The road wound for hours, from one end of the island to the other, disclosing a countryside that had a postcard look: lush, green-on-green, burros idly switching along, full-breasted women balancing parcels on their heads, naked little boys scampering at play. But what was picturesque out in the palms of the Dominican Republic was merely squalid in the towns. The charm had long since been sweated out of those places.
Under tin roofs, Puerto Plata winced in the high midsummer sun, and on the ball field, burned to gray dirt, barefoot kids kicked up thin dust as they scurried out of the way of the townspeople who swirled around Howie Haak (left). His bad knee, pummeled in some forgotten minor league plate collision years ago, had been hurting again, but he had taken some pills and now strode purposefully across the diamond, releasing a spray of tobacco juice that dampened the infield. The local teen-agers there to try out for the Pittsburgh Pirates huddled in the shade of the dugout and eyed the stranger, who was the liege lord of their hopes. Perhaps none of the boys would admit it flat out, but if this man rejected them this afternoon they might never again have an honest chance to dream.
In his Spanish, imperfect but clear, Haak had 60 yards measured out from home plate, stood next to the spot with his stopwatch and summoned the candidates to sprint.
Latin Americans have played baseball in the U.S. much of this century, but as late as 1948 only three were in the majors. Today about 10% of the big-leaguers are Latins, with the National League having a disproportionate number. Almost all clubs scout the Caribbean now, but few have done as well as Pittsburgh, which has succeeded mostly because of Haak. He has been making regular trips through the area since 1954, when he went to Puerto Rico to watch a Dodger minor-leaguer named Roberto Clemente.
December 24, 1973
Haak (rhymes with cake) was thus present at the creation, and everywhere after, too. Because of his astonishing memory, he does not converse so much as debrief. A composite recollection would go something like this: "Here's how we signed Jones the year he hit .337 with 42 home runs and only 16 strikeouts. I was in Savannah, in the old Wayward Hotel on River Street, where you could get a good room for $3 a night, watching a big left-handed-hitting outfielder named Ted Harris. He had an average arm, but the guy could do 6.8, and he had good power to the opposite field. That night he went two for four off a good little curve-ball pitcher named Kenny Wilson, and he was robbed of a double off the left-field wall by one Harry Smith. You may remember him; he hit .362 at Toledo the year after the Braves left him unprotected, although a lot of that was because Connie Taylor was swinging after him against righthanders.
"So the next day I get a call from Ellen, Mr. Rickey's secretary, and she says the old man wants to see you right away in Mobile. I said, you tell him Ellen, I've still got to see Carter pitch, and the way Jacksonville is stocked with lefthanders, I'm pretty sure he'll go tonight, so I'll drive to Mobile after the game.
"Well, it was a good thing I stayed, because Carter still couldn't get the ball down and in against left-handed hitters and they had to bring in this little pitcher who was just up from C, and damned if that didn't turn out to be Wally Green, and we took him that winter, and later traded him for Bud Polk (with $7,500 thrown in), which was just what we needed. Well, I got in at six the next morning to the Magnolia Arms, where the old man always stayed in the Blue Suite overlooking the gardens at six and a half for him. I checked in and went right up to his room, and he said, 'Come in, Howie, and let me get you a cup of coffee. How do you....' "
Haak's recollections include the Latins that got away: Felipe Alou (and then his brothers), steered to the Giants by Trujillo; Horace Clarke in the Virgin Islands; Juan Marichal, who lived down the road from Puerto Plata ("Hell, he was only 5'10" and a curveballer," Haak protests); and the one baseball men now think might be the finest of them all, young Cesar Cedeno, assuming his career is not eclipsed by last week's tragic shooting in Santo Domingo.
