Interview: Roland Hemond on 63 years of baseball

photo courtesy of Jon Willey/Arizona Diamondbacks

Monday night, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Roland Hemond, who has been in baseball since 1951 and currently works as a consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2011, Hemond became just the second recipient of the Buck O'Neil Award. He sat down with me prior to the Hillsboro Hops' first-ever home game. What follows is a slightly edited version of our interview, transcribed by Jason Brannon ...

Rob: So how long has it been since you've been to a baseball game in Portland?

Roland Hemond: In Portland itself? I doubt that I ever saw a game in Portland itself. I remember going to Eugene, Pacific Coast League, Larry Bowa was playing shortstop...

Rob: When Eugene had the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate?

Hemond: That's right, and the Bull, Greg Luzinski, was the left fielder. So I remember that. And that dates back probably 45-50 years.

Rob: It was the early-to-mid ‘70s, yeah.

Hemond: Yeah.

Rob: So what do you think about Hops Ballpark so far, what you've seen of it?

Hemond: Oh, I'm very much impressed. I was looking forward to seeing it. I've heard some nice reviews about it, but to see it and to recognize that the Diamondbacks, being affiliated with Hops Stadium and this ballclub here, that makes me very happy, because this is a great way for a young fellow breaking into professional baseball and playing in this atmosphere in a beautiful park, great lights, and tremendous community. So it's what you hope can be provided for young players and when it's within your organization as well, so much the better.

Rob: Yeah, a brand-new ballpark, sold out Opening Day. It seems like it would be fun for the ballplayers. I don't know if -- So you think it helps a player's development to start in this atmosphere, as opposed to a smaller crowd in an old ballpark?

Hemond: Oh, absolutely. Because as human beings, you try to excel when there's good atmosphere and the support from your own fans. So I think it's a plus for our player development program because when our scouts are talking to the families prior to the players reporting and we tell them about the nice facilities that we have, and then it's backed up with this ballpark, for instance. Some of them it's their first year in pro ball, some of them second or third year, and they say, "Oh, this is the best place I've ever played," that's a boost to morale, it makes it easier for the managers and coaches to motivate them, because they can motivate themselves by the atmosphere.

Rob: Is there any negative at all in having an all-artificial turf field when they're not gonna have that when they get to the upper levels?

Hemond: Well, there's still some ballparks in the major league that have artificial turf. Not many, but it's just a step along the way to getting to the big leagues, and if they've experienced it by getting to the big leagues, and they have artificial turf, they're accustomed to it because of the experience that they've had here.

Rob: Right, and of course on the road they're going to see lots of natural grass.

Hemond: And then it will probably guarantee a lot of games will be played that otherwise might have been canceled because of wet ground, so that's good also.

Rob: So we just had the draft, obviously, and I'm endlessly fascinated by the difficulty of the job that scouts have to do, and of course you've been very active in recognizing scouts over the years. I think to most of us, it's sort of a mystery how scouting works, but more why it's so difficult. Why so many players who, for example, get drafted in the first round and either don't make the majors, or do make the majors, but aren't the players that perhaps people thought they would be. What makes it so difficult to look at an 18-year-old, or even a 21-year-old, and know what kind of player he's going to be three years later?

Hemond: Well, that's why we say the scouts are the unsung heroes of our game. And finally the Hall of Fame just opened Diamond Mines, and they have scouting reports from back, many years ago that people can go in on their computers and get the scouting reports and read them for themselves. And one of the real good reports that we were looking at recently was on Kirk Gibson, the manager of the Diamondbacks. Jim Martz was the scout who turned in on Kirk Gibson at Michigan State, and he was pointing out that his running speed, his power, and his aggressiveness were number 8. The Scouts will go 2, 4, 6 and 8 at the very top of the board. So you very seldom can put an 8 on a player on that particular quality that he has, but Gibson went on to have a very fine career, very competitive and lived up to that scout's written report.

I encourage fans who come to Hops Stadium to get accustomed to making out reports themselves, to just see who will say, "This player is a major league prospect, and I can foresee in two or three years he'll be in the major leagues. And he has qualities that I think he could be a Rookie of the Year and eventually maybe an All-Star, and maybe even a Hall of Famer." So they could be critiquing themselves and realizing what the scout is doing. And he must project to his organization and be strong upon how he feels about certain aspects of the player's play.

