By Bill Pruden
Once upon a time, the ranks of major league General Managers were filled with former ballplayers whose years of on-field experience, sometimes further honed in the dugout as a manager, were central to their role as talent evaluators, while their experience also represented a connection with a fan base steeped in the history of the game.
However, as the game changed and especially as analytics memorialized in the book and movie “Moneyball” began to take over the game, a new brand of baseball leaders, ones with very different backgrounds, emerged. The recently completed World Series seemingly cemented the change, with the Texas Rangers and the Arizona Diamondbacks GMs, Chris Young and Mike Hazen, respectively, both boasting resumes topped by Ivy League degrees, ironically in this instance from the same school, Princeton. It is a credential that increasingly seems like a necessity in order to reach the upper echelons of baseball operations.
While he was not, in fact, the first Ivy grad to become a general manager - indeed a generation before, Sandy Alderson, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, and the predecessor and mentor to “Moneyball” hero Billy Beane, (who himself turned down Stanford to join the Mets after they made him a first-round pick in the 1980 draft) served as GM of the Oakland A's from 1983 to 1997 - the hiring by the Boston Red Sox in 2022 of 28-year-old Yale grad Theo Epstein, then the youngest general manager in baseball history, is generally seen as the starting point for the shift.
When two years later the Epstein-led Sox broke the infamous curse, winning their first World Series title in 86 years, his legacy was secured. Unsurprisingly, in the copycat baseball industry, a different legacy was soon evident as teams began to add Ivy to their front offices in a way that the tenders of the walls in Wrigley Field could only envy.
The names, if not their alma maters, are familiar to serious fans, and while not all are graduates of the “Ancient Eight” (all but Cornell were founded prior to American independence), many others can point to their own diplomas from comparable academically-renowned institutions - for example, Ben Cherington of Amherst – as further evidence of the change.
In the end, it appears to come down to changes in the game that put to a lie the long-held myth that baseball is not a business. Indeed, as the dean of baseball GMs, the New York Yankees’ Brian Cashman, has observed, baseball “is big business. Because we can measure everything that’s taking place on the field and analyze, in a very specific way, performances and projected performance, this should run like a Wall Street boardroom where you pursue assets. No different than you’re in the oil industry and you want to buy some oil rigs in the gulf.”
But while the wave of Ivy League-rooted leaders of varying playing backgrounds can be seen as a logical extension of that change, one fueled by the embrace of analytics first seen under Alderson and then Beane, what is less clear is how successful they have been and what else the trend portends for baseball.
There can be no denying that the massive increase in analytics in baseball has put a premium on brain power - the Ivy League’s long-time calling card - but not even the haughtiest of Ivy grads would claim they have a corner on the market, nor that it is the only part of the multifaceted skill set that a baseball operations head needs to succeed. Also, in the context of the game, its development, and the opportunities it offers, one must acknowledge that baseball has long been seen as the embodiment of the old boys’ network, indeed, the old white boys’ network, and the ability of women and Blacks to move into the ranks of leadership has not been enhanced by this recent trend.
Of course, the Ivy League’s member schools, which for the most part were all male for most of their history, with many of its members dragged into the world of coeducation kicking and screaming only in the early 1970s, have been similarly viewed, fairly or not, as exemplars of a comparable old boys’ network.
The reality is that in a sport as tied to its history as baseball, increased opportunities for women and Black males have not necessarily been enhanced by the Ivy wave that has hit the game’s front offices. Even her degree from the University of Chicago, a school regularly grouped with the Ivies in talking academic firepower, was not enough to speed Kim Ng’s ascent up the baseball ladder, a rise that, while culminating with her historic appointment as the first female GM, was treated by a mixed reaction: euphoria for the finally cracked glass ceiling but also bewilderment at what had taken so long given her extraordinary resume.
Indeed, in looking back at his own experience, Theo Epstein acknowledged that while he had “hired a Black scouting director…the majority of the people I’ve hired, if I’m being honest, have similar backgrounds as me and look a lot like me. That’s something I need to ask myself why. I need to question my own assumptions, my own attitudes. I need to find a way to be better.”
The numbers bear him out. Indeed, in addition to the one female GM in its history, the national pastime has had only a handful of Blacks GMs, with Houston’s Dana Brown, a graduate of Seton Hall University, being the only African American to currently hold the position.
Too, almost as an aside, some might argue that the Ivy-powered embrace of analytics has led to some of baseball’s popularity problems—defensive shifts, for example—an issue which, ironically, Ivy Leaguer Epstein, after breaking a second curse with the Chicago Cubs, was assigned to address when he left the Cubs and moved to the MLB front office.
In the end, like so much in baseball, the connection of baseball and the influence of Ivy League graduates in MLB front offices is ripe for debate, and wherever one lands, there can be no denying that they represent a major change in the game, one that deserves further and broader study.
Bill Pruden, Princeton ’76, is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for over six decades. He has been writing about baseball - primarily through SABR-sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works - for about a decade. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.