Otherwise, Haak's Latin mine has helped keep Pittsburgh a contender for most of the past 16 years. He has signed Manny Sanguillen, Rennie Stennett, Julian Javier (who was traded to the Cardinals for a man who had a part in winning the 1960 pennant for the Pirates, Reliever Vinegar Bend Mizell), Ramon Hernandez, Al McBean, Diomedes Olivo (at age 41) and a bunch of others, and conceived the trade that brought them Manny Mota. Even Haak's leftover Latins have brought Pittsburgh a good chunk of money in sales to other clubs. At 62, Haak is reputed to be the highest-paid scout in the majors, and he has so many contacts throughout the Caribbean that hardly a day passes when somebody does not sidle up to him and say, "Howie, I got a good one I'm saving for you. The boy's only 15, and the mother will only let him go where I tell her."
Haak will reply, "Good, I'll see the kid next time I'm through." And then he spits. His mouth droops and he talks out of the side because he has been chewing for so long. In one special traveling bag Haak carries only a catcher's mitt and his chewing-tobacco supply.
The first pitcher to get a tryout in Puerto Plata had a complete uniform, all red, but he had to share a glove with the other pitcher on the team. He was 18 and had only a little filling out to do, and the instant he threw his fastball Haak knew there was nothing there. Nonetheless, he gave the boy a full trial. A scout cannot waste time, but he cannot be discourteous either, or people will not talk mothers into saving their boys for him.
As it turned out, the first pitcher, ordinary as he was, was the best of the lot, but with each boy Haak permitted the whole repertoire: "Duro" (fastball), "Curva," and even "¬øTiene otra pitch?" One teen-ager in short pants had a knuckler. Another, wearing rust-colored clock socks with his spikes, offered up what he assured Haak was a slider.
By now, spectators had drifted out of the rickety wooden grandstand and come down to take a closer view. The people formed a funnel from the pitcher's mound, much like a golf gallery, and they murmured approvingly when one pitcher zinged in a high hard one. Haak shook his head. "Old as I am," he said, "I know I could hit him. Never judge any pitcher on a high pitch. It's an optical illusion or something. It always looks better."
But he never said no to any of them. He just nodded and told them to go back to a seat in the dugout. There is a tone, however, that says "Don't call us, we'll call you" in any language, and the kids understood what the old man was telling them.
"Maybe somebody would give that first pitcher $100 and sign him," Haak said, "but after two days in a Florida training camp they'd be giving him a ticket home." Some scouts are indiscriminate, even unscrupulous, in that way. When a boy who has been tempted by a few bucks, a plane ticket to the Estados Unidos and maybe a shiny new glove and shoes (Haak always throws them in) fails and returns home, he never plays baseball again. Two years ago 55 players were signed out of the Dominican Republic, 45 out of Puerto Rico, another 21 out of Venezuela and Panama. Most of them are back in their hovels or jammed into New York tenements, hiding out from Immigration. But they are not playing baseball anymore.
Haak had his Dominican assistants shoo the visitors from the infield, posted himself near second base and told the would-be outfielders to line up near the fence in right and make some hard throws to third.
When Haak mustered out of the Navy in 1931, at 19, he had nothing but the tattoos on his forearms. His family had been impoverished when his father's salary was cut in half during the worst of the Depression. Haak turned to baseball. He caught, off and on, for the next 16 years, but though he terms himself "a good receiver," he had no speed, little power, and never got out of the minors. At his best, his baseball salary was $3,000 a year, which was also what Branch Rickey started him off at as a scout for the Dodgers in 1947.
"If I died tomorrow, I would be worth $300,000," Haak proclaims proudly, ravaging another hotel wastebasket with tobacco streams, "and every nickel of that is from baseball." Now Haak has a banker's belly and white hair. He lives with his third wife and his third child in Palm Springs, has another house in Carmel and trades in for a new Cadillac every year, which he promptly fits out with a cuspidor, since General Motors does not include that among its everyday options.
Aside from a gnarled finger and his bad knee, the years behind the bat treated Haak kindly. The only teeth he has lost and the only mark on his Spencer Tracy face came from an accident four years ago in a press box in Columbus, Ohio. He had turned to study a pretty spectator and got blind-sided by a foul ball. There is a moral there.
