Hugh “Red” Alexander was a promising 20-year-old, having just hit 57 home runs with a high batting average in two minor-league seasons, and tasting his first cup of coffee in the big leagues. He managed one single in 11 at-bats during his late-season callup and was looking forward to a long career as a player. Then he lost his hand in an offseason accident at the family farm, and his career as a player was ended. He overcame the injury, became a scout, and went on to a long and successful career in baseball, scouting players in eight different decades and signing more players who made the major leagues than any other scout.1
Hugh Alexander was born on July 10, 1917, near Lead Mine, a small unincorporated community in south central Missouri.2 He was the second of three sons (Henry and Claude) his father, Harry, and mother, Mae, were raising while trying to scratch out a living farming the unproductive ground.
When Hugh was 5, the farming family was lured by the siren call of the Oklahoma oil boom. They moved to the oil fields near Cromwell, Oklahoma, where Harry became a roughneck working for the oil companies in the area while Mae did laundry for the oil workers, took care of her boys, and had another baby (daughter Edith).
Growing up in the oil fields was a very difficult life. The family made do with a very basic level of shelter, living in field tents the first couple of years in Oklahoma, and moving around as Harry worked in different oil fields. Harry was a hard worker, smart and ambitious, and he was promoted to a field supervisor in the late 1920s. The main change for the family was that they were able to move to a wood-frame house. But they still lived in the oil fields, which were their kids’ playground. The boys played ball in their spare time using wells as bases and sliding on the polluted ground, ruined from exposure to spilled oil. But Harry and Mae expected them to work. That was the guiding principle of the family. As soon as they were old enough, they were given chores to instill that work ethic.
Alexander went to a one-room schoolhouse in Cromwell for his elementary school education. Most oil-field kids attended school only through the eighth grade because at that point they were able to get a paying job and start contributing to the family finances. Hugh was athletic from a young age and Harry encouraged him to be tough. He taught him boxing and began matching Hugh against older athletes to make a few dollars when carnivals came to town. Hugh also played against older children in baseball and football and caught the eyes of the Seminole high school coaches.
With his parents’ and the coaches’ encouragement, Alexander attended Seminole High School. It took longer than 30 minutes to get to and from Seminole, if a ride was available. Typically his father would drop him off in the morning and he would hitch a ride home in the afternoon. The trip took too much time, leaving no free time for sports participation. So Harry negotiated a deal with the local fire chief. Hugh would live at the Seminole firehouse during the week, cleaning and doing odd jobs to pay for his keep. He also got a job cleaning the local movie theater for $1 a day. This left Hugh time to for sports but also meant he had very little supervision. He learned to hustle at the local pool hall and play a mean game of poker. Around this same time, Harry was promoted to a job where he was in charge of negotiating mineral rights from local farmers. Hugh picked up deal-making tips from his father that he had no idea he would need in the future.
Alexander was an amazing all-around athlete. He played football, baseball, and basketball, and ran track. By his junior year, he was elected the captain of all four teams. He had great speed, running the 100-yard dash in under 10 seconds. By comparison, Jesse Owens’ world record was 9.6 seconds. As a tailback on the football team, he led Seminole to an unofficial Oklahoma high-school championship. In one game he ran for 505 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 25 yards per carry. He also played semipro baseball (under an assumed name) in Oklahoma City during the summers to make a few bucks.3 He was a broad-shouldered, cocky, and aggressive young man with an extremely high opinion of himself.
During those semipro games, Alexander was first noticed by baseball scouts, including Cy Slapnicka, a legendary baseball lifer working as a scout for the Cleveland Indians. Slapnicka had recently signed Bob Feller and was beating the bushes looking for more talent for the Indians. Alexander had been approached by Hank Iba, famed basketball and baseball coach at Oklahoma State, who offered him a chance to play baseball and run track for the university. Iba noted that Alexander potentially could represent the United States in the 1936 Olympics in track. But Alexander wanted money, not an education, and there was no money in track and field. Slapnicka offered him $250 to sign with the Indians but he cagily asked for more. Slapnicka then promised him a $1,000 bonus when he made the major leagues. That was a given, the arrogant Alexander figured, so he signed the deal. Slapnicka noted that the broad-shouldered youth had all the tools except for a weak throwing arm. But four tools out of five could mean a baseball star.
