Legacy of long-time Blue Jays’ scout linked to signing of Terry Puhl

The brain trust from the glory days: scout Moose Johnson, general manager Pat Gillick, president Paul Beeston, scout Wayne Morgan and pitching coach Al Widmar.

The brain trust from the glory days: scout Moose Johnson, general manager Pat Gillick, president Paul Beeston, scout Wayne Morgan and pitching coach Al Widmar.

By: Danny Gallagher

Canadian Baseball Network

When school was out at Saskatchewan’s Melville high, Terry Puhl came home, walked through the door of his parents’ home to find his father Frank and his mother Margaret sitting at the kitchen table with Wayne Morgan.

The date was Sept. 19, 1973.

Puhl was relieved and excited to see the Houston Astros’ scout there because in the previous two weeks, he had wondered to himself, “Is this guy for real? Is he going to show up?’’

Morgan lived up to his promise. So without wasting much time, Morgan took Puhl to nearby Pirie Field to work him out but the wheels in motion for this workout began in early September when Morgan, a native of Saskatoon, who was raised in Kindersley, showed up to scout players at the first-ever Canadian midget baseball championship held in Barrhead, Alta.

“The first time I met Wayne was in Barrhead,’’ Puhl said. “He introduced himself and said he scouted for the Astros. He asked me if I was interested in signing a professional contract. I kind of laughed and said yes.’’

Morgan had gone to the Kamloops International tournament in B.C. that weekend but admitted he had pretty much scouted all of the players, who participated at that event. So he decided to go to the tournament in Barrhead the same weekend to see midget players he had never seen. Because there was no motel available, he stayed at a cabin at a lake near Barrhead with a family that was involved with the tournament.

So Morgan sized up Puhl and saw some good attributes. 

“I had never heard of Terry Puhl,’’ Morgan admitted in an interview. “Amateurs pop up everywhere. I saw Puhl pitch the first game in Barrhead. After that, he did not throw very good from the outfield because his arm was sore from pitching. He was big and strong but I didn’t like him as a pitcher. I didn’t like his delivery, lack of velocity and overall mechanics.

“It was probably his physical strength I liked most. He was a pretty good-sized midget. Second thing was his running speed. He was an above-average runner. He ran 60 yards in 6.6 seconds. He could run and swing a bat. I sent in a report that I wanted to sign him but I was told to wait until his arm got better and then I would go to Melville and work him out.’’

Morgan also gave Puhl in Barrhead what is called a ‘card of interest’, which Puhl filled out. Scouts give players an information postcard type to fill out with name, address, phone, height, weight, date of birth, etc.  Players can give it to you or mail it back as a postcard.  

Puhl admitted the other day that his arm was really aching from throwing so much in the tournament. For what he did in five tournament games, Puhl was voted most valuable player and most valuable pitcher as the Melville Elks won the national title with Bob Stewart as coach and Puhl’s father the general manager.

“My arm was killing me,’’ Puhl said. “I pitched a lot of innings.’’

A few days after the tournament, Morgan called Puhl and said he wanted to work him out. Puhl’s recollection is that this second contact came two weeks to the day prior to the workout and contract signing in Melville.

So at Pirie Field, Morgan and Puhl were all alone.

“I got him to throw to third base from right field and nobody was there. I didn’t have anybody to help me. He took about half a dozen throws,’’ Morgan said. “If he hadn’t thrown good that day, it would have been difficult to sign him.’’

Puhl threw hummers to third and also did sprints and some hitting for Morgan. Deal done.

“We went back to the kitchen after our workout and Wayne had a little briefcase and he pulled out a contract for us to sign.’’ Puhl said. “Two people had to sign it. I was 17. My father signed it. My mother looked at me and she wasn’t signing it and she walked out of the kitchen so I signed it.’’

Then came the tough news that Morgan was signing Puhl to be an outfielder, not as a pitcher, and not as a third baseman, the position where he played the most when he wasn’t pitching.

“Wayne said, ‘Okay, you can run, hit and throw but you don’t throw good enough to be a pitcher. You have the make-up of an outfielder.’ I had never played in the outfield,’’ Puhl said. “Obviously, you do what they want but it was a learning curve.’’