Haak clung to baseball because he had to, because it was his best shot. Maybe Haak does so well in the Caribbean with an alien people because he shares an experience of youth with the deprived teen-agers of Puerto Plata or Ponce. But even in the islands things are beginning to change. The white Latins suffer markedly less discrimination, have opportunities elsewhere and thus seldom make it as players. Also, even the slightest improvement in economic conditions generally diminishes dedication.
"Today they don't play ball like we used to," Julian Javier says. He is back home at San Francisco de Macoris in the Dominican Republic after 18 summers of U.S. ball. "They won't play just for the fun. We used to play with anything we could get for a ball or a bat. We'd play all day because we loved to play. They play because maybe they'll get something out of it. They play a few innings and then go get drunk. It's not the same."
Scouting in the islands has changed, too. When Haak first arrived, the Giants and Senators were his only real competition, but now that everybody has found the lode the Caribbean has become baseball's richest recruiting ground. Recently, for example, Haak signed a top Latin prospect only after the boy's questionable contracts with two other teams were voided by a minor league official. "It's ridiculous," Haak said one day in Santo Domingo, soaking his bum leg in the tepid hotel pool. "You have more scouts than you have ballplayers in the U.S. today. Don't laugh. How many prospects each year are a cinch to make the majors if they don't get hurt? Maybe 17, 18—20 at the most. There's 60 or 70 others with a chance. Well, that's not even 100 altogether, but you have 24 clubs, averaging 15 scouts each. That's 360 scouts looking for 90 players every year in the U.S."
The Caribbean is the last place for scouts and their teams to find unknowns, to put their ken and pride on the line in a free-bid market, to scuffle and con, even deceive one another. It is a glorious anachronism and a last hurrah for the baseball regulars who were brought up in that wheeler-dealer world.
An 18-year-old named Felipe Serrata, with teeth missing, winged several beauties to third. "That's a major league arm," Haak noted. "We rate an average major league arm as 30. Well, this kid has a 30 arm, maybe 33." Serrata came in to the infield next and stationed himself at shortstop. Haak had his assistant, Julio Martinez, an old Dominican player, slap grounders into the hole.
Serrata had butcher's hands, but those grounders that he did fight to a standstill he whipped to first, the arm hardly coming back past his ear. Haak beamed. Serrata had run the 60-yard dash in the fastest time, 6.6, well under the required 7.0. "If the kid can hit at all, I'll give him $1,500," he said. "I'm a physical-ability man. I don't give a damn how a boy is doing in the local league. Look, here you get a kid with better than average major league speed and better than average major league arm. You can teach him to field." He scuffed at the infield, with its rocks and craters; if there are ball fields in hell, surely they must resemble this one on its cooler days. "Get him on a good infield and he'll learn to field. If he can just hit."
Haak has no delusions any longer that he will find a new Clemente or Marichal at the next tryout camp. The odds are that instead he may work dozens of camps, maybe a whole country, and never find a single kid worth signing. He sees 400 games a year, drives the Caddy 50,000 miles and is chauffeured or flies tens of thousands more. He is not jaded, but he is very discriminating, and suddenly, seeing a kid in front of him who could run and throw, he came to life.
"¬°Oyeme!" he barked at Serrata, and when the kid turned around, Howie pantomimed swinging a bat. "¬øDerecha o izquierda?" The kid beamed and held up two fingers, indicating he was both—a switch hitter.
Even in a closed-draft market, top U.S. choices get upwards of $100,000. In the free market of the Caribbean no player ever is offered a bonus greater than $20,000, and most are given $1,000 or so. Some of the reasons for these cut-rate figures are obvious. There is discrimination, of course. And simple economics—even a devalued dollar goes a lot further in Caracas than it does in Pittsburgh. Besides, the clubs consider any Latin a riskier investment than the equivalent American prospect.