The Indians assigned the 6-foot, 190-pound 18-year-old to the Fargo-Moorhead Twins of the Class-D Northern League. Homesickness didn’t impact Alexander’s play. The long bus rides and bad hotels must have seemed luxurious compared to his situation growing up. As the youngest player on the roster, he played in all 122 games in 1936 and led the team with 28 home runs, a .348 batting average, and 101 RBIs. Alexander was named by the league’s writers and managers as the center fielder on the all-star team, while finishing fourth in the circuit in home runs and batting average.4 The Twins ended up fifth in the eight-team league, missing the playoffs. At the end of the season Cy Slapnicka showed up in Fargo and paid Alexander $600, “to tide you over this winter because you are some kind of ball player.”5
The Indians obviously liked what they saw in the young man. Alexander was promoted to the Springfield (Ohio) team in the Class-C Middle Atlantic League. Nine of his teammates were destined to appear in the major leagues, including Phil Masi and Chuck Workman. He started the season hot, batting .438 through the first two weeks, but was struck down by a respiratory infection that caused him to miss a few games.6 There were no lasting negative effects, because for the season he displayed excellent power, with 29 home runs in 305 at-bats, 88 RBIs, 22 stolen bases, and a .344 batting average. One season highlight was a 13th-inning walk-off grand slam against Dayton on June 15.7 The aggressive young man had a bad moment too. On July 1 his temper got the better of him. He vehemently argued a called third strike, earning a suspension, a $5 fine from the umpire, and a $25 fine from his manager.8
The Cleveland Indians wanted to see their hot prospect for an extended period so on August 12 they put Alexander on the major-league roster. On August 15 he debuted in right field in the second game of a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox at home. On his second at-bat, he hit a Texas Leaguer to center field, stole second, and took third on a long fly ball. He was thrown out at home on a groundball to complete the eventful trip around the bases. He committed an error allowing a runner to take an extra base which did not contribute to any White Sox runs.9 Alexander made his second and last big-league start five days later against the White Sox in Chicago, going 0-for-4 and striking out twice. His remaining big-league appearances consisted of three unsuccessful pinch-hit opportunities, one time pinch-running, one defensive substitution, and a month and a half of watching from the bench. Eleven at-bats, one bloop single, five strikeouts, and one steal summed up his cup of coffee. He also recorded two putouts in right field against the solitary error. Clearly he needed more seasoning but there was no reason to think the young man wouldn’t continue to improve.
Alexander went home in the offseason and went back to work. On December 5, 1937, he was working on a water pump on the family farm. The pump was difficult to start, but he had handled it before. This time he got the pump started but his shirt sleeve got tangled in the gears. He tried to rip the sleeve off but it was a double-stitched work shirt and he couldn’t pull the sleeve loose. His left hand was pulled into the gears and mangled. Mother Mae was nearby and heard his cries for help. She helped free him and drove him to the hospital in Seminole but they could do nothing to save the hand. The doctor at the hospital completed the amputation.10
Alexander was undeniably a top-notch prospect. Si Burick, a Dayton Daily News scribe, summed it up when he reported on Hugh’s accident. “The most colorful ball player and probably the most promising in the Mid-Atlantic League last summer was Springfield’s Hugh Alexander. A white-haired Adonis, whom the fans called ‘Cotton’ and his fellow players knew as ‘Red,’ Alexander laughed and fought his way through the league. Fans everywhere booed him but loved him for his colorful antics. Like a wrestler, he used to make wry faces and shake his fists at his tormentors, then burst into laughter in the privacy of the dugout. He was Alexander the Great.”11
Harry and Mae had simple advice for their son. The accident has happened and thinking about it doesn’t do any good. They would not allow him to do nothing, lounge around, drink beer, and sponge off the family. Very shortly after he got home, he took a job pouring drinks at a saloon in Seminole.
Cy Slapnicka and the Indians had not forgot about their player. Slapnicka must have seen some characteristics he liked in Alexander. Or at the least, the Indians felt they owed him a chance at a job after the accident. Slapnicka called just before Christmas and told him, “Hughie, you’re about to become a baseball scout, and if you agree the $1,000 bonus is yours.”12 Alexander didn’t know anything about scouting but thought that sounded better than a life serving beer in a saloon.
The Cleveland Indians trained in New Orleans in 1938. Alexander met Slapnicka there and started his training. The 20-year-old was about to become the youngest scout in baseball history. Slapnicka asked him to grade players they saw during spring training and they compared notes. Hugh’s experience seeing some of the best players in baseball while riding the Indians bench helped give him a frame of reference for the skill level required in a major-league player. Slapnicka gave him hints on what to look for, like a pitcher’s mechanics and a fielder’s first step when the ball is hit. He especially focused on pitching because he admittedly knew nothing about the pitcher’s craft. Also, Slapnicka told him to find out as much as possible about the player’s character. The scout needed to project a youngster from what he is today to what he could be. And somehow, they needed to figure out if the player had the character, work ethic, etc. to turn into that future big leaguer. Slapnicka also insisted that Alexander develop a strong network of contacts to be used to find prospects.
