Hollis “Sloppy” Thurston, so named because he was such a sharp dresser that teammates teased him by calling him the opposite.

Zuk began his career bird-dogging for the White Sox in the early 1950s. He was Lodigiani’s bird-dog, or part-timer. In 1957 Zuk was hired by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a full-time scout, and less than two years later, he received a tip from Powles about an awkward left-handed-hitting black kid from Oakland who didn’t look pretty but had tremendous raw power.

The player was Stargell. Zuk always claimed that he never discovered Stargell and he gave all the credit to Powles for knowing about Stargell and working with him before anyone else did. Zuk recalled holding three private workouts with Stargell. Each time, he helped Stargell straighten out his stance. By the third day Zuk was startled to see Stargell’s raw power, especially to straightaway center field.

Zuk credited Powles, but he had recognized his first power bat in a legendary career renowned for identifying power bats. He persuaded the Pirates to spend $1,500 to sign Stargell and corresponded with the young player as he struggled to find his swing in the lower minors and adjust to the racism he encountered. Stargell went on to hit 475 major-league home runs.

The Stargell signing illustrated another characteristic of Zuk’s scouting ethos.  He believed a scout should never take credit for discovering or signing a player that he was not directly responsible for. In a business where false claims are common, Zuk’s stance for honesty never won him points among his fellow scouts. But Zuk wouldn’t hesitate to twist the truth if he felt it helped a player he believed in, and consequently, added a notch on his own belt. In 1966, while scouting the Southern states for the Pirates, he lied about shortstop Fred Patek’s height in order to assure himself of signing Patek and to give the player a shot.

Patek is in the record books at 5-feet-5. Zuk said he listed Patek at 5-10. Zuk believed Patek’s arm and glove were well above major-league average and he felt Patek had a chance to make consistent contact. When the Pirates took one look at Patek, the farm director allegedly growled, “That goddamn Zuk did it to us again.” It was a story Zuk loved telling for the rest of his career.

When Zuk scouted the South, he continued to defy baseball establishment. When he signed black players, he would often organize the contract in such a way that the player would receive the same amount of money a white player would. It was the value system of George Powles in action.

 

Most scouts, particularly those who are outspoken, work for a number of teams throughout their careers. When the Pirates dropped Zuk, he signed on to scout the Southern states for the Oakland Athletics. There, he befriended Piper Davis, a black scout who had played for the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League and for the Pacific Coast League Oakland Oaks when Zuk worked in Oakland.

Zuk and Davis shared a common belief that many black players were not given fair looks in what Davis used to call “white folks ball.” The two scouts traded tips, and when Davis knew he couldn’t get a player he wanted, he made sure Zuk knew about him.  Years later, Davis’s daughter, Faye, could still recall her father nodding his approval, repeating his cadence, saying “Lord, Zooooook.”

The A’s transferred Zuk to cover the Western states in the late 1960s, bringing him closer to his home in Redlands, in Southern California’s Inland Empire.

In 1966 the top two amateur players in the nation were in Zuk’s territory – Antelope Valley High School catcher Steve Chilcott and Arizona State University outfielder Reggie Jackson. It was the second year after the amateur draft began. The Mets picked first and the Athletics picked second.

Contrary to popular mythology, Chilcott was not considered a bad prospect. In fact, Zuk liked him, but pointed out that Chilcott got hurt and that derailed his potential. Also contrary to popular mythology, Jackson was considered no sure thing. He was an outspoken black athlete, and some scouts were wary. Zuk asked Jackson to work out for him in private. Jackson agreed. When Zuk found Jackson waiting for him at the ballpark an hour before he asked him to be there, Zuk was sold. Jackson later gave credit to Zuk for taking into consideration not only his talent, but also his family circumstances.

Jackson believed Zuk gave him a fair look even though some teams were scared of him because his father had been in prison. In turn, Zuk deeply respected Jackson’s pride, though during Jackson’s career, he never cared for his showmanship qualities. It was pure Zuk – he loved and hated Reggie for his ego.

In the early 1970s Zuk began a tour as a Southern California area scout for the Montreal Expos. He was a legendary presence at games. Outfielder Gary Roenicke, who was signed by Zuk in 1973, said he was “The Godfather,” who came into the ballpark “with the cigar burning” and in business suit and fedora. Zuk would often bring his young son, Warren, with him to games. When he wanted to get an exclusive look at a batter swinging, he would tell Warren to stand up in front of competing scouts while the pitch was on the way in order to block their view.

