The first pitcher to get a tryout in Puerto Plata had a complete uniform, all red, but he had to share a glove with the other pitcher on the team. He was 18 and had only a little filling out to do, and the instant he threw his fastball Haak knew there was nothing there. Nonetheless, he gave the boy a full trial. A scout cannot waste time, but he cannot be discourteous either, or people will not talk mothers into saving their boys for him.
As it turned out, the first pitcher, ordinary as he was, was the best of the lot, but with each boy Haak permitted the whole repertoire: "Duro" (fastball), "Curva," and even "�Tiene otra pitch?" One teen-ager in short pants had a knuckler. Another, wearing rust-colored clock socks with his spikes, offered up what he assured Haak was a slider.
By now, spectators had drifted out of the rickety wooden grandstand and come down to take a closer view. The people formed a funnel from the pitcher's mound, much like a golf gallery, and they murmured approvingly when one pitcher zinged in a high hard one. Haak shook his head. "Old as I am," he said, "I know I could hit him. Never judge any pitcher on a high pitch. It's an optical illusion or something. It always looks better."
But he never said no to any of them. He just nodded and told them to go back to a seat in the dugout. There is a tone, however, that says "Don't call us, we'll call you" in any language, and the kids understood what the old man was telling them.
"Maybe somebody would give that first pitcher $100 and sign him," Haak said, "but after two days in a Florida training camp they'd be giving him a ticket home." Some scouts are indiscriminate, even unscrupulous, in that way. When a boy who has been tempted by a few bucks, a plane ticket to the Estados Unidos and maybe a shiny new glove and shoes (Haak always throws them in) fails and returns home, he never plays baseball again. Two years ago 55 players were signed out of the Dominican Republic, 45 out of Puerto Rico, another 21 out of Venezuela and Panama. Most of them are back in their hovels or jammed into New York tenements, hiding out from Immigration. But they are not playing baseball anymore.
Haak had his Dominican assistants shoo the visitors from the infield, posted himself near second base and told the would-be outfielders to line up near the fence in right and make some hard throws to third.
When Haak mustered out of the Navy in 1931, at 19, he had nothing but the tattoos on his forearms. His family had been impoverished when his father's salary was cut in half during the worst of the Depression. Haak turned to baseball. He caught, off and on, for the next 16 years, but though he terms himself "a good receiver," he had no speed, little power, and never got out of the minors. At his best, his baseball salary was $3,000 a year, which was also what Branch Rickey started him off at as a scout for the Dodgers in 1947.
"If I died tomorrow, I would be worth $300,000," Haak proclaims proudly, ravaging another hotel wastebasket with tobacco streams, "and every nickel of that is from baseball." Now Haak has a banker's belly and white hair. He lives with his third wife and his third child in Palm Springs, has another house in Carmel and trades in for a new Cadillac every year, which he promptly fits out with a cuspidor, since General Motors does not include that among its everyday options.
Aside from a gnarled finger and his bad knee, the years behind the bat treated Haak kindly. The only teeth he has lost and the only mark on his Spencer Tracy face came from an accident four years ago in a press box in Columbus, Ohio. He had turned to study a pretty spectator and got blind-sided by a foul ball. There is a moral there.
Haak clung to baseball because he had to, because it was his best shot. Maybe Haak does so well in the Caribbean with an alien people because he shares an experience of youth with the deprived teen-agers of Puerto Plata or Ponce. But even in the islands things are beginning to change. The white Latins suffer markedly less discrimination, have opportunities elsewhere and thus seldom make it as players. Also, even the slightest improvement in economic conditions generally diminishes dedication.