At the end of spring training, Alexander went on the road. His territory was expansive: Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and the upper Plains states. He really had no idea how to find and sign players. He met other scouts on the road, but in the times before the amateur draft, scouts kept their information very close. One of his guiding principles was that if he wasn’t sure about a player, he would walk away. He didn’t want to waste the owner’s money on a nonprospect. Because his territory was so large, he felt he needed a plan to direct his scouting. He wrote several commandments that he would follow:
- I shall make plans. Be bold, be daring. After all, a young scout lacks only the experience of making bad decisions.
- I shall travel the dirt roads, gravel roads, and blacktops to see new players.
- I shall not whine. It is a time waster and won’t win me any friends or sign me any new players.
- I shall be lucky once in a while, but most of my successes will be plain old hard work, making personal contacts.
- I shall have a pair of well-trained eyes to spot the true mechanics of the game.
- I shall know the difference in a player who thinks “I shoulda made that last play” and “I woulda not gotten that last play.”13
No matter how many games Alexander could get to, he found that scouts had a lot of time on their hands. The older men who traveled in the same territory were a hard-living lot and he spent plenty of time with them but he didn’t let it distract him from his duties. He kept a diary of his travels and the players he saw and sent in reports to Slapnicka. He would not permit anyone to call him handicapped. How could someone drive thousands of miles and live independently with a handicap? In fact, in order to make some extra cash, he would frequently bet someone he could tie his shoes faster than they could. Once the unsuspecting mark saw he had one hand, the bet was on. Hugh claimed he never lost this bet.
After Alexander’s first year on the road (with Slapnicka checking in on him occasionally), he had signed exactly zero players. It was a year of training and developing sources of information. He attended games throughout Texas and Oklahoma, the National semipro tournament in Wichita, the American Legion All-Star tournament in St. Joseph, Missouri, college games, and high-school games. He did take enough time off from traveling to marry Thelma Jewell McBride of Seminole on June 12, 1938. Slapnicka was pleased with Alexander’s progress and asked him to continue scouting.
In March 1939, Oklahoma A&M’s Hank Iba called Alexander with a hot tip. There was a young Indian-American on campus who was a hot prospect recruited by football scouts. Baseball scouts hadn’t heard of him because he had only started pitching his senior season. What Alexander saw was a hard-throwing big man who wasn’t afraid to pitch inside. He sent his scouting report on Allie Reynolds to Slapnicka, who told him to keep watching. After Reynolds threw a no-hitter, Hugh called Slapnicka and told him he had a fastball nearly as fast as Feller’s and that they needed $1,000 to sign him. Cy didn’t want to spend that much money but Hugh followed his first commandment. Taking a tip from how his father did business with poor landowners when negotiating mineral rights, Alexander borrowed $1,000 from the bank and brought the cash over to Reynolds’s home. Allie had a wife and young baby in the humble dwelling and as soon as he saw the cash fanned out on the kitchen table, he immediately signed the deal. Reynolds was Alexander’s first signing and it turned out to be a great one.14
Alexander’s years scouting with the Indians were fruitful but he learned by hard experience. In that time, players were not allowed to sign a contract until their class graduated from high school. Many rural youngsters either had no birth certificate or had quit school after eighth grade, so it could be difficult to know if a scout was complying with the rule. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis summoned Alexander to his office early in his scouting career over a possible breach of this rule. Neither he nor the Indians were penalized but Landis left him with a stern warning that he would run Hugh out of baseball if he was caught cheating.
In 1941 Alexander’s mentor Cy Slapnicka was fired from the Indians but this didn’t affect Alexander’s position with the Indians. By then, he had already scouted and signed Dale Mitchell, Pat Seerey, and others and he was being recognized among some baseball men as a person with an eye for talent. In midsummer of 1941, he met Branch Rickey at a game in Pueblo, Colorado. Rickey, then the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, had heard of him and they talked for a time. Rickey gave him some advice about searching for talent and Alexander noted it.