The signing bonus?

“It got up to four figures. That’s all I will say,’’ Puhl said, laughing.

Morgan had asked Astros’ director of scouting Pat Gillick for a certain amount to sign Puhl but Gillick told him there was nothing left in the signing budget so Morgan was given permission to offer Puhl significantly less, a figure he didn’t want made public 43 years later. I know the original request and the actual signing bonus but I won’t disclose them. Puhl didn’t complain because Morgan pitched in with “a brand new glove and a pair of spikes.’’

At a time when Canadians playing in the major leagues were an after-thought rarity,  Puhl would go on to play 14 seasons in the majors as an outfielder, 13 with the Astros, and was elected into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 1994, the year after the Elks’ team was inducted into the same hall. One step further, Puhl was elected into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

“Terry did good for himself. From the standpoint I’m Canadian and he’s Canadian, there’s something special about that,’’ Morgan said. “What a career he had. When you sign, it gives you an opportunity, that first step. Then you gotta do it on your own.’’

From time to time, the Melville Wonder tells Morgan that he missed one player on his Melville team from 1973: catcher John Maserek, who hit three homers in the Barrhead tournament.

“John definitely had the arm,’’ Puhl said of Maserek.

Another player who was superb in Barrhead was right-fielder Ross Mahoney, a pick-up from Regina, who had impressed in the Saskatchewan playdowns leading to the nationals. Mahoney hit safely 14 times in 22 at-bats for a .636 average at the national tournament.

Mahoney had no doubt back then that Puhl was an excellent candidate for Morgan to sign to an Astros’ contract.

“People don’t recognize that Terry was a Saskatchewan provincial high school hurdles champion,’’ Mahoney said. “When you timed him out of the box, he was exceptionally fast. He ran like a gazelle, whereas I ran a bit like an elephant. For a big guy, his singles were doubles. He beat out infield hits. He batted about .550 in the Barrhead tournament.’’

Puhl confirmed that he was indeed swift over the hurdles.

“Yes, I ran the 100 metres. I had the Saskatchewan record time for years,’’ he said. “That's what Wayne liked -- my running ability.  He said I could really run, hit good, threw good ... the makings of an outfielder.  He was right.’’

For those wondering, Morgan’s life in baseball began with his love of the Los Angeles Dodgers as a youth.

“I still have Sandy Koufax’s rookie card from 1955,’’ Morgan was saying the other day. “Koufax and Don Drysdale were always impressive.’’

Then there were those road trips Morgan took by car with his father Beverly George, a freight agent for Canadian National Railways, to see minor-league games in Edmonton where colleges placed players.

“It was a big trip to Edmonton back in the 1950s but not so much these days. A lot of gravel roads then,’’ Morgan said

Morgan admired Edmonton players like Ron Fairly, who eventually would play for the Expos. Then there was a player by the name of Len Gabrielson, whom Morgan liked.

Over time, Morgan would leave Kindersley for California and how he switched countries was a story in itself.

“I was playing baseball for Kindersley and we always brought Americans to manage or play with our club,’’ Morgan explained. “Our manager one year, Gene Graves, thought I could play in California at a junior college. He was a Fresno State pitcher, who was eventually inducted into their hall of fame. I got out of Kindersley high school and came down to California and never really came back.’’

Morgan even tried to recruit Americans himself to come to Kindersley. He mailed me a copy of a typewritten letter Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver sent to him in San Francisco from Los Angeles, dated May 28, 1965, saying he was already committed to going to Alaska. Both Morgan and Seaver were approximately 20 years old at the time.

“I faced Seaver when he was pitching for Fresno Junior College and I thought he would be a good one to have in Kindersley,’’ Morgan said.

No kidding.

“I regret to inform you that I have already made plans for the summer to play with the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, Alaska,’’ Seaver wrote. “I am obligated to the Goldpanners because of participating with them last year. I thank you for your interest and best of luck to the Kindersley team.’’

