Baseball Scouts in the Movies

This article was written by Rob Edelman

This article was published in

Scouts Book Cover FrontThe heroes of baseball movies usually are brawny power hitters who bash ninth inning homers or fireballing hurlers who toss shutouts to win the Big Game. Or, they are raw but promising younger players, some in fictional scenarios and others in biopics, who overcome obstacles and fashion Hall of Fame careers.

Rarely are they the dedicated scouts who quietly unearth these ballplayers.

On occasion, a film script spotlights these baseball lifers. The most obvious example is, appropriately, The Scout (1994), a comedy—fantasy whose opening scene defines the lifestyle of its title character and his obsession with sniffing out big-league talent. It is late in the evening, and Al Percolo (Albert Brooks), a scout for the New York Yankees, is all alone, driving down a road. Then he is seen in a small, dreary room—it might be in a motel, but easily could be his residence—cooking and eating spaghetti. He then watches the original King Kong on television. Upon the appearance of the Eighth Wonder of the World, he mutters to himself, “If only he could pitch.”

Al will say anything, and do anything, to sign a hot prospect. He is desperate to ink a young pitcher whose parents are devoutly Catholic. The Scout is a comedy—and so Al informs them that Mickey Mantle’s sister was a nun. Her name: Sister Micki Elizabeth Mantle. Later on, when the hurler is   terrified of playing in Yankee Stadium, Al informs him, with mock sincerity, that “God wants you to pitch.” Al may be devoutly dedicated to baseball, but he can never shine on the field. He never will be in the spotlight, in the sunlight. Later on, after a spat with another phenom he uncovers, the ballplayer  harshly  but truthfully reminds him, “…I’m the Yankee. Not you.”

A scout also is the primary character in Talent for the Game (1991). He is Virgil Sweet (Edward James Olmos), employed by the California Angels, whose playing career was cut short by injury. Virgil is a committed baseball man who will trek to the bowels of the Earth to scout a prospect (if that prospect is a coal miner). Like Al Percolo, Virgil’s reason for being is to find the kid who was born to be the next Ted Williams/Nolan Ryan/Albert Pujols.

The Talent for the Game scenario takes on a Field of Dreams quality when, in an Idaho wheat field, Virgil discovers that potential Hall of Famer: a raw, insecure farm boy with a 100-plus-mph fastball. Predictably, at the finale, the kid is on a major-league pitching mound. Who is his catcher? None other than Virgil in disguise, fulfilling his fantasy of making at least one appearance in “The Show.” In this regard, Talent for the Game serves as an ode to the scout whose long, hard hours laboring in obscurity do not diminish his dedication to baseball.

Virgil Sweet may be similar to Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the real- life Oakland A’s general manager and hero of Moneyball (2011), in that he is an athlete-turned-baseball lifer. Only Beane’s history is different—he once was a five-tool prospect who simply could not cut it as a major leaguer—and, as the Moneyball scenario evolves, it is clear that an old-school scout like Virgil would not find employment in Oakland.

Moneyball opens at the tail-end of the 2001 baseball season, with the A’s being eliminated in the playoffs by the high-powered New York Yankees. Prospects for the following season are not good in Oakland, a small- market team that will be unable to re-sign its top players. What’s a general manager to do? Instead of accepting the fact that ballclubs like the A’s are little more than “organ donors for the rich” and relying on the instincts of his veteran scouting staff to sniff out baseball talent, Beane looks to Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a chubby 20-something Yalie who majored in economics and employs Bill James-inspired statistical analysis as the focal point of player evaluation. (Brand, a fictional character, is reportedly based on Paul DePodesta, the trim Harvard grad who worked as Beane’s assistant.) Initially, Beane’s approach is pooh-poohed by the baseball establishment. “You don’t put a ballclub together with a computer,” he is told. But why not? The A’s keep on winning, despite forfeiting players like Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen to free agency, and other front offices begin rethinking their ideas on talent evaluation.

Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’s best-seller, is a baseball movie for the 21st century. While at its core it is a portrait of Billy Beane and how he is impacted by his own on-field failure, it also is a heartfelt ode to sabermetrics. At the finale, it is acknowledged that, under Beane, the A’s have not yet won a World Series. But the Boston Red Sox did, after employing his template for success.

