Herb Stein is a baseball rarity in that his whole career was spent under the aegis of one organization, the Washington Nationals. (When he went to independent teams early in his career it was with the Nationals’ blessings.) He was born in New York City on December 3, 1917, and graduated from George Washington High School in upper Manhattan, where he excelled as a shortstop on both the school team and on the brimming sandlots of his native city. In 1939, after a tryout at Yankee Stadium, Stein was signed to his first professional contract by Joe Eynon, Nationals owner Clark Griffith’s business manager.*
After he got his feet wet with two teams in Maryland’s Class D Eastern Shore League, the Nationals recommended that Stein begin the 1940 season with the Erwin (Tennessee) Mountaineers, an unaffiliated team in the Class D Appalachian League. After hitting .331 and slugging .525 in 95 games (the best numbers of his career), he was promoted later that season to the Greenville (North Carolina) Spinners, the Nationals’ affiliate in the Class B Sally League. He remained with Greenville in the 1941 season and in 1942 played for the Chattanooga Lookouts, in the Class A-1 Southern Association.
In October 1942 Stein was drafted into the US Army. He rose to the rank of sergeant and participated in the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.
One of his assignments during his military service was overseeing the protection of German and Italian prisoners of war. While in Europe Herb met his future wife, the Belgian-born Marie-Josee Goffin – called Josee by friends and family. After her arrival in the United States in 1946, she would become the mother of two sons and a daughter.
In 1946 Stein resumed his playing career for the Nationals’ Class B Charlotte Hornets in the Tri-State League. He’d played no baseball during the war and though advancing in age (he was 28), he still put in a fairly full year at shortstop with Charlotte. . The only season in which he rose to a higher classification was 1948, when he played Class A ball for Binghamton (Eastern League), hitting .248 in 54 games, but his knowledge of the game, especially pitching and fielding, attracted him to Nationals executives. In 1949 he was the player-manager of the Stamford (Connecticut) Pioneers in the Class B Colonial League, and in 1950 he was player-manager of the Jesup Bees in the Class D Georgia State League, a team that finished with a 69-69 record.
Stein’s experiences in the segregated South made a deep impression on him. A groundskeeper at the Jesup ballpark told him that he was the only black person in town who had a bathtub. Once while getting a haircut in Jesup, Stein was shocked when a barber called over the shoeshine boy and told him to pick up the apron from a customer and shake the hairs out. After he swept the floor, the black worker was ordered back to his shoeshine stand. Stein never patronized that barbershop again.
Proud of his Jewish ancestry, Stein faced occasional anti-Semitic threats from Southern crowds. He and his Jesup team once needed police protection from a particularly raucous crowd after a road game.
In 1952 Stein, who had begun work as a transit patrolman in his native New York, started his scouting career. Sherry Robertson (Clark Griffith’s nephew, future owner Calvin Griffith’s half-brother, and Stein’s former Greenville teammate) assigned Joe Cambria, Washington’s legendary Latin American scout, to teach him the ropes. “He was the greatest scout that ever lived,” Stein said on many occasions of Cambria, praising him for his intricate knowledge of pitching and catching. He also remembered that Cambria “wore his luggage on his body,” traveling the world with his only two suits.
Stein learned his lessons well, because by the time he was faced with unwelcome retirement by the Twins during the crippling 1994-95 major-league baseball strike, he had signed more than 100 players, eight of whom made the major leagues, including Hall of Famer Rod Carew and 1988 American League Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola. His other signings in chronological order were Joe Foy, Danny Monzon, Sal Butera, Scott Ullger, Gene Larkin, and Scott Leius. (Although he signed Tim Teufel, Stein believed he did not deserve credit for the second baseman because the majority of the scouting was done by the Twins’ Southeastern staff.)
In 1954 or 1955, Stein signed his first amateur, a pitcher from the Dominican Republic who would not survive his first Nationals spring training in Orlando, Florida. The player bristled at being forced to live in the second-class segregated conditions of the Deep South. “No way! I want to live with the ballplayers,” the hurler told Stein and bolted out of the training camp, never to return.
In 1962 Stein had better luck with Joe Foy, who became the first of his discoveries to make the major leagues. Stein liked what he saw of the stocky third baseman from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx and followed Foy’s development in local sandlot leagues. He was impressed by Foy’s performance for the New York team against national all-stars in one of the last “New York versus the World” exhibition games sponsored by the soon-defunct newspaper, the New York Journal-American.
“Foy had good body control and was flexible for his size,” Stein remembered. He was able to persuade his bosses to take a chance on the infielder. However, after one year in the minors, the Twins exposed Foy to the minor-league draft and the Boston Red Sox nabbed an infielder who would contribute to Boston’s 1967 American League champions and later played for the Kansas City Royals, the New York Mets, and the third edition of the Washington Senators.
Stein is most famous for his signing of Rod Carew in 1964, one year before the advent of Major League Baseball’s amateur free-agent draft. Carew was the dream that came true for any scout, a diamond in the rough, a potentially great talent who though attending George Washington High School, Stein’s alma mater, was not eligible to play interscholastic baseball because of his problems with the English language. (A quarter of a century later Stein salivated over another George Washington high schooler -- Manny Ramirez – but was unable to persuade his Minnesota bosses to draft the player.)
Stein’s growing network of bird-dogs aided his discovery of Carew. Monroe Katz, an associate scout of the Twins, knew about the prospect because Katz’s son Steve was his teammate on the Cavaliers, a Bronx sandlot nine.i Cavaliers coach Ozzie Alvarez was another confidant of Stein.