Morgan’s shift to California is the beginning of a story of how he became a major-league scout, one of the best in the business. He wasn’t talented enough to be a professional player but he worked his way into scouting but not before attending College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif. and San Francisco University where he earned a Masters degree in Physical Education.

In the summers when Morgan wasn’t at university, he would return to Saskatchewan to play senior ball in either Swift Current or Kindersley. He described himself as a “mediocre, good-hit, no-field’’ second baseman. In the fall of 1968 and the spring of 1969, he taught and coached baseball at a high school in Los Angeles.

In the fall of 1969, Morgan had problems with his visa so he went to Peace River, Alta. and worked there for about 10 months as a recreation director. He also managed a team, the Stampeders, who went to the Canadian national senior championship tournament, the first year it was held. It was staged in Brandon, Man.

Morgan got his visa problems ironed out in 1970, headed back to California and played in a collegiate league on a team sponsored by the Phillies. During that gig, Morgan got to know Phillies scout Eddie Bockman, who asked Bockman if he was interested in part-time scouting at a time when he had no interest in the occupation.

“I was just about to go with the Phillies and all of a sudden, the Expos called me. It was Al Ronning, a scouting supervisor. They wanted me to scout part-time in California in the winter and do Western Canada in the summer,’’ Morgan recalled. “Being a Canadian, I thought I’d be better off with Montreal, even though I knew the Phillies’ scout better.’’

That Expos’ offer came at a time when he was teaching at California’s Menlo Park Junior College. Who should Morgan meet up with later on in the early 1970s? Gillick. That’s right, Gillick, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and future Blue Jays’ architect.

“I met Wayne a few times scouting in Western Canada,’’ Gillick told me. “I first saw him in North Battleford, Sask. The Expos didn’t have a full-time situation for him but we (Houston) did, so we took him.’’

As Morgan pointed out, “I used to run into Pat every year at tournaments when I worked with the Expos. He had played minor-league ball in Western Canada. At the 1972 World Series in Oakland, Pat was there and he said he’d like to take me full-time. So I scouted North Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and all of Canada.

“Pat was promoted to scouting director by Houston so he needed someone to fill the Canada void. My first Houston contract was signed Feb. 5, 1973 for the period Feb. 1, 1973 through Nov. 30, 1973 for a grand total of $5,858.31. I signed Puhl approximately seven and a half months later.

“I said to Pat, ‘When I signed a scouting contract, that he not only signed a scout but also a major-league pitcher.’ The pitcher was Gord Pladson from Delta, B.C. He was a guy I saw when I was scouting for the Expos. We signed him for the Astros and he got a cup of coffee in Houston but he had the potential to do much better.’’

When Gillick moved to the Yankees in 1975, Morgan tagged along. One of the players Morgan signed for the Yankees was an awkward, pencil-thin, speedy outfielder by the name of Willie McGee.

“McGee was a bench player in junior college. He didn’t even play regular,’’ Morgan said. “He never made much contact but when he did, the ball jumped off his bat. Also, he was a very fast runner.’’

McGee never played a game for the Yankees but carved out a career of some 18 seasons in the majors, many of them with the Cardinals. Morgan saw something in him and he panned out. McGee won two batting titles, was a star in the 1982 World Series and was the 1985 National League MVP.

When Gillick went to work for the Blue Jays when they were awarded an expansion franchise for the 1977 season, he wanted Morgan to tag along again but Yankees owner George Steinbrenner balked.

“I couldn’t get out of my Yankees contract. They were going to raise hell with the commissioner so I thought I’d stay another year,’’ Morgan said.

Morgan finally joined the Jays in 1978, scouting the West Coast region and by 1982, he was appointed regional scouting director. Then in late 1990, he was promoted to director of international scouting, becoming responsible for all scouting activities outside the U.S. and Canada.

As he proudly pointed out on a sheet of paper he sent me by postal mail along with some photos, Morgan mentioned some of the players he had a hand in when it came to scouting, recommending, drafting or signing, besides Puhl and McGee. Morgan is especially proud of his third favourite player he set eyes on, Jeff Kent.