And then the player-development people, the managers and coaches at the minor league level, many times they don't get the recognition they deserve. And I often say that if some players are lucky, they were probably drafted by an organization that has superior managers and coaches as against another organization that may not have the same quality and able to get out of the player what his prospects appear to be. So, it's a combination, it's difficult. Players come from all parts of the world and sometimes they've played against -- they've been the stars in their community, so the opposition is not that strong. And that makes it tougher for a scout. So when they get into pro ball, then you're able to qualify better what your thoughts are because he's playing against the same type of competition, a player that's as good as he is, or better.

So it's not a positive science, but it takes a certain knack and ability, and some scouts have it; they can project that this player, as he goes along, will succeed, because they also look for his attitude. Is he the first one on the field, or the first one to get off the bus? He can't wait to get on the field for pre-game workout, goes at it enthusiastically, takes good infield. You know, he's got his head in the game, he shows quick baseball instincts. When he's in the field, he's already thinking, "If the ball's hit to me, this guy can really run, I have to rush myself more with him than I will for the next guy who hits the ball better, but can't run." So, it's fun, and it's exciting, and that's why I love this game, because I always remember the first time I saw a player.

Rob: What's the most excited you've ever been about a player you saw for the first time?

Hemond: Well, Juan Pizarro was a pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves organization, and he struck out over 300 batters at Jacksonville, which was Class A at the time, but when I first saw him at Spring Training, I mean, this was an electric arm. And Hank Aaron I saw in the lower minors, or minor-league training camp of the Braves, and you say, "Boy, the ball really jumps off his bat." He wasn't real big, he was about 165 pounds, but he made all the steps quickly. Then we had a great manager at Jacksonville who says -- they were playing Henry Aaron at second base -- he said he'd be ready with the bat next year. If you send him up to winter ball, you won't have to wait a couple years. At second base, he has to learn the nuances of the double play and the pivots and all that. He said if he goes to the outfield, he'll be ready next year.

Rob: So the thinking was that Aaron probably could have made the majors as a second baseman if he'd just spent some time learning the position?

Hemond: Yeah, but it would've taken him two or three years to refine his defensive play. So Henry went to Caguas, Puerto Rico in winter ball and he got off slowly, then he tore it up. Then he came to Spring Training and the Braves had traded for the famous Bobby Thompson, who hit the home run known around the world. He had come from the Giants, but he broke his ankle late in the spring, so Henry Aaron went to left field and showed he was ready to be a big league player. Eventually he moved to right field and became one of the real good right fielders ever. But that's where Ben Geraghty had the foresight also to expedite the progress of Aaron to get to the big leagues. So, it's a combination. But Dewey Griggs was the scout who saw him play for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League. As a matter of fact, he batted cross-handed, which I've never seen anybody else bat cross-handed. So when he got to pro ball, the manager at Eau Claire says, "Henry, why don't you try it this way?" He said, "Well, down in Mobile, Alabama on the sandlot, they taught me this." I think he did okay with the conventional style. I'm biased to Henry because he was so young when he came to the major leagues with the Braves and hit a clutch home run in 1957 against Billy Muffett of the Cardinals when we clinched the pennant and went on to win the World Series against the Yankees.

Rob: And what was your role with the Braves at the time?

Hemond: I was the assistant scouting director. I had learned to type in the Coast Guard, so they told me they'd give me a two-week tryout, and here I am in my sixty-third year.

Rob: Wow.

Hemond: So I've been extremely fortunate. It's not that easy to get into the game anymore. Now if you have a college degree you stand a better chance. Human Resources won't accept you unless --

Rob: Or a graduate degree, or a law degree.

Hemond: Yes, that's right.

Rob: Was there anyone you saw as an amateur or maybe the low minors who you just thought was absolutely going to make it as a star and for whatever reason it just didn't pan out?

Hemond: Well, one player who suffered a terrible injury, illness actually. Rick Reichardt went to the University of Wisconsin, and I went to see him along with, there were about twenty scouts from various organizations. I had brought Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy. Only people my age remember maybe who he is --

Rob: I remember!