The language barrier counts heavily. Javier says that the language is the single toughest adjustment a Latin player must make when he goes to the States, tougher, say, than learning how to hit a good curveball. It is a rule of thumb that the Latins who fail to learn English will fail to make the majors. There is seldom a coach around who speaks Spanish.
Latins are also assumed to be moody, explosive and bad mixers. The case of the San Francisco Giants of the early '60s has been etched in baseball history. The Giants, it was said, were destroyed by ethnic cliques—whites, urban blacks, rural blacks, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans; everything, it seems, but Hasidic Jews and Flemish banding against one another. The decline of the Pirates this year caused talk that a team with several Latins cannot succeed unless there is a strong Latin personality like Clemente to ride herd on them.
Leaving these disputed, if widely accepted, opinions aside, simple homesickness is a major factor, and ball clubs are unwilling to invest much in a kid who may very well get up one morning three months later in Waterbury, Conn. and decide that it is time to go home.
"Homesickness is more than just the language," Haak says. "You'd be surprised. Many of these boys don't like our food. They don't eat their meat the way we do. They chop it up. They're crazy for rice. All these things. I'll never forget Manny Girón, a pitcher I signed out of Panama. Oh, that rascal could throw." To buttress this claim, Haak cited Girón's won-loss figures, ERA and other pertinent data for his entire stay in organized ball.
"He may have had the best arm I ever signed. But maybe he was the poorest, too. His father was a fisherman. They lived in a hut down there, right on the ocean—the Atlantic or the Pacific, I forget which. When I came for the father's signature, he was actually up in a coconut tree. The hut had a dirt floor, the kitchen was in the living room and there was one bedroom for eight children.
"Now you would think that kid would be happy to get out of there, but from the moment he got to the States he would finish throwing and go out to the outfield and sit there on the grass and cry like a baby. He just wanted to go home. A couple times he quit and came back, but the last time we never heard from him again." It baffles Haak on two counts that anyone could behave like that. First, that anyone could turn down a chance to be in baseball; second, that they could get so hung up on home. Haak travels up to 46 weeks a year.
In 42 years of organized baseball, Haak has never been professionally eminent yet he has often played the vital role of Fifth Business—the old theatrical term for that character in the play who is neither hero nor villain, but necessary to the denouement. Branch Rickey soon noticed that lightning struck near Haak, for he kept him wherever he went. Howie, for example, was the guy at the other end of the phone when Rickey decided to bring Stan Musial up to the Cardinals. Howie says he played baseball with Sammy Baugh, as well as with Dizzy and Daffy Dean, while brother Elmer Dean sold peanuts in the stands. "Best peanut salesman in baseball," Haak says. Howie managed the Spokane team for a few games shortly after the Lucky Lohrke bus tragedy. Howie wore the short pants of the Hollywood Stars (remember?). And, to hear him tell it, Howie had quite a lot to do with Roberto Clemente making his 3,000 hits in the uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In 1954 the Pirates were the worst team in the National League, which entitled them to first choice in the minor league draft. The Dodgers, who had signed Clemente, had tried to hide him that season on their Triple A roster at Montreal. Rickey ordered Haak to scout Clemente (another Pittsburgh scout said he had a bad arm), and he caught up with Montreal around August 20. Haak had come over from the Dodger organization three years before but, providentially, he had signed many of the Montreal players. As soon as he walked into the clubhouse, one of them, a pitcher named Glenn Mickens, said, "Hey Howie, we got the best prospect in baseball, but they won't play the kid." In fact, Haak followed Montreal for the whole next month and only saw Clemente come to bat four times.
But one night on the road Clemente went into the starting lineup, batting seventh. As luck would have it, the first six guys got on. A right-handed reliever was brought in and Montreal's manager took that as excuse enough to put an infuriated Clemente back on the bench. The next afternoon, when Haak arrived at the ball park, Chico Fernandez, the Montreal shortstop, advised him that Clemente was packing for home. Haak scrambled to the hotel, found Clemente and promised him that if he did not leave he would be playing in the majors next season.
