How Yogi Berra Helped to Create the First Sports Agent

AP
Yogi Berra

At the height of the Yankee great's career, his pal Frank Scott came up with a new way for him and other baseball players to supplement their then-meager salaries — and a new profession was born.

When Yogi Berra, who died Sept. 22 at the age of 90, was the New York Yankees’ star catcher in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he spent his off-seasons working — as the head waiter in a restaurant, in a shoe factory, driving a Coca-Cola delivery truck and, with his teammate and close pal Phil Rizzuto, selling suits at a clothing store and running a bowling alley in New Jersey. Berra was hardly the only sports hero making ends meet with winter jobs back in the days before Major League players were earning massive salaries — now as high as $30 million a year. Ted Williams ran a fishing tackle company. Bob Feller sold insurance. Roy Campanella operated a liquor store. And Stan Musial was employed at his father-in-law’s grocery store.

At the time, players’ salaries peaked at about $30,000, and sports-related ancillary income virtually did not exist. Players received only $250 and a clock in return for licensing their image to the Bowman baseball card company, and product endorsements by athletes were uncommon, outside of an occasional appearance in a print advertisement for cigarettes or on a Wheaties box (for which they would be paid a nominal fee and receive a case of the cereal every six weeks).

Then along came a man named Frank Scott. He didn’t look anything like Don Draper — he was described in his 1998 New York Times obituary as “a short, feisty, impeccably dressed man” — but he was most assuredly one of the era’s most inventive Mad Men. Indeed, from his office at the Biltmore Hotel on Madison Avenue, which was decorated with scores of photographs of baseball stars, Scott made it his “mission to make the term ‘in lieu of cash’ obsolete,” as veteran sports writer Jerry Crasnick once put it.

Born in Pittsburgh in October 1917, Scott grew up loving sports, even though he wasn’t athletically gifted. At the University of Pittsburgh he served as the student manager of the 1937 Rose Bowl-winning football team. When the team’s coach was hired away by an NFL team from Brooklyn in 1940, Scott joined him in the capacity of traveling secretary. Then World War II broke out and Scott served in the Navy, returning stateside in 1945, just as Dan Topping, the Brooklyn team’s owner, purchased, with two others, the New York Yankees.

In 1947, Scott was hired as the Yankees’ road secretary, a job that required him to spend considerable time with the team’s players and to serve as their representative during the season’s constant travels. Just entering his 30s, he was near in age to — and developed close relationships with — many of the Yankees. In 1948, he eloped with Bette Sheppard in center fielder Joe DiMaggio’s car. He frequently socialized with pitcher Whitey Ford. And the Scotts and the Berras became particularly close friends.

All of this vexed George Weiss, the Yankees’ general manager, who was perpetually concerned about his players’ off-the-field activities and “routinely” had them trailed by private detectives, according to one baseball historian. Weiss demanded that Scott serve as an informant about players’ late-night activities, something Scott refused to do. So, according to David Halberstam’s book Summer of ’49, “After the 1950 season, Scott and Weiss had an angry meeting in which Weiss accused Scott of disloyalty. Scott protested that he had been loyal to both the Yankees and the management. ‘You don’t get paid to be on the players’ side,’ Weiss said, ‘and you took the players’ side.’ Weiss won the argument — he fired Scott.”

Around this same time, the Scotts visited the Berras at their home, and Berra’s wife, Carmen, observed that Frank wasn’t wearing a watch. “She excused herself and reappeared with a whole tray of wristwatches, at least 20, and told me to take my pick,” Scott later recalled in a 1961 New York Times Magazine profile of him by Gay Talese. “That’s how those scoundrels had been paying off Yogi for personal appearances. He didn’t know any better.” Scott, however, realized that the gifters of the watches could and should offer better compensation for their association with a popular athlete than watches bought in bulk. The wheels started turning in his mind: Perhaps he could work with players off the field to capitalize on the fame they derived from their achievements on it.

He formed Frank Scott Associates, with Berra as his first client, and soon had the catcher “building a war chest unlike any other player from the period,” according to Berra’s biographer. Berra was making speeches (he “probably made about $2,500 from speeches in his first year,” wrote Halberstam); personal appearances at banquets for $200 a pop (before his death, the 90-year-old was getting $50,000); cameos in the audiences of The Phil Silvers Show and The Ed Sullivan Show (he and others were paid just to be there, be introduced and take bows); and endorsements (he signed a 15-year deal promoting Yoo-Hoo).

Word quickly spread that Scott could help players make extra money and soon he was at the helm of “the fastest growing business in sports,” as the Associated Press characterized it in 1957. Scott’s business spread far beyond just the Yankees. “If you were a guy of some prominence on another team, Whitey Ford might say, ‘Gee, you ought to call Frank Scott,' " recalls Marty Appel, who joined the Yankees organization in the 1960s initially answering Mickey Mantle’s fan mail, but eventually rising to become the team’s PR director in the 1970s. “He was the guy to see if you were looking for some extra money, some side income.”

Scott’s client list grew to include 91 baseball stars — along with Berra, DiMaggio and Mantle (Scott struck a $1,500 deal for Mantle with Bowman gum company after a UPI photographer snapped a picture of the center fielder blowing a bubble in the outfield), he signed Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Robin Roberts and Don Newcombe, as well as people from the worlds of football (Frank Gifford and coach Vince Lombardi), basketball (Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson), swimming and golf. It was a one-man operation, but it grossed him roughly $250,000 per year — 10 percent of any deals he made for his clients. Notably, Scott never attempted to serve the primary function of sports agents today: contract negotiations. According to the Saturday Evening Post, “Scott knew an agent’s place. He was too smart to meddle in the players’ salary debates with the ball club.” It would have gotten him banned from clubhouses.

“He had deals here, there and everywhere,” recalls former Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, now 89. Scott landed Branca a Wheaties endorsement, a TV commercial hawking Buster Brown shoes, a deal recording a song called “Brooklyn Dodgers Jump” with teammates Erv Palica and Carl Furillo and a constant stream of personal appearances. “He’d call me and had a deal for me to go do something, make an appearance or whatever. I’d say at least two appearances a month.”

Scott never lacked for ideas, and players liked and trusted him — he and Berra, for instance, never had a contract formalizing their business relationship, as they were happy to work on a handshake deal instead. “He could talk to the players — almost everybody knew who he was,” Branca says. “He was a good guy, a very good guy.” Adds Appel, “He was a personable guy, a charming guy.” And he was attentive, refusing to take on partners at his company because, he explained once, “This has to be a one-man business because you have to have the respect of the athlete and the agency with which you are doing business.”

Towards the end of the 1960s, as America’s obsession with celebrity was exploding, athletes started demanding better compensation for their work and agents were making it their primary focus to get it for them. So Scott transitioned away from his usual business model. He was offered and accepted a job as a senior executive with the Major League Baseball Players Association, and he turned his focus to developing innovative licensing contracts that spread the wealth among all players.

Few in the general public ever heard of Scott during his lifetime — he died on June 28, 1998, following a fall at a nursing home where he was recovering from a stroke — and few of his clients are still around to keep his memory alive. But 17 years after Scott’s death, the business model he created is thriving — only now, entire companies such as Steiner Sports and IMG (which was acquired by WME in 2013), try to do what Frank Scott once did by himself. “I suppose today people would look back and say it was pretty small, his empire and the deals that he got,” Appel says. “But for its time, he was the most prominent figure in the business. Nobody did it better than Frank Scott.”

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