Hemond: -- but he owned the Angels. And I says, "Gene, you should come and see this player along with me," because I was gonna have to get the okay to try to sign him. And he hit three home runs in a doubleheader, went over the right field fence, center field fence, left field fence. He had a couple more hits, stole home, he did everything. And [I was] fortunate to be able to sign him myself, and it did help that I brought the big boss with me. But unfortunately then, his first full year in the big leagues, he had like 17 home runs by the All-Star break, and he said, "Roland, I've got terrible headaches." And I said, "Well, we'll get you examined." And it turned out that he had a badly infected kidney which they had to remove, so then he played the rest of his career with one kidney. And he wasn't quite the [same] player after that. He stayed in the major leagues about eight or nine years. But I think that was a severe blow in his career, because I think he was destined to be a star.

Rob: So in that case it wasn't that the scouting was inaccurate, just something else came up -- was there anyone who you knew, where there wasn't an obvious reason why he didn't succeed, it just sort of didn't happen?

Hemond: Well, injuries sometimes play a factor.

Rob: Injuries that we don't even know about.

Hemond: That's right. And it happens unannounced. I mean, you see it at the major league level all the time about guys going on the Disabled List with a very promising career, like Strasburg with Washington. He missed a few assignments this year. Last year they were careful with him and this year -- now, he pitched a good ballgame upon his return this past week, so you hope for guys like that, who are destined to be stars on paper and they show it to you that he has all the qualifications. Now if they stay healthy, we're fortunate.

Rob: Now, I've suggested -- I wrote something a month or two ago when the Diamond Mines exhibit was unveiled and I thought it was incredible -- but I broached the possibility of scouts being in the actual Hall of Fame, and I sort of come down on the side that there probably should be room for scouts, the best scouts, and more executives. And you know, a few other categories, perhaps. Right now, as you know, there's not a mechanism for scouts to be in the Hall of Fame. Assuming that that were to happen someday, have you thought about how scouts would be elected, like what would be the best way to decide which scouts were in the Hall of Fame?

Hemond: Well, it's a little bit easier to decipher prior to the free-agent draft. Before the draft, you know, when I was scouting director sometimes the only person who had seen the player was one scout in his area. And then you signed the player on one opinion. Now they have crosscheckers, area supervisors, area scouts. But scouts like Tony Lucadello, [who signed] over fifty players who went to the majors, he did a tremendous job for the Philadelphia Phillies. Mike Schmidt was one of his signings, and Ferguson Jenkins. But he helped the Phillies have success, by himself basically, because of his [reports].

George Genovese with the Giants signed numerous players, and is still alive in California, [he] had about 40-some-odd players reach the major leagues, primarily with the Giants. Johnny Moore was a scout with the Boston Braves and Milwaukee -- and I grew up with that organization at that time -- and he signed Eddie Mathews, Hall of Famer. He signed Del Crandall out of Fullerton, California -- both of them out of high school -- and was a perennial All-Star, eight or nine times an All-Star.

And then the other role they played. John Quinn was the general manager, and he was involved in a trade with the Yankees. He was gonna trade Johnny Sain, who had been a fine pitcher with the Braves, and the Yankees were interested because he could start and relieve. And Johnny Moore, the scout, told John Quinn, "Hold out for Lew Burdette." The Yankees were trying to give other players to close that deal, and [Moore] said, "John, hold out to get Burdette." Burdette had pitched Triple-A in the Pacific Coast League but belonged to the Yankees.

And then, in the ‘57 World Series Burdette pitched three games --

Rob: Beat them three times.

Hemond: -- beat them three times. Shut them out the last time on two days rest in the seventh game because Spahn -- Warren Spahn, the great left-hander -- was ill and they had to give the ball to Burdette, and he shut them out, so when the final out came, well, the bases were loaded. Fred Haney, the manager, went out to talk to Burdette and said, "Lew, do you think you've got something left?" He says, "Yeah, let me keep the ball." Plus, Fred had figured out if Bill Skowron hit a grand slam we're still ahead 5-4.

Rob: [laughs]

Hemond: But at any rate, he hit a sharp ground ball over third. Eddie Mathews made a beautiful backhanded play, stepped on third, and the three players converged and jumped in each other's arms were Crandall, Burdette, and Mathews. And Burdette was named the Most Valuable Player of the World Series. But I said Johnny Moore, the scout wasn't far behind.