Zuk and San Francisco Giants scout George Genovese had a cunning and competitive rivalry. Genovese, a former player and minor-league manager who was a social animal, worked the same turf as the tight-lipped Zuk. He had the freedom from his front office to take more chances on players than Zuk did. He had more friends and fewer enemies. Genovese remembered how he caught Zuk hiding in the bushes at Los Angeles Harbor College scouting catcher Gary Alexander, a player he eventually signed for the Giants. Genovese joked that the scent of Zuk’s cigar gave him away.

Zuk and Genovese represented two opposing scouting viewpoints. Zuk believed that a scout should be highly selective and study the character of the players he acquired. Genovese, while he also paid close attention to character study and due diligence, came from the Branch Rickey orientation of quality through quantity.

Though the two scouts were surely not on each other’s Christmas-card lists, their decades-long rivalry resulted in a grudging acceptance of each other.   

In 1967 Zuk signed Darrell Evans out of Pasadena City College for the Atlanta Braves. Zuk liked Evans’s left-handed-hitting power potential, but he was concerned that Evans, who wore eyeglasses, might not be able to see the ball enough at night to become a proficient hitter. Zuk built a relationship with Evans and hoped for the best. When Evans established himself with a 41-home-run season for the 1973 Atlanta Braves, Zuk was proud of his player. He wrote him a letter in which he expressed his pride in Evans for proving him wrong, that he could indeed hit with the vision he was born with.

In 1971 Genovese had visited the home of prospect Gordon Carter. As Genovese left the home after signing Carter, he recalled Gordon telling him that he would be back in 1972 for Gordon’s little brother, Gary. Genovese followed up in 1972, as did Zuk. But early in the season, most scouts were down on Fullerton High catcher Gary Carter and believed he would honor his college commitment to play quarterback at UCLA.

What happened later that spring is the stuff of Southern California scouting mythology. The way Zuk told the story, he visited Amerige Park in Fullerton when he discovered a night game only by the lights in his rear-view mirror on a local freeway. Drawn to the lights and by his own instincts, Zuk rediscovered Carter. He loved the energy Carter showed, and he saw a player with multiple tools – right-handed power at a premium position, a plus arm, a plus runner, and a plus defender. Zuk persuaded the Expos front office to come see Carter, and he went to pains to make sure the front office slipped into town undetected. He arranged a private workout rather than risk scouting Carter in a game, knowing that if other scouts knew Zuk was heavy on Carter, he might never get to the Expos. The front office was sold and the Expos drafted Carter in the third round of the 1972 draft. Carter was in the big leagues to stay in 1974.

Carter, along with Stargell and Jackson, became Zuk’s third Hall of Famer. As usual, there was a little mustard on Zuk’s story. John Ramey, his former bird-dog who went on to sign several major leaguers, said the lights at Amerige Park cannot be seen from the freeway at night. He also had a small role in helping Zuk hide his interest in Carter.

When Zuk knew he wanted Carter, he not only stopped going to his high-school games, he told Ramey to stop going as well. The two scouts then split off to watch players they really were not interested in to create the illusion that they were off Carter. When Carter went in the third round, most Southern California scouts, including Zuk’s rival Genovese, knew they had been had. It was just as Zuk’s boss had said when he signed Freddie Patek: “That goddamn Zuk did it to us again.”

Zuk was a self-described loner. He liked to sit by himself along the first-base line, in order to observe the open side of right-handed hitters, rather than behind the plate with scouts and their radar guns. He said he would never sign a player unless he saw him take batting practice with a wood bat; he would never sign a player whom he only saw hit with metal. He said he trusted the sound of the bat, believing that only strong hands, wrists, and forearms could produce the sound of raw power. As he aged, he believed there were fewer multitool players to scout and sign. So closing in on 3,000 career home runs from the players he signed, a mark only his old rival Genovese reached, he focused on finding future big leaguers who could get him 3,000 home runs in the big leagues.

Zuk always remained true to himself. In the early 1980s he lamented the decline of black players from the Los Angeles inner city. He ran with two scouts, veteran Cliff Ditto and rookie scout John Young. Ditto, who had signed Ozzie Smith and Tony Gwynn, said, “We used to sign six players a year from the inner city. Now we’re lucky if we sign one every six years.”