If Haak had not talked Clemente into going to the ball park that day, Roberto might have been disqualified from the team and made ineligible for the draft that year. The next year the worst American League team (the Washington Senators, as it turned out) could have had a crack at him. Clemente's presence in that league would have changed the face of baseball, but of course he was not disqualified, and Pittsburgh plucked him.
Another pitcher had arrived late for the tryout, so to give Serrata a better test Haak sent him up to hit against something more than Julio's fat batting-practice pitches. "With that speed and arm, all he's gotta do is hit a little," Haak said. The pitcher finished his warmups and Serrata stepped in right-handed. He had no more than taken his stance when Howie spat and said a very dirty word.
The kid held the bat out stiff-armed, his hands far apart on the handle; any good high school pitcher could jam him all day, and against the boy on the mound Serrata managed only some high pop-ups and fouls. "That kid can't hit any better than I can fly a kite," Haak muttered. He was disappointed: he had wanted to sign Serrata. "He's a sweeper. No bat speed. There's two kinds of power—batting-practice power and game power. The difference is in the speed of the bat. Lots of guys can sweep those easy batting-practice pitches out of the park. 'Course, the way this kid holds the bat, he couldn't even do that. You always got a chance to teach anybody how to hit a curve, but if they can't hit a fastball, you can never teach them."
He went over, gave Serrata a few tips on how to hit better and told him to switch over to left-handed. "I'll give him $500, take it or leave it, if he can hit any better left-handed." One pitch, it was obvious he couldn't. For the first time in a while, Haak's bad leg began hurting again.
The success of Clemente encouraged Rickey to send Haak looking for new Caribbean talent. There was another incentive; the Pirates were nearly broke and could not compete in the big-money American bonus market. Haak worked Puerto Rico first, then branched out, and today has native bird dogs in the Dominican Republic, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua and the Virgin Islands. "In the big places like Cuba before Castro, I wasn't any big deal," he says, "but I'd come into the Dominican Republic and the Trujillo people treated me like a king. Sometimes I wouldn't have to buy a meal or pay for a hotel room the whole time. People were fighting to drive me around." It was no piece of cake, though. A luxury hotel was one with mosquito netting.
It is fairly accurate to say that Latin America is so mad for baseball that revolutions and coups never take place during the season, but there have always been a few fellows around who misplace their schedules. "Even before you could check into a hotel, some guy would come up and tell you they were going to blow up that particular place that night," Haak says. He remembers the mosquitoes being particularly troublesome in one hotel because of the artillery holes in the wall.
In Santiago in the Dominican Republic, Haak and some players tried to drive through to the capital shortly after the dictator was shot down. The citizens took umbrage at anyone going anyplace, and 50 people surrounded the car. When the player heroes were recognized, the group was allowed to return to the hotel.
There they stayed for several days. "We were down to the canned wieners," Haak says. At this point they tried to bribe someone to fly in an army plane, and when that failed they risked another bustout, which did succeed except for an ugly interlude in the city of Moca when the car was peppered with rocks. Romantic incidents of this variety have not occurred in some time.
Limping noticeably now, Haak broke a path through the crowd to where the driver was waiting with his car. He paused long enough in the melee—everybody clamoring for bats and balls Julio wouldn't let them have—to tell Serrata to change his stance and work on his hitting. He would be back through Puerto Plata in four months, and he would sign him if he improved enough. He promised that, so at least the one boy could take some hope away.
Then Howie Haak hobbled the rest of the way and climbed into the car. It was the only car there. At very few tryout camps anywhere does Howie sign anyone, but the difference is that in the U.S. the candidates just rev up and drive away when they are rejected. In the Caribbean they can only wait and watch the car pull out, seeing their dreams recede down the road while they stand rooted to the ball field, because there is no place else for them to go and no way for them to get there.