For as easy it is to tease baseball scouts like the producers of Moneyball did in 2011, there should be no denying the brilliant acumen of their finest workers. We can pore over statistics all we want, but finding the proper players to bring into the organization would be damn near impossible without the astute observations of scouts watching amateurs demonstrate their raw talent on countless baseball fields across the globe. The process of selecting these players is a delicate mix between the often-thankless work done by both analysts and scouts, not just one or the other. With the 2014 MLB Draft approaching and scouts across the game filing their final reports on the ~1,200 collegiate and high school players who will be chosen this weekend by the 30 teams, it's worth looking back on the career of one of the most important scouts to ever work for the Yankees.
On this day 57 years ago, a 74-year-old former baseball player named Paul Krichell passed away in the Bronx after a two-year battle with cancer. Born in Paris, Krichell and his family immigrated to the United States in 1887 when he was just five, and soon after his arrival, he fell in love with the game. At first glance, it wouldn't seem like Krichell's death was a very relevant note in the history of the sport, as Krichell only played two years and 87 games at the major league level (both with the lowly St. Louis Browns), where as a catcher, he hit a meager .222/.295/.259 with a 60 OPS+ in the heart of the Deadball Era, 1911-12. He played a few more years in the minors, where he was a player-manager, until he finished his playing career at age 35 in 1918. He was in a dispute with the Eastern League president, and he decided to quit. Krichell moved on to collegiate coaching at New York University in 1919, and it seemed like his nondescript baseball career was at an end.
Baseball's a funny game though. Among its feats are turning a six-year journeyman into one of the greatest managers in history and and turning a rail-thin infielder who couldn't hit a lick during his 10 years in the majors into the scout and general manager who would go on to lay the foundations for the most dominant baseball dynasty of the playoff era. Likewise, the game smiled upon Krichell. His former minor league manager Ed Barrow, then skipper of the Boston Red Sox, reached out and hired him as a scout prior to the 1920 campaign. Fortunately for future Yankees fans, Krichell only spent one year in the Boston organization, as Barrow was hired away by Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert in 1921. Ruppert installed Barrow as his general manager, a position where he excelled so much that he was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame. Like several other Red Sox employees and players later acquired, Barrow brought Krichell over from the Red Sox, and the young scout almost immediately helped make Barrow a success.
For the next 37 years (a timespan almost as long as Krichell's entire life prior to the Yankees hiring him), Krichell devoted himself to the organization. One early signing entrenched his place in the organization and made him Barrow's closest adviser. The seeds for the signing occurred when Barrow asked Krichell to go watch a game in the spring of 1923 between Columbia and Rutgers. During the game, Krichell was struck by Columbia's pitcher, who slugged two homers. His skipper Andy Coakley raved about the 19-year-old kid, who was not only a brilliant player, but also incredibly humble and courteous. Krichell and fellow scout Bob Connery went back to observe him a few more times, and in one of the games, he made their jaws drop with a 450-foot bomb that traveled from Columbia's home park to 116th Street and Broadway. Krichell and Connery convinced Barrow to sign the pitcher for $1,500 and convert him to a full-time hitter, and on April 30th, Lou Gehrig officially became a Yankee.
Signing the best first baseman to ever play the game was without a doubt Krichell's finest achievement, but it was far from his only one. A couple years later, Barrow dispatched Krichell to Salt Lake City to watch a hard-hitting 21-year-old shortstop in the middle of a phenomenal 60-homer season in the Pacific Coast League. Fellow scout Bill Essick raved about him, and Barrow wanted his best man to confirm the observations. Krichell was far from the only scout around baseball to be impressed the San Franciscan slugger, but many balked at Salt Lake City's high price tag for him. The Pacific Coast League was a powerful entity unto itself back then and did not feel obligated to just give away its best players--the Bees asked for a couple players and $50,000 in exchange for him. Krichell told Barrow that he was worth the price though, and the next season, second baseman Tony Lazzeri began his 14-year Hall of Fame career.
Krichell very nearly signed another Hall of Fame first baseman, too. In the late '20s, Krichell had his eye fixed on a Jewish prep phenom who was tearing up his high school league right smack dab in the middle of the Bronx. He played semi-pro ball after graduating high school in '29, and Krichell got Barrow to make him an offer. Unfortunately, Hank Greenberg was quite aware of the fact that Gehrig wasn't going anywhere, and he turned the Yankees down to sign a contract with the Tigers, with whom he won two AL MVPs and hit a homer once every 15.66 at bats until 1946, including 58 in '38. Undeterred, Krichell continued to make fine signings, like pitchers Johnny Murphy, Hank Borowy, and Spec Shea, who all became vital members of championship teams. He also saw something during the summer of '36 in a small local shortstop that most other teams around the game dismissed. Krichell ignored concerns about his stature because several coaches wrote letters to him about the shortstop, and after the '36 season, the Yankees signed Phil Rizzuto.
Although Barrow retired in 1946, Krichell continued to scout for the Yankees, signing players who would make Larry MacPhail and later George Weiss quite happy. His last masterstroke occurred when he a decided to invite a local first baseman/pitcher to a tryout after the kid wrote him a letter. SABR's Dan Levitt recounted the story of how Krichell signed Whitey Ford:
Ford was both a first baseman and pitcher, but at only 5-feet-6 Krichell recognized his limitations as a first baseman. He took Ford aside after the tryout and spent about 15 minutes working with him on a curveball. Krichell later remarked: "I gave him a few pointers so he wouldn’t feel too bad about being turned down. We do that with all the kids who haven’t got what it takes. If we can’t make ballplayers out of them, we try to send ’em away as Yankee fans." Five months later Ford had grown and with Krichell’s curve developed into an excellent pitcher. Krichell outdueled the Giants for his services, landing Ford for $7,000, a decent but not huge bonus for the time.
Ford of course went on to become a Hall of Fame pitcher and the most well-respected arm in Yankees history. Krichell added one bonus to his record when he personally recommended to Weiss that he hire Casey Stengel as manager after the '48 season despite the manager's reputation as a joker. Krichell knew that Stengel was a great baseball mind, and the decision to hire him was still paying dividends even after the scout's passing in '57.
Few scouts have ever had such an impact quite like Krichell, and since scouts are sometimes lost to the history of the game and the more noticeable success of the players they sign, it's nice to be able to look back on one whose story has been documented. Here's to you, Paul Krichell, and here's hoping the Yankees scouts of today have passed on Krichell's tradition by making some great amateur recommendations for this weekend's draft.