After seeing young Carew in action, Stein filed this enthusiastic report with his bosses: “He is a good hitter. Can hit the ball to all fields. He has strong arms and great wrist action . . . a quick bat . . . ball jumps off it . . . good power . . . also has good idea of the strike zone.” He concluded: “Once in pro ball if he can get used to being away from home, accepting the good and bad, and the many adversities in the game, he will become one hell of a player.”ii Years later Stein told sportswriter Wayne Coffey that Carew had a grown man’s wrists by the age of 18.iii
Except for some Detroit Tigers New York-area scouts, Stein doubted whether other teams knew about the Panamanian teenager and he begged his Minnesota bosses to keep Carew’s talents under wraps. He was distressed when the Twins invited the prospect to a tryout at Yankee Stadium that was observed by six other teams. Owner Calvin Griffith even attended the tryout and urged Stein to get Carew a Twins cap. The future Hall of Famer’s excellent workout accelerated the interest of the other teams but Stein still enjoyed the inside track. When some of the rival scouts wanted to know where Carew was next playing, Stein concocted a story about a field far north of the Bronx in Westchester County. He had obviously learned well some of the tricks of the trade in those days of cutthroat and creative competition before the amateur free-agent draft.
Having earned the confidence of Carew’s mother, Stein was able to sign the second baseman at the stroke of midnight on the day he graduated from high school. Mrs. Carew was awed by the offer of a $5,000 bonus with an increase to $7,500 if Carew made the major-league roster. When Carew was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 he invited Stein to the ceremony, mentioned him in his acceptance speech and told him afterward, “Well, Herb, I guess we made it.”
Though Carew is Stein’s most famous signing, some of the others should be recognizable names to ardent baseball fans. Gene Larkin, whom Herb signed off the Columbia University campus, belted a pinch-hit World Series-winning single off the Braves’ Alejandro Pena in the tenth inning of Game Seven of the 1991 World Series. In 1981 Herb signed Frank Viola of St. John’s University in Queens to a $25,000 bonus contract after his spectacular effort against Yale and Ron Darling in an NCAA baseball tournament game. The southpaw from suburban Long Island had not been heavily scouted until that breakthrough game at Yale but Stein had been following him through his high-school and collegiate career. In 1991 Stein inked another St. John’s player, infielder Scott Ullger, for a much more modest bonus of $2,500. After nine years in the majors and nine in the minor leagues, Ullger went into coaching and as of 2011 patrolled the Twins’ bench coach.
Like the best scouts, Stein tried to maintain personal relationships with the players he signed. Most of them rose quickly through the Twins’ minor-league system, with only Sal Butera struggling up the rungs. At one point Butera was ready to call it quits but Herb talked him out of it. In 2010 Sal’s son Drew Butera made the Twins roster as the backup to superstar catcher Joe Mauer.
Herb was heartbroken when he learned of the death in January 1996 of Danny Monzon in an auto accident in the Dominican Republic. As a player, Monzon, a 1967 second-round choice in the June secondary draft, was fated to be trapped behind Rod Carew and had only 131 at-bats for Minnesota in 1972 and 1973, hitting .244 with no home runs and nine runs batted in. Monzon never played again in the majors and in 1978 he started his post-playing career as a minor-league manager in the Mets system. In 1982 the Mets named Monzon a scout and later he worked for the Cubs and the White Sox. In 1995 the Red Sox named him supervisor of Latin American scouting and he was on assignment for Boston when he was killed. Though they never scouted for the same organization, Stein and Monzon retained a close personal and professional relationship, the older scout willingly sharing his knowledge of the inside game.
Stein did not want to retire from scouting when he received his pink slip in 1995. Though he was over 75 years old, he insisted “My mind is 21 years old.” He was a loyal member of the Twins organization and always praised their development program from the lowest minors to the major leagues. “Players know they are wanted,” he explained, as long as they give one hundred per cent effort.
Stein received many honors in his retirement. The Mid-Atlantic Scouts Association placed a plaque in his honor on the outfield wall at Orioles Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, and the Scouts Wall of Fame similarly honored him in 2006 at Richmond County Stadium, home of the Staten Island Yankees of the New York-Penn League.
From the late 1960s until the early 21st century, Stein was the president of the New York Professional Scouts Hot Stove League. His stewardship of the annual January dinner in the depths of winter always made for a very special evening of baseball mirth and lore.
Over the course of a 25-year friendship, Stein shared with the author a lot of his baseball and life wisdom. Here are some of his noteworthy nuggets:
- “The day you sign a player, he’s a better player because the monkey’s off his back.”
- “Once you like a guy, don’t give up on him.”
- “Don’t go overboard in your evaluations of a player. Just be firm and strong about your opinions.”
- “Hearing about a player is not scouting him.”
- “Watch pitchers carefully after they have been hit hard. You don’t want them to get domestic out there.”
And last but not least, here is his elegy to the game that he played and served so well for over 50 years:
- “Baseball is spontaneous, nobody writes the dialogue except to see what happens in front of them.”
In the late spring of 2010, Herb Stein suffered two strokes that left him with serious weakness on his left side and confined to a rehabilitation center. He remained mentally sharp. Herb died on December 8, 2010.
*Though Herb Stein and most people in baseball referred to the Washington team as the Senators, the official name was the Washington Nationals.
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Herb Stein come from an interview on February 23, 2010.
i Wikipedia, first Rod Carew entry
iii Wayne Coffey, New York Daily News, February 11, 1995