Zuk, who had signed George Hendrick and Ellis Valentine from inner-city Los Angeles, had not been interested in Young, a former inner-city Los Angeles high-school player who appeared briefly with the Detroit Tigers. “I remember saying, ‘Damn, Bob, you signed everyone in my neighborhood except for me.’ Bob said, ‘John, sometimes the best players are the ones you never sign.’ ”

Zuk influenced Young, a black scout, much as Powles had influenced him. Young left scouting and founded the RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City) program, crediting Zuk’s influence and courage of his own convictions for inspiring him to take on one of baseball’s biggest problems. Young later named one of RBI’s annual awards after Zuk.

As Zuk aged, he became more ornery. He was never “one of the boys,” as far as the scouting community went, and the chasm between him and his profession widened. One scout called him “a user.”

Zuk believed so strongly in studying the makeup of players that he called it a losing battle with major-league front offices to make them understand why some players succeeded and others failed. In time, Zuk came to believe that front offices did not care about developing the kinds of skilled, honorable, and hard-working territory scouts that he had studied with in the years before the amateur draft. He believed that the game veered too much to making decisions on data and believed it betrayed studying the complete picture of each potential major leaguer. He urged young aspiring scouts not to pursue his own career path and to instead find a new way to restore the values he cherished to the game he loved.

Despite his strong record as an area scout, Zuk was fired from one team after another. He worked for the Atlanta Braves in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He worked for the Seattle Mariners in the mid-’80s and the Pirates again in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Zuk also believed baseball practiced age discrimination against scouts. He believed the game did not value institutional knowledge. He believed the game did not give some players the same fair looks it gave to others. He resented the fact that he had signed three Hall of Famers and had ownership telling him whom to like and whom to sign. Zuk also deeply resented what he viewed as a player he didn’t want shoved down his throat.

In 1987 he quit the Seattle Mariners, saying the organization forced him to select right-handed pitcher Mike Campbell with a first-round pick in 1985, despite his objections. In 1989, while working again for the Pirates, Zuk desperately wanted left-handed-hitting first baseman Ryan Klesko from Westminster High School. The front office instead ordered Zuk to select right-handed-hitting first baseman Rich Aude from Chatsworth High School. Furious, Zuk quit the Pirates, but history gave him the last laugh: Klesko, drafted in the fifth round by the Braves, hit 278 home runs in the major leagues. Aude, drafted in the second round by the Pirates, hit two.

Zuk became an untouchable scouting hire until he was hired as a special assistant by the Texas Rangers in the mid-1990s. In that capacity he would no longer have signing power, and his quest to make a run at 3,000 home runs ended. His role was to help train young scouts in the identification of power hitters and to cross-check certain players. Zuk was a remorseless cross-checker when it came to power hitters, and he especially did not like supposed power hitters who gave him too many “inside-out swings,” those that did not show extension or lift. But his teachings on how to identify power hitters became legendary in the scouting underground. He authored a secretive list called “Bob Zuk’s keys to power hitting,” which survives only in the hands of a select few scouts silently carrying on his traditions.

Zuk had been diagnosed with leukemia in the early 1990s and took a five-year sabbatical from scouting. He re-emerged one final time, as a special assistant to the Cincinnati Reds. As late as 2002 Zuk could be found at local high-school and college games, hobbling around on a bad knee, overweight because of his medication, scouting with nothing more than a pen, a stopwatch, and a roster. With the Reds, he cross-checked and endorsed 18-year-old outfielder Joey Votto, who was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2010.

Zuk retired from scouting in 2003. He was honored, ironically, with the George Genovese Lifetime Achievement Award in scouting by the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation, announced in 2004. Zuk died on April 9, 2005, leaving behind three children, six grandchildren, and his wife of more than 40 years, Delores. He also left behind his work on the field – 22 major leaguers, 2,444 career home runs, and a legacy of doing what he believed was right in an industry that wanted him to be anything but himself.

 

Sources

Personal interview with Bob Zuk, 2002. Quotations otherwise not attributed are from this interview.

Personal interviews with George Genovese, Dario Lodigiani, Bill Wight, Spider Jorgensen, John Ramey, Warren Zuk, John Young, Faye Davis, Gary Roenicke, Darrell Evans, Roland Hemond, and Doug Deutch.

Bob Zuk’s funeral program.

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