Baseball Fans Pursue Fields of Dreams
As a freshman, Peter Bendix, A08, described his career goals by writing, “I would like to be the general manager of the Cleveland Indians baseball team.”
Wow. What academic major prepares you for that job? He chose American studies, learning about literature, history, political science, and more; today, he is vice president for baseball development for the Tampa Bay Rays. Cleveland may soon need a general manager, and then we’ll see. But still, how did he get from a college campus to a baseball team’s front office in the first place?
His story is actually not as strange as you might think, especially once you understand that the study of our national pastime has a well-deserved place in academe. Indeed, an account of how professional baseball led the way to racial integration should be part of our country’s narrative.
It all started in 1944, when the reactionary commissioner of baseball Kennesaw Mountain Landis died suddenly, and the 16 major league team owners scrambled to find “the right man” to succeed him. They selected a Kentucky politician, Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler, who, it was assumed, would keep their franchises all white. But one of these 16 businessmen harbored a secret. Branch Rickey, majority owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted to integrate Major League Baseball. And to everyone’s surprise, he found an ally in the new commissioner.
Rickey knew that the first Black ballplayer in the major leagues would have to possess not only exceptional athletic skills but also extraordinary character to overcome the hostility he would face. He found the man and the martyr in Jackie Robinson and signed him with Chandler’s blessing. When the 1947 season began, Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field wearing the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was more than 15 years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, yet in the world of baseball, a social revolution was already in the works.
Unfortunately, there were, in those days, no serious historians of baseball to chronicle what was going on and put it into context. But the situation would change after Harold Seymour, a former batboy for the Dodgers, entered graduate school at Cornell in the late 1940s. Seymour earned his PhD in 1956 with a doctoral thesis that told the history of baseball to 1890, and four years later he published his book Baseball: The Early Years, ushering in a new era for baseball on campus. For the first time, students could engage with the sport not only on the playing field but in the classroom and library.
As it turned out, a lot of college kids had grown up playing stickball in the schoolyard with pink Spalding High-Bounce balls and, no matter what the color of their skin, dreaming that they were Jackie Robinson. Some, like Jules Tygiel, a Brooklyn-born child of Jewish immigrants, would go on to academic careers and refuse to separate their childhood passion from their professional lives. Tygiel was 8 years old when his beloved Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. He later followed them west, received a doctorate in history from UCLA, and, in 1983, published the first scholarly book on Jackie Robinson, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy. In his preface, he voiced sentiments that surely resonated with many of his fellow academics: “Baseball is not the stuff upon which successful careers in history are normally made. Writing this book has allowed me to combine my vocation as a historian and my avocation as a baseball fanatic.”
The new generation of historians expanded course offerings at law and business schools, and in science, social sciences, and humanities departments, enriching disciplines from literature to physics. University presses at Princeton, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Harvard, and Virginia wanted their books; colleagues wanted their syllabi.
Members of the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR, founded in 1971, added immeasurably to our understanding of integration, Jim Crow, anti-trust law, and other social issues. Then one of SABR’s more creative members, Bill James, invented sabermetrics, which took baseball statistics beyond the box score. Its innovative approach to collecting and analyzing data helped teams make more strategic decisions about how to play, and the sophisticated number-crunching it required brought baseball into mathematics and computer science curricula.
By the year 2000, 400 colleges and universities were offering courses with the word “baseball” somewhere in the description.
Tufts got on the bandwagon relatively early, thanks in no small part to Gerald Gill, who was born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1948—the year after Robinson made history with the Dodgers. Gill arrived at Tufts in 1980 as a historian of Black America with a special focus on sports in American history, and for 27 years he opened the minds of thousands of students. After he died in 2007, I began teaching a senior seminar listed as History 88, America and the National Pastime.
Meanwhile, Andy Andres, a statistician at Boston University with a PhD from the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts, had come to the Ex College in 2004 to teach one of the very first college courses on sabermetrics. The next year he took two of his Tufts students—one of them Peter Bendix—to a SABR conference in Toronto, where they presented their research. Those students soon created an extracurricular club called BAT (Baseball Analysis at Tufts) that worked on projects for baseball technology companies. As for Andres, he continues to teach sabermetrics at Tufts, but more recently he has also taken his BU course online, where he now reaches more than 13,000 students a year.
Another Jumbo, Bill Nowlin, A66, G80, co-founder of the indie record label Rounder, has grown into one of the giants of American baseball research, publishing dozens of books and chapters and serving as the vice president of SABR from 2004 to 2016.
And John Casey, A80, has helped make Tufts a force to be reckoned with on the diamond itself. As head coach of the school’s team for the past 38 years, he has presided over six New England Small College Athletic Conference championships. Five of his players have gone on to professional ball, among them Randy Newsom, A04, who signed with the Red Sox. In 2020, Casey was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
So, while there has never been a “baseball major” at Tufts, courses quietly embedded in the liberal arts curriculum and opportunities available outside of it have been gems for those with a love of the game. Anything with an emphasis on sabermetrics has been especially apropos, given the extent to which teams today rely on that analytical tool to keep themselves competitive.
Significantly, too, the list of Tufts grads who have found a professional niche in baseball is long. Besides Bendix, there’s Matt McGrath, A11, who earned his degree in sociology and moved into a job as assistant director for player development with the Los Angeles Dodgers. A fellow humanities student, English major Jeremy Greenhouse, A11, took three undergraduate baseball courses, including the one on sabermetrics with Andres, and the knowledge he gained has stood him in good stead in his role as assistant director of research and development for the Chicago Cubs.
Economics degrees are remarkably common among Jumbos who have made their way in the baseball business. Mike DeBartolo, A06, graduated with an economics major, went to business school at Columbia, and wound up incorporating some unconventional independent research—a study of Major League Baseball’s rules for how teams can use their funds during draft season—into his work toward an MBA. Today he’s the Washington Nationals’ assistant general manager for baseball operations. Another economics major, Alex Merberg, A15, spent one of his college years playing baseball himself. That background, combined with his grasp of complex statistics, has helped make him an insightful director of baseball operations for the Cleveland Indians (which are in the process of changing their name).
Ethan Bein, A17, who majored in quantitative economics and math, wowed the Milwaukee Brewers ballclub with his statistics acumen and was hired by them before he even graduated. He’s currently their senior analyst for baseball research and development. Joe Harrington, A15, who supplemented his own major in quantitative economics with a minor in entrepreneurial leadership, is now the Los Angeles Dodgers’ assistant director of minor league operations.
Tufts’ School of Engineering has been represented in the front offices of Major League Baseball as well. With a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in biomechanical engineering, Will Vandenberg, E14, EG15, became a biomechanical quantitative analyst for the Dodgers.
And finally there’s the case of Julia Prusaczyk, E18, who loves her work as a baseball development analyst for the St. Louis Cardinals. A chemical engineering major and member of the women’s track and field team at Tufts, she once thought her “dream job” lay in the realm of “cosmetics product development”—at least that’s what her bio on the gojumbos website said. But she enrolled in the Ex College sabermetrics class, followed up by joining BAT, and ultimately discovered a whole different vision.
Who’d have thought it? Probably nobody, and in fact Prusaczyk’s trajectory argues against the very idea of a well-paved career path for one and all. Educating broadly, providing plenty of chances for a change of heart, doesn’t just allow students to follow a dream. It can also help them find a new one.