In other films, scouts are supporting players. In Hot Curves (1930), a real-life ex-big leaguer plays one. Hot Curves is the comic saga of Benny Goldberg (Benny Rubin), a double-talking Jewish train employee signed by The Scout, an employee of the Pittsburgh ballclub, because “he’ll bring plenty of Jewish business through the gate in New York.” The ballplayer-turned actor playing The Scout is Mike Donlin, a 12-season major leaguer who enjoyed a career in vaudeville before appearing in several dozen films.

In The Pride of St. Louis (1952), which chronicles the career of Dizzy Dean (Dan Dailey), a scout watches young Diz pitch and entices him into signing a pro contract by observing that, if he makes good in the minors, “the National League is the next stop. St. Louis. The St. Louis Cardinals. That’s as far as anybody can go.” The fictional sisters (Geena Davis, Lori Petty) who are the primary ballplaying characters in A League of Their Own (1992) are unearthed by a scout (Jon Lovitz): a comical character who is sharp-eyed in his assessment of the siblings but almost fails to sign a frumpy, desperately shy lass (Megan Cavanagh) who “has an eye like DiMaggio.” Why? Because of her resemblance to General Omar Bradley.

The on-screen role of the scout is exemplified in The Rookie (2002), the fact-based account of Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), a 39-year-old Texas high-school chemistry teacher and baseball coach whose charges urge him to attend a professional tryout camp. And, lo and behold, Morris ends up not only signing a pro contract but hurling in the majors for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Back when he was in his 20s, Morris’s fastball topped out in the mid-80s; he explains that it was “slow enough to where scouts stopped using the word ‘fast’.” But at the tryout, he consistently, inexplicably throws 98 miles an hour.

“Jimmy, I’ve been a scout for a long time,” explains Dave Patterson (Blue Deckert), “and the number one rule is, arms slow down when they get old. Now, if I call the office and tell ’em I got a guy here almost twice these kids’ age (referring to Morris’s fellow pro wannabes), I’m gonna get laughed at. But, if I don’t call in a 98-mile-an-hour fastball, I’m gonna get fired!”

Here, in essence, is a representation of the scout in the celluloid baseball pecking order: a talent evaluator who, ultimately, is subjected to the whims of his bosses. He exists within the framework of the scenario to discover the rough diamond, the potential big-league hurler or home-run swatter who is the central character.

More often than not, his role is supporting or even minuscule. But his presence is pivotal.

Phil Pote in The Movies

Phil Pote has been fortunate to have appeared in three movies, not just one In addition to Talent for the Game (1991), he was also a technical advisor for The Scout (1994) and enjoyed a cameo in that film, and he is one of several scouts to appear in Moneyball (2011). In the latter film, he’s one of the scouts around the table in the conference room joined by Artie Harris, George Vranau, and Barry Moss. Also appearing in the movie are Bob Bishop, Tom Gamboa, and John Cole. Pote says the film production people convened a meeting of about 20 scouts before they began filming, to make sure they got it right. “I give them a lot of credit for that. They really treated the scouts with class. Brad Pitt – he’s at the top of the list, just a great guy.”

Pote calls himself the “Ancient Mariner” and reports a scouting career going back 50 years, first hired by Charlie O. Finley for the A’s, and then working briefly for the Dodgers and then the Mariners. Pote’s major-league signings: Chris Batton, Charlie Chant, Mike Chris, Jeff Clement, Mike Davis, Dan Ford, Wayne Gross, Vic Harris, Matt Keough, Brian Kingman, Bob Lacey, Chet Lemon, Rick Lysander, Bobby Moore, Dwayne Murphy, Mike Patterson, Rob Picciolo, Bruce Robinson, Tommy Sandt, and Darrell Woodard.

Wanting to give credit where credit is due, Pote – a Seventh Day Adventist – emphasizes that adherence to his religion prevents him from working from sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays, with Friday evening and Saturday daytime being typically two of the busiest times of the week for scouting. Finley understood from the start the role that Phil’s religion would play, but had faith in him nonetheless. That the three organizations for whom he has scouted all accommodated his beliefs is, he stressed, “A credit to the tolerance of professional baseball.”