Rob: That's great. And it really points to the fact that, you know, if we wanted to figure out which scouts did the best work, especially before the draft, we could -- to some degree anyway -- just sort of make a list of who signed the most guys. But scouts have been involved in other ways, too. And that's the thing, you want something else, you'd probably want a panel of experts who can go back and look at all the history of it, and I don't know where you would find those people. I guess there are people in SABR who could get together and come up with a list. But right now -- you know, I know a fair amount of baseball history, but I probably, off the top of my head, couldn't name more than -- you know, I know Tom Greenwade and I know the Yankees -- who was the Yankees' top scout before Greenwade?

Hemond: Paul Krichell.

Rob: Right. So, I mean there are a few obvious names, but then there are other guys like Moore, who you mentioned, even most students of history probably don't even know much about. And I mean, obviously the Diamond Mines exhibit is helping, but I think if you were to get to a point of putting these guys in the Hall of Fame, you'd have to start doing some real research and putting together a case for a guy like that.

Hemond: Well, there's a fella Rod Nelson --

Rob: Sure, I know Rod well, though SABR.

Roland: Right, and Rod who knows who signed who, and I've worked with him myself, sending him information I could provide, and he's done a fabulous job of accumulating who signed who. So that would serve as a criteria, because it tells you the story pretty well. Now, general managers also could help, like a John Schuerholz -- who I think is gonna be in the Hall of Fame as a general manager -- would be able to say that certain scouts who recommended the trade that John made that worked so well for them to go to fourteen consecutive postseasons or something. Greg Maddux will probably go in [the Hall] next year. Glavine will be close behind, John Smoltz. So they had a great era, and that's where general managers could help out, by signifying that the reason I made the trade was the recommendation of such-and-such scout. So with the advent now of computers and everything, there may be some methods that would help to qualify [scouts]. And I also think there are player development people, minor league managers and coaches who have been overlooked. Major league coaches, Dave Duncan -- Tony La Russa has seen fit to take him every place he went.

Rob: Well, I've advocated for a few years now putting pitching coaches in the Hall of Fame.

Hemond: Yeah, I agree with you.

Rob: I really believe -- I started talking about this years ago, because it seemed like when I would read about baseball in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the name "Johnny Sain" kept coming up over and over again.

Hemond: Yeah, he's one that I would vote for.

Rob: And I think Duncan probably has a pretty good case.

Hemond: Right.

Rob: And the White Sox pitching coach in the ‘50s, Ray ...

Hemond: Berres, yeah. Right.

Rob: He did a lot of fantastic work. I know the bar should be pretty high for those guys, but --

Hemond: Jim Turner with the Yankees.

Rob: Jim Turner, yup. There's a name, I don't think he's Hall of Fame-worthy, but you probably remember the name Earle Brucker, he was legendary back in the ‘40s with the A's --

Hemond: Right. And that's where research would have to take place.

Rob: Right.

Hemond: But just like they have the Veterans Committee, and sometimes people get in because they've been overlooked, and it allows them to go in. And I agree with you that scouts and player-development people, and the minor-league managers -- Stan Wozniak managed in the Dodgers organization, developed many players, never -- I don't know if he coached in the major leagues. George Kissell with the St. Louis Cardinals, fifty years with the Cardinals, teaching the fundamentals of the game. And they would take players that other clubs had overlooked and he would help make them become winning players for the Cardinals for a long time. So [the Hall of Fame] shouldn't be relegated strictly to players or managers.

Rob: Yup. Couple more quick questions. First, what are your impressions of the Diamondbacks this season, and what's the difference between this year and last year, if anything? And what are you looking at for the rest of the season?

Hemond: Well, I feel that Kevin Towers, our general manager, is a real good baseball man. And Kirk Gibson, he has a very fine staff. And I think we've got more mileage out of our situation -- other clubs have had injuries, but we've been deluged with them recently -- and still been hangin' on. So, they've achieved to the very best of what they could provide day in and day out. And we look forward to some of the players coming back from the DL and helping us within our own ranks. And I think we can compete all year.

Rob: Second, I've been wanting to ask you this for a while now, have you thought about writing something about your baseball career?

Hemond: Yeah, people have asked me to do so. I never stopped long enough to do it. And I think I may someday succumb and do it. There are times you say, well, it might look like you're boasting about yourself, and that's something that's hard for me to do.

Rob: I sort of figured that might be part of it.