“Kent was an odd situation,’’ Morgan said. “I saw him play a game at shortstop at the University of California-Berkeley when he was a freshman and I was very impressed. He ran below average and had below average range so to me, he profiled as a third-base prospect.

“I asked other scouts at the game where he was drafted out of Edison high school and was told that he was not drafted. Years later, I was told that he quit the high school team his senior year because the coach wanted him to be a pitcher. I never saw him again and prior to the draft in 1989, I asked our area scout about him because Kent  was not on his draft list.’’

What the scout told Morgan was that he thought Kent wasn’t a prospect. The scout also told Morgan that he didn’t think Kent would be drafted. On a gut feeling, Morgan recommended to the Jays’ braintrust that Kent be drafted. He was taken in the 20th round.

Like McGee, Kent went on to a stellar major-league career but only part of one season was with the Blue Jays in 1992. He hit 560 doubles, 377 homers and drove in 1,518 runs to go with a .290 average. Not shabby at all.

Morgan then listed Mark Eichhorn, Xavier Hernandez, Glenallen Hill, Lloyd Moseby, Greg Myers, John Olerud, Geno Petralli, Ed Sprague, Dave Stieb, Todd Stottlemyre, Mike Timlin, David Wells, Woody Williams, Randy Nieman, Rodger Slagle, Graeme Lloyd, Mike Fischlin and Pat Tabler.

Morgan scouted for the Jays until 2005, a span of 27 years until general manager J.P. Ricciardi fired him and a number of other scouts in a purge.

“I knew it was coming so there was no real reaction. It sounded like the best thing to do was to leave there,’’ Morgan said. “I had a contract for two years working for Ricciardi and I never spoke a word to the guy.’’

Morgan would go and work for the Mariners from 2006-2009 before he returned to the Blue Jays for the next three years. He retired on New Year’s Eve in 2012 to pay more attention to his ailing mother Helen, 93, who lives in Kelowna, B.C.

All in all, Morgan spent 30 years as a scout for the Blue Jays. Quite a run. Pencil in his time with the Astros, Yankees and Expos and the grand total is 42 years.

“My mother needed help. I felt I couldn’t work anymore,’’ Morgan said. “She was living by herself in a beautiful apartment in Kelowna and was having problems with dementia. The government felt she should not live by herself and wanted to move her where she would have full care.

“They tried to bully her and myself and it was a horrible experience. There would be an opening and they would contact me, saying I had 48-hours notice to get to Kelowna and she would be moved to the bottom of the waiting list if she did not take it.

“I was still working and it was a challenge to beat their 48-hour deadline from far away states like Georgia and Virginia on short notice. Most of the rooms they wanted to put her in looked like rickety, old jail cells to me.’’

In time for the 2016 season, Morgan supported Gillick in another venture as director of player recruitment for the California-based Chico Heat of the Great West league. Gillick is part-owner of the team so how was Morgan going to say no to a friend he has known for close to 45 years?

After living for 27 years on Morgan Ave. in Morgan Hill, Calif., Morgan, 72, has lived in Pebble Beach, Calif. for 16 years. He resides there with his wife Karen and they have grown-up children in Jeffrey and Meri Anne.

Morgan’s credentials of 42 years as a scout make him an ideal candidate for the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

How many people can say they scouted for both of Canada’s major-league teams? Morgan credits both Gillick and the late Jays scout Bobby Mattick for tutoring him on the fine art of scouting.

Morgan is exactly the mould of scout Molly Secours is giving credit to in her documentary-in-progress Scouting for Diamonds. Guys like Morgan are underdogs, who don’t receive sufficient credit for the people they scout, recommend and sign.

Puhl was a diamond Morgan discovered in smalltown Canada. The Morgan-Puhl story never gets old. What is cool is that every now and then, Morgan and Puhl talk on the phone.

“It’s pretty neat, really,’’ Morgan said of the chats he has with Puhl.

Puhl said.

If Morgan had not come along in Puhl’s life, what did the phenom have in mind for a career?

“I would have gone to the University of Saskatchewan and became an X-ray technician,’’ he said. “I’m just glad Wayne saw me. He changed my life.’’