“Long Taters” Goes Deep
I first met Ron Anderson via email three years ago when he replied to a post I made about my search for contributors to Seamheads.com. Ron and I struck up a friendship and I was thrilled to learn he was in the early stages of a book about one of my all-time favorite players—George “Boomer” Scott. That book—Long Taters: A Baseball Biography of George “Boomer” Scott—recently came out and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
I was 10 years old in 1977, the first baseball season I actually remember vividly, and it was a great time to be a wannabe power hitter who dreamed about being the Boston Red Sox’s next great left fielder. By then Carl Yastrzemski was 37 years old, and Jim Rice, his successor, would be in his mid-thirties by the time I turned 20. I figured I was a lock to get the job.
Even though Yaz was my favorite player, there was something about Scott that drew me to him. He was a right-handed slugger who’s tape-measure shots were called “long taters,” a term originated by Scott, hence the title of the book; he was a big dude who struck out a lot—from 1966-1979, only five batters fanned more than Scott—but who was agile in the field and earned eight Gold Gloves from 1967-1976. Among first basemen, only Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez have more.
I was too young to enjoy Scott’s fielding, but was told on several occasions by my father what a wonderful glove man Scott once was. As I grew older, my style of play began to mimic Scott’s—I was a big, right-handed slugger (about the same size as Scott during my high school years), who once crushed a batting practice pitch 415 feet but who struck out too much, and flashed a very good glove around the first base bag. To this day, I tell anyone who’ll listen that had I made it to the bigs, I would have been the next George Scott.
But that’s where the similarity ends and where Ron’s book begins. I’m a middle-aged white guy who has never had to deal with racism and overcome the kind of adversity Scott had to overcome. Scott is from Longwood, Mississippi, “born unto a climate beset by a racially divided social and political system that was the plight of the African American of the Deep South,” begins Anderson’s book. Raised by a mother who’d lost her husband to heatstroke when George was only a year old, the future slugger moved to Greenville, MS where he grew up.
Scott grew up in poverty, picked cotton during the summer for 2 1/2 cents a pound, and began playing baseball daily. He was a three-sport star in high school, serving as team captain for the baseball, basketball and football teams, and spent time playing baseball on local industrial and town teams that often boasted lineups of men in their twenties and thirties. He was so poor, though, that he once used a paper bag fashioned in the form of a baseball glove because that’s all he could afford.
But Scott overcame all of that and was signed by the Boston Red Sox as an amateur free agent in 1962. Scott would be going from the racism of the Deep South to arguably the most racist team in baseball; led by Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox were the last team to integrate when “Pumpsie” Green took the field for the first time on July 21, 1959, more than 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947. But Scott chose the Red Sox over other teams for that very reason, “[It] was because I knew that Boston did not have no blacks,” he told Anderson. “I knew that they were looking for good black ballplayers, and I felt if I could go there I could go through their organization pretty fast if I showed ’em that I could play…”
Scott tore through the minors, enjoying his best and last minor league season in 1965 when the then-21-year-old hit .319 and belted 25 homers in 523 at-bats. He made his major league debut in 1966 and formed a potent slugging duo with 21-year-old phenom Tony Conigliaro, then spent the next 14 years in the majors, playing for Boston, Milwaukee,Boston again, then brief stints in Kansas City and the Yankees where he finished his career.
Anderson does an excellent job getting to the heart and soul of George Scott, and it’s important to note that the men are friends and the author had direct access to Scott rather than relying on newspaper accounts, opinion pieces or interviews with former teammates and classmates. Anderson does all of that and it makes for a better read, but hearing Scott describe his life and career in his own words makes the experience richer.
No stone is unturned and we get first-hand accounts of Scott’s growth as a youngster in Greenville from himself and people who knew him; his earliest days in baseball and obstacles he faced in his rise to prominence as the Red Sox’s first black star; clashes with managers and his disappointment in not being able to continue his baseball career on a major league coaching staff or as manager.
The book starts out uplifting and tells a story of a boy who overcame more than most to achieve his dream of being a major league baseball player, and Anderson does a fantastic job painting a picture of what it meant to be black in the Deep South of the forties, fifties and sixties, and what it meant to be poor. I found myself really feeling and rooting for Scott in his younger days, then took his side wholeheartedly against men like Dick Williams who seemed to enjoy toying with Scott.
But as things unfolded, I began to wonder if Scott hadn’t brought some of his problems on himself. Every clash with a manager reads as if it was the manager’s fault, and Scott takes little to no responsibility. He often showed up to spring camp overweight, then after hitting the hell out of the ball during spring training would start off slow during the regular season.
According to Anderson, Scott “had trouble adjusting to the unyielding style” of Brewers manager Dave Bristol, for whom he played in the early part of 1972, and blamed his rigid policies for their rift. But Anderson also writes that Scott was embarrassed by his .147 batting average at the time of Bristol’s firing. Del Crandall followed and he, too, eventually found himself a target of Scott’s wrath after fining the slugger $500 for being ejected from a game and making an “inappropriate gesture” toward some heckling fans. Then in 1973, Crandall dropped Scott from his customary clean-up spot and fined the slugger $1,000 for “dogging it.” Scott claimed to have had a groin injury and felt his drop to seventh in the lineup was an “indignity.” At the time, though, he was batting .248 and slugging only .369.
Later, while with the Royals, Scott seems to be unfairly blamed for a losing skein that saw his team fall in 14 of 15 contests, prompting manager Whitey Herzog to blame Scott and accuse him of not “doing his job.” Granted the first baseman had only one home run and a .370 slugging percentage through his first 44 games, but the team’s pitching, or lack thereof, had as much to do with their slump as anything Scott was or wasn’t doing— Royals hurlers allowed an average of seven runs a game during the slump. Still, Scott ended up getting the brunt of Herzog’s frustations.
And so it went throughout the rest of his career.
When I mentioned this to Anderson, this was his response: “I think what helped turn the corner for me in realizing that George had a point was the interview I had with Rico Petrocelli who really seems to tell it like it is [and may be a reason why he, himself, got into trouble with the Sox more than once]. He didn’t hesitate to say that George was always held to a different standard throughout his Red Sox career, at the least. In fact I remember those days as well, in my twenties, reading about the nonsense in the Globe over Scott and wondering why they were making it so public. Both the press and Red Sox seemed to show him no mercy. But there were many others who supported that view – that there was prejudice - later on when he tried to get back into MLB. So in the long run I felt, although there is an element of unjustified angst on George’s part, that it is largely ‘them,’ not him.”
Regardless of whether or not Scott was a victim of prejudice or unfair standards, or was just misunderstood, Anderson’s book is very well-written and researched and it was a real pleasure to read. The hallmark of a good biography, in my opinion, is the ability to make the reader think, feel and care about the subject, and that’s exactly what Long Taters did for me. On a personal note, I wish George Scott all the best in his pursuit of a major league job and thank him for giving me some wonderful memories that are still fresh 35 years later. Good luck, “Boomer.”
Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.