For the past 5 years nearly every voice message I received from legendary baseball Scout Gary Hughes ended with one of two phrases: keep swinging or get your rest.
Even though I knew he had repeated those words at least 50,000 times in the last five decades to baseball prospects--minor and major league players--I’m pretty sure he also breathed life and hope into just as many check-out clerks at local grocery stores and 7th graders who dreamed of being the next Willie Mays.
While it may seem silly, I felt comforted and special every time I heard him say: “keep swinging.” And after reading the plethora of tributes since his death several weeks ago by sports writers and friends like Bob Nightengale, Henry Schulman and Mark Gonzales—not to mention the hundreds of social media testimonials, it seems everyone he met felt special.
Whether you are a Hall of Famer or a 34th round draft pick, a front office worker or the guy that runs the hot dog stand in center field, Gary Hughes made you feel like somebody. And that was his secret sauce. And it is precisely why it has taken me several weeks to write about the man who seemed to know everyone and whom everyone called ‘friend.’
If someone had asked me to define a Scout 6 years ago, I would have said a Scout is someone who is loyal, trustworthy and can build a good campfire. That’s as much as I knew. After meeting Gary Hughes and literally hundreds (if not thousands) of other Scouts, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have been entirely wrong (although I’m not so sure about the whole campfire thing.)
In January 2015, Dennis Gilbert, co-founder of Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation allowed me and a crew to film interviews in the lobby before the annual Scout’s benefit dinner. That evening was when I met Gary Hughes and when Scouting For Diamonds, a feature doc film about the love story between scouts and baseball, began to take shape.
After meeting Hughes, I realized the story was much bigger than one relationship between a Hall of Famer (Wade Boggs) and a devoted Scout (George Digby). Hughes made me understand the romance between Scouts and baseball was wider and deeper and that while George Digby was an exceptional Scout and certainly beloved, there was a greater narrative that begged exploration.
During our first interview, Hughes and I bonded over our commitment to racial equity. He spoke passionately and directly about how the game had become expensive and how unbalanced the sport was becoming. He talked about how important it is for young people without means to have access to play the game and how the responsibility of a Scout (and the game) was to be certain that economics or race did not prevent boys and girls from being seen and given a fair chance to live out their dreams. And it is the reason why his family started a non-profit called the Gary Hughes Keep Swinging Foundation.
Within a few months of knowing Gary, every door in Major League Baseball began to open. When I texted, emailed or called to introduce myself and said “Gary Hughes sent me,” they often said yes before they heard the question. It didn’t take me long to figure out just how lucky I was that Dennis Gilbert had made the introduction.
For the next 5 years I met and interviewed baseball legends like Willie Mays, George Brett, Tommy LaSorda, Dusty Baker, Ben Zobrist, Billy Beane and many more who wanted to talk about the impact Scouts have on the game and the players they
signed. Scouts like Art Stewart, Don Pries, Mike Brito, Ralph Avila, Mel Didier, Dick Groch and yes, Gary Hughes.
It became clear we wouldn’t be able to make this film without Gary Hughes and we asked him to be Co-Producer on the project. He was ecstatic and his favorite part was talking about walking the Red carpet and how proud all the Scouts would be seeing themselves and hearing their stories on the big screen. He continued to attract colleagues and friends who took an interest in the film including actors Brian Doyle Murray and his brother Bill Murray.
Yes, Everyone loved Gary Hughes.
In 5 ½ years there were very few days that we didn’t talk at least twice a day. Gary was patient with my lack of knowledge and challenged my assumptions about baseball and the role of Scouts. Without ever being condescending, he recommended books and articles to get me up to speed. He advised me on questions to ask players and Scouts that were likely to inspire profound responses.
Hughes’s insight and commitment to Scouting and his deep knowledge of baseball was unparalleled. Having worked for over 10 major league teams in five decades, it wasn’t just the game or competition itself that he loved. To Hughes, baseball was relationships and family. Of course, he was proud of sons Sam Hughes, Yankees National Crosschecker, and Michael Rock, Visiting Clubhouse Manager for Miami Marlins and former Marlins Scout, Matt King. And yes, he beamed when talking about his grandson, Haydn King who currently plays with the SF Giants. But it wasn’t just those who are blood related that Gary felt pride for and considered family.
For Gary, relationships were life-long bonds and they were many and varied. One year while shooting at AZ Spring Training I met over a dozen childhood friends of Hughes' around a campfire after a day of baseball. I learned these were guys who had known each other for over six decades and gathered every year before the season started without fail. They took vacations together and supported one another through deaths, divorces and celebrated late in life victories. These men were family.
Undaunted by the trials and tribulations of independent filmmaking (which are unpredictable and pummeling), Gary’s enthusiasm was contagious and in spite of the ups and downs, he infected everyone--including former Pirates Manager, Clint Hurdle and former Red Sox President, David Dombrowski. Both of them stepped up to the plate to help us with a fundraising campaign so we could keep shooting.
During the past six years, I confess to almost giving up a dozen times after one crisis or another and I would question whether or not we would be able to finish the film. And every time Gary would call and tell me to keep swinging or when he knew I needed an extra lift he'd add: "atta boy, girl." And strangely, there was something in his tone that always reassured me that everything would be alright. And it was.
During these years, Gary lost Kathy, his lovely wife of 30 years while I said goodbye to both parents and a younger sister. Without any fanfare or discussion, Gary embraced me into his already large family of nine children saying “what’s one more”?
After getting an ominous cancer diagnosis a few months ago, our communication lessened and we stopped talking as much about the film or the red carpet or even baseball--apart from one night when outfielder, Jo Adell hit two homeruns for the Los Angeles Angels. Gary was thrilled for Adell, because he knew “he had it in him.”
And that sums up Gary Hughes. In the midst of wrestling with life and death, he reveled in the accomplishments of a young rookie who was struggling with a hitting slump—a young man he’d never met.
Soon our conversations turned mostly to family and how proud he was of all his children and grandchildren and how well they turned out and what great care his daughters were taking of him. We also talked about how a major diagnosis can be like an intimate conversation with spirit and how sometimes our role is just to sit and listen.
I would give anything to hear him tell another version of legendary Scout Mel Didier's cautionary tale about Dennis Eckersley's back door slider and how he helped the Dodgers win the 1988 World Series. And like all of those lucky enough to know him, I would prefer getting to listen to him say keep swinging for another 20 years.
But alas, on September 19th, 2020 Gary Hughes put down his radar gun to get his rest.
To contribute to the Gary Hughes Keep Swinging Foundation, a not for profit offering scholarships for minority students to attend his beloved Serra High School, click here.
Molly Secours is a filmmaker/writer/speaker who fell in love with the game of baseball because of Scouts and is currently directing the feature doc Scouting For Diamonds. Upon release of the film, she plans to carry a life size cut-out of Gary Hughes down the Red carpet to be placed in the front row for the premiere.
If you have a Gary Hughes tale you're burning to tell, feel free to write me: email@example.com