Early on Thursday morning, Joe McDonald’s disposition was as bright as the Florida weather.
“It’s a beautiful morning down here in Florida,” McDonald said from his Lakeland home. “The sun is shining, and I’m ready to go to the ballpark.”
Yet for a 90-year-old Red Sox pro scout who has attended thousands of games over parts of eight decades — from working the turnstiles at Ebbets Field to sharing World Series titles with the Mets (1969) and Cardinals (1982) along with four with the Red Sox — this day was different.
McDonald was preparing to head to an instructional league game between young Tigers and Blue Jays prospects at Joker Marchant Stadium, a 10-minute drive from the home he shares with his wife of 38 years, Virginia. As he prepared to head to the park, he had mixed feelings.
“It’s the last game I’m going to be attending,” said McDonald. “I’m going to miss the game after 69-70 years of going to the ballpark.
“I can still go, and I will go to an occasional game. But it won’t be a challenge. Every time I go to the game as a scout, I get the feeling that, ‘Hey, I hope I see something today that will enlighten me and my organization and make a contribution.’
“Without that, it’s going to be a little strange. More than a little.”
It may be even stranger to those for whom McDonald represents an institution.
“He’s a hero of mine,” said Red Sox vice president of pro scouting Gus Quattlebaum. “I just think the fact that someone who is that accomplished and willing to grind it out in the Florida State League with tough conditions tells you how committed he is to the game.”
“He’s a living encyclopedia of stories of the game, from a very early time in the game’s history through what’s going on in the game today,” said Red Sox coordinator of major league operations Alex Gimenez.
“He’s a baseball icon,” said Tigers director of international operations Tom Moore. “He has truly spent a lifetime in baseball, ever since he was a teenager all the way up through now, today.”
Early lessons at Ebbets
McDonald’s baseball education started in the 1940s, when he worked at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, assisting ticket takers. He made 50 cents a game — 49 after handing over a penny for what a supervisor said were Social Security payments.
“A guy was going south with a lot of pennies,” said McDonald. “I’m not an idiot. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I knew the ropes. Pennies add up.”
The true payoff was not in the daily take but in the opportunity to watch the games. At a time when there were no regular TV broadcasts of baseball games, McDonald had a rare chance to study the game. He watched closely, for instance, in the 1940s, when future Hall of Famer Joe “Ducky” Medwick went to the field for early batting practice, accompanied by a pitcher and an outfielder. Medwick had the outfielder camp out in left field and hit 15-20 balls at him, then repeat the cycle with the outfielder moving to center and right. This, McDonald realized as a teenager, was bat control.
Though his jobs with the Dodgers were largely menial, he got to meet and learn by watching players such as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, and Duke Snider. He also closely observed visiting players and tried to pick up on the details of how stars from around the league attacked their craft.
“I didn’t know where I was going, but I was intrigued by their performance, and I still to this day utilize what I learned about playing our wonderful game,” said McDonald. “It was such an incredible lesson.”
It was one that he readily shared over his decades in the game, much to the amazement of colleagues, who would find themselves not just engaged in sophisticated talent evaluation with McDonald but also traveling in a time machine of sorts.
“We’d be in the organization-wide meetings,” recalled Diamondbacks assistant general manager Jared Porter, formerly the Red Sox pro scouting director. “Joe is using comps in front of the whole group like Warren Spahn and Stan Musial. We’d have to take a step back and be, like, ‘Wow.’
“He’d take legendary, older players and actually be comping guys to them — not just saying it. I always found that fascinating. It was crazy.”
Procurer of information
McDonald’s front-office career started as a statistician with the expansion Mets in 1962, and he progressed as a head of scouting and player development while eventually serving as a GM with the Mets (1974-78), Cardinals (1982-85), and Tigers (1991-92).
He followed that 30-year executive career with nearly 30 more as a scouting fixture, including a run with the Red Sox that started in 2004. In 2012, the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation recognized him with a Legends of Scouting Award.
His stories are not merely those of players on the field but also first-hand experiences of the personalities who shaped the game.
Did you hear about the day he hung out with Ted Williams in his Boston apartment? The occasions when he served as a driver for Ty Cobb? The bet McDonald once made with Eddie Mathews that he’d one day have to release Willie Mays from the Mets? (Mathews didn’t think McDonald would have the guts to do it. He was wrong.) The time he had Tom Seaver — in an era when weightlifting was considered a sin — detail his complete offseason training regimen with weights to share with other pitchers? (McDonald still keeps the typed routine, and will offer a copy to young pitchers from other teams whom he gets to know in the stands — if he likes the pitcher.)
“No one has better baseball stories than Joe McDonald,” said Quattlebaum. “You can bring up anyone and Joe will have a story for you.”
Those stories had more of a purpose than merely animating the game’s history. McDonald became, in Quattlebaum’s words, a “silent assassin,” a wolf in sheep’s clothing whose tales unlock information from players, coaches, scouts, and executives of other teams that informed his evaluations.
“This drove Dave Dombrowski crazy when he was with Detroit — Joe would be right in the middle of the clubhouse with the coaches getting info because everyone was so comfortable with him,” said Quattlebaum. “He knew every manager. They’d see how passionate he is about it. Players would warm up to him, talk to him in the stands. He got a lot of info for us.”
Said Gimenez, “One time he called me and he was trying to work with something in Excel. This is the type of work, when you’re an assistant to the department, it’s the kind of work I can take care of on my own and take it off his plate.
“He insisted on not having me do it but on him learning. He wanted to learn how to use the program. Same thing with writing up reports. Anytime there was something I could easily do for him, he insisted on learning how to do it.
“He’s somebody who at the time was probably 86, 87 years old. He was like, ‘No, I don’t care. I’m going to learn this new thing, even if I only have to use it three more times in my career, I’m going to learn how to do it.’ ”
That determination to learn Excel was part of a larger commitment to excel, and part of the reason McDonald is an icon among his peers. He was not content that he had cracked a code decades ago; instead, convinced that the codes were always changing, he embraced the new challenge that greeted him every day at the park.
Others noted that he treated his last game Thursday with the same professionalism that typified his decades in the game. (McDonald excused himself from a phone call roughly four hours before first pitch, noting he had to get to the field to watch batting practice and early fielding drills.) Still, in a largely empty ballpark, his colleagues felt the need to recognize a beloved figure.
On behalf of Quattlebaum and the Red Sox, Moore delivered an envelope to McDonald at the start of the game. The scout opened it to remove his prize: A pink slip. The last day.
As McDonald left the park, staffers (everyone at the park in Lakeland knew McDonald) and scouts stood to applaud.
“I’ve had a charmed life, to say the least,” said McDonald. “So many good things have happened. I’m so fortunate.”
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com.