This article was written by Timothy Gay
Baseball scouts have historically thrived on anonymity. They ply their trade in the game’s shadows, rarely drawing acclaim or notoriety. George Huff was the exception that proves the rule. As both coach and scout, Huff was intimately involved in baseball for some 30 years. But in truth baseball was essentially a sideline. Despite considerable success in combing the backwoods for talent, he was never more than a part-time scout.
Huff was for four decades one of America’s most influential athletic administrators. At a time when the gridiron game was viewed as a corrupting force on campuses across the country, Huff became a forceful advocate for reform in college football. His death was mourned by opinion makers who appreciated his dogged efforts to make college football more accountable.
He was born seven years after the Civil War ended at Appomattox, June 11, 1872 on a farm not far from Champaign, Illinois, the home of his alma mater and near-lifelong employer, the University of Illinois. At the precocious age of 15 he entered the university. A catcher, he captained the baseball squad in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. In 1890 he helped to form the Illini’s first football team. Three years later, he moved east to study medicine at Dartmouth College.
When the University of Illinois offered him a position as assistant director of athletics and baseball coach in 1895, Huff jumped at the chance to come home. He was instrumental in establishing the Western Conference, the forerunner of the Big Ten, insisting that participating institutions vow to uphold ethical and academic standards. In 1901, he was promoted to become the U of I’s director of athletics, a job he held for most of the next 35 years.
As the Illini’s baseball coach for 24 years, Huff enjoyed much success, winning 12 conference championships and never finishing lower than second. “Although Mr. Huff never encouraged his players to enter professional baseball,” the New York Times wrote in its obituary, “some of them were of such unusual ability as to justify it.” Among his more gifted players was Garland (Jake) Stahl, a slick-fielding first baseman who was destined to win the 1912 World Series as player-manager of the Boston Red Sox.
Huff’s imprint was all over the 1912 Red Sox; he had worked some with Forrest “Hick” Cady, its substitute catcher, and scouted and signed its starting shortstop, Heinie Wagner, the fireballing right-handed pitcher Joe Wood, and its nonpareil center fielder Tris Speaker. When the Illini’s baseball season ended each spring, Huff worked as a summertime scout. In the early 1900s he was part of the Chicago Cubs organization. But by ’07 he was scouting Texas for the Boston Americans, the team christened the Red Sox in December of that year.
The center fielder for Doak Roberts’ Houston club in the Texas League soon caught Huff’s eye. Huff bird-dogged the kid for a couple of weeks before making his presence known. The prospect was Tristram Speaker, a raw 19-year-old from a cow town in central Texas who played baseball the same way he rode a horse: with wild abandon. Huff loved Speaker’s range in the outfield and a bat that produced a .314 average that season. Fortunately for Huff, the St. Louis Browns and Pittsburgh Pirates had both spurned the opportunity to sign young Tris.
Roberts and Speaker soon agreed to Huff’s terms, but convincing Speaker’s mother proved more difficult. A widow and the sister of a Confederate cavalryman, Mrs. Speaker didn’t want to see her lastborn leave Texas. But Huff eventually wore her down. In some accounts, Huff acquired Speaker for $750; in others, $800. Either way, Speaker came to the Sox cheaply.
Huff didn’t know it at the time, of course, but he had pulled one of the great scouting coups in baseball history. A century later, that cowboy from the sticks is still the all-time major-league record-holder in doubles, catch-and-throw double plays from the outfield, unassisted double plays from the outfield (spearing a line drive and beating the retreating runner to second base), and assists.
Even before he “discovered” Speaker, 1907 had been a busy year for Huff. After Red Sox manager Chick Stahl (no relation to Illini Jake) committed suicide in late March, the owners of the Red Sox, the Taylor family, had turned to Huff to manage the squad. Huff succeeded an interim skipper by the name of Cy Young. The great Hall of Fame pitcher had led the team to a 3-3 record in his 10 days at the helm.
Red Sox historians Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson have written that players were “shocked” that Huff had gotten the job and, behind his back, “disdainfully” called him “Professor.” After just two weeks on the job and a mediocre 2-6 record, Huff realized he lacked the appetite for the big leagues. He returned to scouting and never again tried his hand at coaching or managing in professional ball.
Instead, the ex-catcher turned much of his focus to football, which by the second decade of the 20th century had begun generating large amounts of revenue for institutions such as Illinois. The Illini’s head coach was Robert Zuppke, who’d been plucked out of high school by Huff and within a few years became of America’s foremost coaches. Under Zuppke’s and Huff’s leadership, the Illini became a perennial power in the Big Ten. Huff also became an outspoken proponent for greater institutional control over athletics. He waged a long campaign (with decidedly mixed results) to discourage college players from moonlighting on Sundays as professionals.
He also was applauded for his annual messages to U of I student-athletes. “All Illinois athletes should be reminded that varsity sports should play a minor part in the curriculum of the student,” he declared in 1922. His messages stressed to “lose without excuses, win without boasting, and always give visiting players a most courteous welcome.”
It pained Huff in 1925 when the Illini’s All-American running back, Red Grange, abruptly left the team to accept big money to play for the Chicago Bears. Two years later Huff helped shape a Carnegie Foundation study of college football excesses. Among other sins, the study sought to crack down on the alcohol abuse that pervaded campuses on football weekends. In the run-up to the 1932 Olympics, Huff served on an amateur baseball committee that was chaired by none other than Avery Brundage, the president of the Amateur Athletic Union and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Perhaps more than any other figure in the 20th century, “Slavery Avery” was responsible for the phony “amateur” rules that dogged the Olympics for decades.
Huff died in 1936 at age 64 after a long battle with intestinal disorders. He was survived by his wife, daughters Katherine and Elizabeth, and a son, George, Jr. He is buried in Mount Hope cemetery, Champaign, Illinois.
Other major-league players Huff signed were Fred Beebe, King Cole, Jim Cook, Cy Falkenberg, Solly Hofman, Al Kaiser, Fred Luderus, Carl Lundgren, Hans Lobert, Ernie Ovitz, Big Jeff Pfeffer, Ed Reulbach, Claude Rothgeb, Frank “Wildfire” Schulte, and George Whiteman.
Eight decades after his death, college administrators continue to grapple with many of the issues that he addressed when they were in their infancy. And eight decades later, the cowpoke (Tris Speaker) that Huff scouted and signed in the Texas League remains one of the greatest center fielders of all time.