MOzarks Moments: Tom Greenwade signs player who defines scout’s career

Clockwise from top left: Mickey Mantle and Tom Greenwade pose for a photo in the Yankees locker room after a game during the 1952 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Greenwade and Mantle visit while Mantle waits for his turn at batting practice. Ed Sullivan writes about Mantle and Greenwade in his column in the New York Daily News in October of 1953.

Looking through hundreds of newspaper articles about Tom Greenwade of Willard, you will find only a handful that do not mention one single player of all those he signed who made it to the big leagues. It was this player's signing that made Greenwade a “star” among baseball scouts.

Greenwade, who had started as a scout for the St. Louis Browns, then moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers, ended his long career with the New York Yankees from 1949 to 1964.

Three and a half years into his career as a Yankees scout, and after signing some very good ball players, Greenwade signed the young player who would define his scouting career. His name was Mickey Mantle.

Greenwade first saw Mickey play at Alba, Missouri in August 1948. Mickey was playing semi-pro baseball for the Baxter Springs (Kansas) Whiz Kids.

Alba is north of Joplin and halfway between Carthage and Webb City in Jasper County. It is also the home of the baseball playing brothers with the last name of Boyer. Greenwade signed Clete Boyer to play third base for the Yankees. Clete's older brother, Ken, played third base for the Cardinals and they would compete against each other in the 1964 World Series.

At the time, Mantle was only 16 and hadn't filled out yet. Greenwade later recalled, “He was kind of a bitty thing and not too much to see.” Greenwade put the young prospect on a back shelf in his mind.

It was then next year before Greenwade saw Mantle play again. It was May and Mantle was about to graduate. Mantle had gained 20 pounds. Greenwade watched Mantle play in a game on Friday evening, May 27, 1949, and got a glimpse of Mickey's speed. Mantle had a single, a double and a triple in four times at bat. But he was playing shortstop and he made two errors.

Still, Greenwade hung around to watch Mantle play in a Sunday game at Baxter Springs. At that game, Mantle hit four home runs and exhibited his skill as a switch-hitter. After the game, Greenwade got Mantle and his father into his car and signed Mickey to a contract for $1,500 for the remainder of the season.

Mantle went to the Yankees farm club at Independence, Kansas. Eventually he was called up to the Yankees and become a huge star and part of their string of World Series Victories in the 1960s.

After Mantle became one of the legendary players of the game, Greenwade's prestige as a scout skyrocketed. It helped open doors for Greenwade to talk to good prospects and many of them were keen to sign a contract with the man who signed Mickey Mantle. Of course, it also didn't hurt that Greenwade was signing players for the Yankees, who during his scouting days won 15 pennants in 18 seasons.

Greenwade always wore a white shirt and tie with a jacket and drove a big, reliable car. One of the reasons he was so effective as a scout was because he was a people person. He enjoyed visiting with folks. 

As a 1986 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said, “He was not a glib, fast-talking man, but a man who spoke the language of the kitchen table and the front porch.” 

Greenwade knew a lot of people scattered around his scouting area and so when he went in to talk to a prospect and his parents, the first think he did was see if they had mutual acquaintances.

Greenwade learned about his prospects and used that to his advantage. Back when he was scouting for the Dodgers, there was a young pitcher from Oklahoma named Calvin McLish who could throw with either hand and whom several major league teams were doing their best to sign. Greenwade got him to sign when he also signed two of McLish’s playing buddies and all three went with the Dodgers.

He scouted and signed such players at Bobby Murcer, Elston Howard, Hank Bauer, Ralph Terry Peewee Reese, George Kell and Tom Sturdivant.

Greenwade's scouting territory was primarily Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, so he ended up signing a lot of players from this area. Those included Jerry Lumpe, Bill Virdon and Whitey Herzog.

Greenwade cared about the players that he signed and if they were struggling, he was often quoted in the newspapers as saying he had the utmost confidence in them and they would be big stars in the major leagues. Probably those quotes gave several of them the shot in the arm they needed to get over their slump.

One of those players was Bill Virdon out of West Plains. Virdon was only hitting  .167 at the Yankees' Independence, Kansas farm club when Greenwade stopped by to check on his progress. Greenwade never wavered in his confidence in Virdon and said so to anyone who would listen. After Virdon was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was instrumental in helping them win two World Series championships.

Greenwade later was quoted in a 1976 article that, “I've signed kids with the tools to go to the big leagues, but they didn't. Then I've signed guys like George Kell or Billy Virdon, that didn't have those outstanding tools, but had desire.”

Greenwade never let his success go to his head. In a 1976 article, the reporter relayed this exchange Greenwade had with an admiring fan; “You must have signed some great players,” the fan said to Greenwade. 

“Yeah,” he replied, a smile sneaking across his face, wrinkled by 71 years, “and a helluva lot of lousy ones, too.”

In 1962, one of front office people at the Yankees bragged on Greenwade to a newspaper reporter. “For example, Tom Greenwade, our man in MO, KS and OK, has signed 37 percent of the kids signed by big league clubs in his area,” the official said. “We know he's good. He got Mantle. But we keep tabs each year.”

While he may have only signed 37 percent of the signees from those three states at that time, you can bet that those were the cream of the crop.

Next week: Tom Greenwade concludes his amazing and long-lived career as a baseball scout.

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