Hemond: Except that I would like to pass on the many names of people who have helped me along the way. And I would say it's incredible that I've had this career of mine, but I always attribute it to the people who helped me from the very beginning to teach me the game. Old managers in the minors like Ben Geraghty, Bob Coleman, Paul Waner, Hall of Famer, about hitting, and Johnny Sain about pitching. Chuck Tanner, who did a remarkable job with the White Sox. We were limited in finances and yet competed extremely well. And then he did well and brought a championship to Pittsburgh. And Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan and then -- I mean, I could go on and on, the names. Ted McGrew was an old scout who kind of took me under his wing, and he's the one who acquired Pee Wee Reese for the Red Sox and then when he went to the Dodgers. He was able to help make a deal to get Reese to go to the Dodgers. But Ted McGrew -- I smile because he took so much time and effort to just talk baseball with me.

And so you're exposed to great baseball people. John Mullen, who was my boss and scouting director, he delegated so well. He gave me more responsibilities early than I felt I could accomplish. But I wasn't afraid to ask questions about how I could do it better. And so -- you see me smiling as I recollect these names. And my wife will say, "Why do you mention those things? They're long gone!" And I said, "Yeah, but without them, I'm not here! I would not still be in the game, and I owe it to them."

Birdie Tebbetts, he passed on a lot of wisdom. He'd say, "Roland, always remember who told you. If you don't remember who told you, you might be making a decision from someone that you ran into at the street corner --"

Rob: [laughs]

Hemond: "-- who thought he knew baseball, and you'd make a lot of bad decisions." So then, once you know your personnel, then you gain confidence on the decisions, because they proved to you time and time again that they're accurate and they have the ability. Some of them were better with pitchers, others better with position players. So sometimes if he recommended a pitcher, I'd try to move as fast as I could.

I remember Tom Morgan was a coach in the Angels organization, and he said, "You better be careful when you talk to Roland. You tell him you like the player, you better like him, ‘cause the next day he'll be announcing that he got him!"

Rob: [laughs]

Hemond: So I wasn't afraid to make quick moves on the faith of the people providing me the information.

Rob: Didn't you work with Bill Veeck for a while?

Hemond: Oh, yeah. I have to mention him. Yeah, I spent five years with Bill. Actually some people say it was about fifteen years because, you know, he probably was in a lot of pain because he'd had a war injury, so he had the capacity of staying up late. Somebody asked me one day what my hours are. I said, "Nine to five. Nine in the morning till five A.M."

Rob: [chuckles]

Hemond: But I loved him. And he taught me so much. And he said, "Have confidence in your judgement. Don't live in fear. If you make a bad trade sometimes, well, you make another one. Maybe the second one will make people forget the first one." He had a good sense of humor and he was a visionary. He was just incredible. I mean, I could write a whole book about him alone, and those five years were very, very precious. I treasure it so much.

Rob: And what's the ring you're wearing there?

Hemond: That's the Diamondbacks ring.

Rob: From which season?

Hemond: 2001.

Rob: Oh, okay.

Hemond: I left them after the 2000 season, went back to Chicago. But then Jerry Colangelo, the owner of the Diamondbacks, he called me one day the next season and said, "Roland, I want you to have a ring." He says, "You made some significant contributions in the makeup of the club." I was hired to help Joe Garagiola Jr., the general manager. So I reached that stage of my life where I'm a consultant, so to speak. And I couldn't speak. I handed the phone to Margo, my wife. And [Jerry] said, "What happened to Roland?"

"Well, what'd you tell him?"

"That he's getting a ring!"

So I said, "What class on his part." It was a year after I had left and they won the World Championship against the New York Yankees.

Now, I usually wear my White Sox ring, but on top of the S-O-X, the diamonds fell off recently. And I was shocked, I looked all over and couldn't find them. So it's in the mail now, they're repairing it in Chicago. I'll probably get it when I get home.

Rob: So you were in baseball for decades before you got your first ring, and then you got two of them, right?

Hemond: Well, the first ring with the Milwaukee Braves in ‘57. I broke in in ‘51, and we won the World Championship in ‘57, so I have three rings.

Rob: Right. Of course. Those two, and the White Sox in 2005. You're just getting started.

I'm grateful for your time, Mr. Hemond, and best of luck to your club this season.

Hemond: Thanks, Rob. It's been my pleasure.

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