During the war years, scouting was very difficult. Gas rationing meant that getting to games was difficult; also, many players were serving in the armed forces. Alexander scouted some military bases, only able to sign players when they were discharged. He also helped a colonel at a base, feeding him names of good ballplayers in the military. The officer arranged to have the best transferred to his base so he could dominate the military tournaments.
Hugh and Thelma had a daughter in 1942 but all the time on the road makes for a difficult relationship. By 1952 he was divorced. He was scouting a huge territory and some of his players (Dale Mitchell and Gene Bearden) helped the Indians win the World Series in 1948, but he didn’t get everyone right. He scouted Mickey Mantle and wrote in his book “No prospect” after watching him strike out 14 times over a week. He also noted Mantle for a return visit but the Yankees beat him to it.15
In 1952 Paul Richards, manager of the White Sox, and Frank Lane, general manager, impressed by Alexander’s reputation, recruited him to scout for them. Alexander never discussed his reasons for leaving the Indians, so it would only be speculation. But he had known Richards from scouting and was impressed with his baseball smarts. Alexander’s territory didn’t change but his focus did. Richards wanted speed, defense, and (like everyone) good pitching. However, with Trader Frank Lane in house, most of the organization focus was on trading for players, not in scouting new talent.
Alexander started using his contacts to find a new job. Fresco Thompson, the director of the Dodgers farm system, knew Alexander from scouting meetings in the early 1950s. With a couple of quick conversations, he found himself as a field scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers starting in the 1956 season. Again, he had the same territory as before, roads and towns he was very familiar with.
The minor leagues were undergoing a major contraction at this time. When Alexander started with the Dodgers, they had 14 farm teams. They were on the verge of moving to Los Angeles (which they would do in 1958). By 1961 the Dodgers farm system was depleted because of trades of prospects. Farm director Buzzie Bavasi wanted to restock the system. He held a meeting with his scouts, laid out a goal of signing 100 players, and provided the financial resources to do so. This was an unprecedented number of players but Bavasi told the scouts that if they had any issues negotiating with players, they should call either Alexander or Bert Wells for help because they were the two best scouts the Dodgers had. Also, by 1962 the Dodgers were down to 10 farm teams but with expansion there were more major-league teams looking for talent. It would be a challenging time for Alexander.
Two of Alexander’s early signings with the Dodgers were Carl Warwick and Frank Howard. With Warwick, he followed one of his precepts for signing a player: Meet with the parents, especially the mother, and recruit them. He always felt the mother typically made the final decision. During a meeting with Warwick’s parents, he offered a $20,000 bonus, an additional $5,000 a year for three years, plus $5,000 if he made the majors. At the moment of the offer, his parents fell in love with Alexander!16 Howard had already decided he wanted to play for the Dodgers, and had received higher offers from other organizations. His unusual request was for a $108,000 bonus, the $8,000 for his parents to make a down payment on a house. The organization was happy to comply.
When the Dodgers initially scouted Don Sutton, scout Leon Hamilton (and to be fair, pretty much all the other scouts) call him a nonprospect. However, after Alexander got a look at him, he believed he could be a major-league pitcher and wanted to offer a deal. But the organization had already turned him down, and didn’t want to reverse course. This irritated Alexander and he jumped up the chain of command. In due course, Hamilton was ordered to sign the paperwork committing Sutton to the Dodgers, giving the proper appearance to the deal. Sutton’s father wouldn’t let Hamilton back in the house because of the earlier disrespect, so the Dodgers had to send another scout in to get Sutton’s signature.
In 1965, the major leagues instituted the amateur draft system. This changed the scouting game tremendously. No longer would scouts be involved with signing players. No more secret scouting reports or keeping your information close to the vest. Alexander was disappointed in the changes but as a baseball lifer, he changed with the times.
In 1972 Alexander’s friend Paul Owens, soon to be general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, offered him a new challenge. He would be a special-assignment scout and would have much more input in the effort to try to build a winning team from the rubble of the current organization. His salary was $15,000, which made him the highest paid scout in baseball.17 He helped improve Philadelphia’s focus on building from within, noting that the Dodgers reserved $1 million for signing bonuses while the Phillies spent $400,000.
