The Thinking Man’s Game?

For a college professor/baseball fan like myself, this news was hard to hear:

As of Wednesday morning, 917 players had appeared in at least one big-league game this season, according to STATS LLC. Of that group, only 39 — or 4.3 percent — were confirmed by their teams of MLB as having obtained four-year college degrees through a FOXSports.com survey of clubs.

The Arizona Diamondbacks lead the way, with seven members of their forty-man rosters holding degrees. Second place is shared by the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros, with four each (10% of their rosters). My beloved Twins have just one college graduate, new arrival Jamey Carroll (Univ. of Evansville). Several teams have none: Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Oakland A’s, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, and Washington Nationals.

Baseball player for Wheaton College
A batter for Wheaton College (IL) – Creative Commons (Bob Haarmans)

In his column on the subject, FOX Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi didn’t compare and contrast the baseball data with similar figures for other sports. I suspect football has the highest percentage — a quick pass through the first three rounds of the 2012 draft found that at least half the players drafted were seniors (not counting “rising seniors” — and, of course, being a “senior” doesn’t necessarily equal “graduate”). About one-third of the players drafted by NBA teams in 2011 were college seniors. And anecdotally, it doesn’t seem uncommon for players in either sport to return and finish school. I would guess that hockey is similar to baseball, perhaps even lower, as it has a similar kind of developmental system, with many players never attending college and others leaving after 1-3 years.

Morosi devoted much of the rest of his column to exploring the reasons for the relatively low educational level achieved by major league baseball (MLB) players. Most important, these athletes can be drafted by big league clubs at several points: after high school, after junior college, after their junior season in college, after their senior season, or any season in which they’re 21 years old. With the money and opportunity available at any one of those moments, it’s not surprising that few pass up multiple chances at a payday and complete their bachelor’s degrees before starting a professional career.

During the Minnesota Twins’ radio pregame show yesterday, a discussion of the upcoming draft turned to a prospect who was a senior in college — the surprise in the host’s voice was palpable.

Now, as Morosi points out, many baseball players have college tuition written into their contracts: about 60% of American, Canadian, and Puerto Rican amateurs signed in 2011, according to MLB. But few ever use that money to complete a degree, for a variety of reasons.

Collins, The Last Best LeagueIn his 2004 account of several college players spending a summer in the famous Cape Cod League — a six-team circuit that gives scouts a chance to see how college prospects handle superior competition (and wooden bats) — journalist Jim Collins found that the system worked primarily to the benefit of baseball’s owners. Of the package that players call “money plus school,” Collins writes:

A decade ago, major league owners began pooling scholarship money to reimburse drafted players for remaining college expenses. The arrangement was a win for the NCAA, which benefited from the good press. But it was a windfall for the club owners. The scholarship was reflected in the overall value of the bonus, yet most players never took advantage of the free tuition. Consequently, the major league clubs had saved millions in true bonus dollars since the program began. They had set a cap of seven years on the time after signing that the money could be used for tuition, but they made it difficult for the players to get the necessary spare time on campus. Teams highly encourage—virtually required—young players to play in fall or winter baseball instructional leagues. Spring training started in February, and the playing season stretched from April to September. Many players soon married and started families. Who’d make time to swing two or three remaining semesters? (The Last Best League, p.  29)

Morosi adds one more reason:

…teenagers who encounter instant (if not enduring) wealth tend to think about other aspects of their new contracts. For them, to place great emphasis on the scholarship plan would sound something like failure. Who cares? I’m going to make it and get rich anyway. Well, not necessarily.

This is all troubling, primarily because of what Morosi hints at in that last sentence: most of the players drafted who sign professional contracts will never come close to the major leagues (Collins’ book is primarily about the brutal winnowing that takes place from Little Leagues up the pyramid to the majors), and those who make it don’t tend to have especially long careers. Retire at half your life expectancy and you’re a grizzled veteran. So while I don’t believe that college is primarily about career preparation, it’s certainly a significant enough component of the experience that, as a fan and professor, I worry for most professional athletes as they enter the next phase of their lives.

Gould, Triumph and Tragedy in MudvilleBut simply as a baseball-loving egghead, hearing that fewer than one in twenty MLB players has a four-year degree also flies in the face of the National Pastime being “the thinking man’s game.” Historians like me revel in the game’s rich sense of tradition, and the ways in which it has served as a mirror for U.S. (and, increasingly, Latin American and Asian) history. Social scientists and mathematicians (or evolutionary biologists like the late Stephen Jay Gould) find themselves on familiar footing in a sport that lends itself more than any other to statistical analysis.

And novelists, poets, critics, journalists, and other writers have always had a special place in their hearts for the game, as one notices in Ken Burns’ documentary ode to the sport, featuring talking heads from scribblers like Studs Terkel, Donald Hall, George Plimpton, Shelby Foote, Gerald Early, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Roger Angell, and Dan Okrent. In an earlier post on the literature of the game I mentioned the Fireside Books of Baseball, anthologies that featured everyone from John Updike to Philip Roth, James Thurber to Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner to Ogden Nash, Red Smith to Jimmy Breslin. I defy anyone to produce a similar collection on football.

So when confronted with the realities of the baseball factory system, we intellectuals-fans tend to treasure the stories of players like:

  • Curtis Granderson
    Curtis Granderson – Creative Commons (Keith Allison)

    Curtis Granderson, the Yankees all-star and University of Illinois-Chicago business graduate featured in Morosi’s story as a counterpoint to the 4.3% statistic. Granderson was so committed to finishing his degree (I think I’m required to mention at this point that his parents are both schoolteachers) that he even had a minor league manager proctor one of his exams. According to Morosi’s column, Granderson has a standing offer to continue his education at the University of Chicago, likely in educational administration.

  • Former Twins reliever Craig Breslow, now one of the seven degree-holding Diamondbacks. A Yale graduate who majored in biochemistry and molecular biophysics and was admitted to medical school at NYU, Breslow topped a 2010 Sporting News list of the twenty smartest athletes. (Five other baseball players joined Breslow on the list, placing the sport second behind football, with seven.)
  • Longtime Phillies outfielder Doug Glanville, who has been a semi-regular columnist in the New York Times since 2008. (I especially admire his piece on baseball as a multi-national, multi-cultural game.) He left the University of Pennsylvania after three years, but returned to finish a degree in systems engineering.
  • Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, featured this past weekend in the Times‘ “Catching Up with…” series of profiles. Another in a long line of book-writing baseball players, Dickey expressed his admiration for everyone from Polish-French composer Frédéric Chopin to Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, plus a literary blog called Chapter16.org. (An Academic All-American majoring in English literature, Dickey didn’t finish the University of Tennessee, but writes in his memoir about his post-baseball ambitions to become a teacher.)
  • David Anderson, a right-handed pitcher for the Bethel University Royals, who will be graduating this Saturday with a double-major in History and Political Science. About five hours from now I’ll have the honor to see him join seven other, non-baseball playing peers in presenting their Senior Seminar research projects, David’s on the role of George F. Kennan in the development of containment as a doctrine of U.S. foreign policy.

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