Owens soon hired Dallas Green to run the farm system and the trio became the architects of the Phillies’ winning teams. Alexander would go scout any situation the team needed him in and would provide his take on potential trades and the draft. The first big deal he had a hand in was to push the Phillies to trade for Steve Carlton. Now known as Uncle Hughie throughout baseball for his knowledge and years in the game, he learned from his extensive network of Carlton’s salary disagreement with the Cardinals and how the team was willing to move him. So the Phillies were able to take advantage. Other key trade acquisitions in the next few years included Garry Maddox, Bake McBride, and Tug McGraw. Key drafts included Lonnie Smith, Alan Bannister, and Dick Ruthven. Alexander’s influence was suggested by Bill Conlin in a Philadelphia Daily News article: “When Hughie Alexander talks in a mellow baritone that suggests sour mash bourbon and unfiltered cigarettes, you can hear a pin drop in the Phillies’ boardroom.”18
Alexander also paid close attention to the rules. At this time, there were two major league drafts, held in January and in June. Marty Bystrom, a pitcher for Miami-Dade Community College, was skipped over in the June, 1976 draft. There was a little-known clause in the draft rules which said a player who wasn’t drafted was a free agent until two weeks before the next draft. Hugh jumped on this, signing him for $50,000 in December, thereby not risking losing him to another team in January. Baseball executives were so upset by the move that the rule was changed for the following year.19
No great situation lasts forever. In 1981 Dallas Green became general manager of the Chicago Cubs. In 1982 the Phillies traded for Joe Morgan and Tony Perez. That helped them in 1983, but the trades of prospects for major leaguers took its toll. One particularly damaging trade was sending Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs as an extra player to acquire Ivan de Jesus. Maybe karma for the Carlton steal was in play. The aging Phillies sank back to a second-division team.
Sometime in the late 1970s or early ’80s, Alexander married a woman named Lois and lived in Palm Harbor, Florida. He much preferred the climate there to Oklahoma’s. With the Phillies, he spent at least 200 days a year away from home, which continued to contribute to his fluid home life. A Jayson Stark article implied that Lois was his sixth wife, but this researcher couldn’t find any marriage records to confirm any marriages other than to his first wife.20
Dallas Green encouraged Alexander to join him in Chicago in 1987. This would be Alexander’s final employer. Green left soon after but Jim Frey took over and of course Uncle Hughie knew him and was comfortable with the situation. In 1989 the team celebrated his 50th year in scouting. His time with Chicago was filled with any special assignment the team would send him on, along with trying to share his wisdom with other people in the organization. In 1998 he finally retired, but continued to occasionally scout spring-training games for the organization. In 2000, he scouted one last game during spring training. This completed his career, scouting in eight different decades.
Over the years, Alexander signed 63 players who eventually made the major leagues.21 In 1984 he founded the Scout of the Year program to honor baseball scouts. In 1996 he finally agreed to receive the award. There is no way to count the number of games he watched or players he scouted. In 1994 he moved to a 16-acre horse ranch near Brooksville, Florida. He bought the property because Lois always liked it when they drove by, but she died before they could move in. In 1999, suffering from lung cancer, he moved to Spring Hill, Florida, then relocated to Oklahoma City after spring training in 2000 to be near his sister, Edith. The lifelong smoker died of lung cancer on November 25, 2000. His remains were cremated and interred in Maple Grove Cemetery in Seminole, Oklahoma.22
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author accessed Baseball-Reference.com, Ancestry.com, and Newspapers.com.
1 Dan Austin, Baseball’s Last Great Scout (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 3.
2 Austin, 6.
3 Austin, 15.
4 “The Northern League,” The Sporting News, September 10, 1936: 6.
5 Austin, 20.
6 “The Mid-Atlantic League,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1937: 6.
7 “The Mid-Atlantic League,” The Sporting News, June 24, 1937: 10.
8 “The Mid-Atlantic League,” The Sporting News, July 8, 1937: 8.
9 “White Sox Win Double Header from Indians,” Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1937: 23.
10 There are various versions of the accident. What type of pump Alexander was working on, who was with him, and how he gots to the hospital vary. This story is from Dan Austin’s book and seems to be the most likely.
11 Si Burick, “Si-Ings,” Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, December 7, 1937: 23.
12 Austin, 23.
13 Austin, 33.
14 Austin, 38.
15 Austin, 64.
16 Austin, 84.
17 Austin, 117.
18 Bill Conlin, “Uncle Hughie,” Philadelphia Daily News, November 15, 1983: 84.
19 Austin, 137.
20 Jayson Stark, “He Is the Phillies Unknown Soldier,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 15, 1983: 1D.
21 Austin, 163.
22 Greg Auman, “Baseball Scout in Eight Decades Dies,” Tampa Bay Times, November 29, 2000: 89.
July 10, 1917 at Buffalo, MO (USA)
November 25, 2000 at Oklahoma City, OK (USA)
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