The Ivy League and MLB


Ryan Lavarnway is back in the majors, and perhaps it took a philosophy major from Yale to figure out what’s wrong with the Red Sox.

Lavarnway didn’t do much about it, grounding out as a pinch-hitter Monday at Atlanta. Two things were rare about the game: the Red Sox won, after 10 straight losses, and judging by crowd noise, it was a rare Sox home game in the South.

Lavarnway is what might seem like the rarest of major leaguers — an Ivy Leaguer. But he makes at least five on major league rosters this year — Princeton’s Chris Young (Seattle) and Will Venable (San Diego), Yale’s Lavarnway and Craig Breslow (both Boston) and Dartmouth’s Ed Lucas (Miami) — and that’s assuming I’m smart enough to have found them all. (Edit: I’m not. Braves pitcher David Hale also went to Princeton, which makes six Ivy Leaguers in the bigs.)

That’s not including Dartmouth’s Brad Ausmus, in his first year managing the Tigers just four seasons after concluding an 18-year playing career, or Ross Ohlendorf of Princeton, a veteran of seven big-league seasons in AAA with Washington. And last year was the final of 16 seasons for former Penn quarterback Mark DeRosa, who would probably still be a better second baseman for Toronto than Ryan Goins.

Mental and physical skills aren’t mutually exclusive, as Ivies in baseball have demonstrated for years. Two players from Columbia, Eddie Collins and Lou Gehrig, were elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939 (Gehrig by special election just months after forced to stop playing).

None of the current Ivy Leaguers will do that, but Breslow has a 2.93 ERA in nine seasons as a lefty reliever (despite this year’s 5.51) and pitched seven shutout innings in the ALDS and ALCS last year; Young, baseball’s tallest player at 6-10, has won 57 games, four of them this year after overcoming years of arm injuries; Venable, son of big-league outfielder Max, had a career-high 22 homers and 22 steals last year, though is struggling at .190 this year; infielder Lucas played 11 seasons in the minors before being promoted and is batting .361 vs. lefties in the 100 games he’s played; Lavarnway, whose catching prospect status has dimmed at age 26, has a career .207 average but once said, according to ESPN.com, “I think that Yale is an excellent Plan B.” (Edit: Hale has a 1.27 ERA and had yet to allow a home run in his first 49.2 innings.)

It’s nice to have alternatives.

It’s not just baseball. Nine Ivy Leaguers opened the 2013 season on NFL rosters, Jeremy Lin is doing OK for himself in the NBA, and the number is closer to 20 in the NHL even though two schools (Penn and Columbia) don’t play the sport.

It’s also not new, either. Consider:

  • The Ivy League supplied the top pick of the 1974 amateur draft in Bill Almon of Brown by San Diego. He made the majors in three months and batted .254 over 16 seasons, though maybe later first-rounders Gary Templeton, Dale Murphy, Willie Wilson or Rick Sutcliffe had careers more worthy.
  • Gene Larkin, second among Columbia first basemen to Gehrig and second among Larkins to Barry, had the game-winning hit in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series to plate the only run of the Twins’ 1-0 win for Jack Morris over the Braves. Larkin played seven seasons for the Twins, mostly as a backup first baseman/fourth outfielder/DH, batted .266 and won two World Series. He led the AL in only one category — he was hit by 15 pitches in 1988. Guessing he didn’t learn that at Columbia.
  • Penn’s Doug Glanville played nine seasons as a centerfielder, batted .277 and stole 168 bases (patience wasn’t on his syllabus; he walked only 208 times). Glanville is an analyst on ESPN and an author whose book has been praised by Buzz Bissinger and whose work is published by the New York Times. His recent story in Atlantic on a racial profiling experience in Connecticut is a must-read.
  • Yale’s Ron Darling won 136 games and a World Series for the ’86 Mets, but is almost as famous for one he lost. Darling threw 11 no-hit innings against Frank Viola and St. John’s in the 1981 NCAA tourney, but lost 1-0 in 12 in a game made famous by The New Yorker’s Roger Angell, who watched with Hall of Fame pitcher “Smokey” Joe Wood, then 91. “For 42 years now I’ve been involved in baseball,” Viola told the New York Times in 2012. “To this day I’ve never seen a better-pitched game.”
  • Dartmouth’s Red Rolfe might be the winningest Ivy Leaguer. Rolfe was the Yankees’ third baseman as the team transitioned from Gehrig to DiMaggio and won five World Series. Rolfe was a four-time All-Star, batted .289 and had 1,394 hits — 15 of them triples in 1936 and 46 of them doubles in 1939 to lead the AL
  • Moe Berg spoke more languages than he had Ivy degrees (Princeton undergrad, Columbia law school) and he couldn’t hit in any of them as the old joke goes. He could catch in all of them. He played 15 seasons before World War II and threw out 43% of opposing base stealers. He hit just .243 and slugged only .299 with six homers and 78 walks.
  • This year’s group will probably soon have company. Eight Ivy Leaguers were drafted last year, 12 in 2012, eight in 2011. When the Cubs trade Jeff Samardzjia, 2011 eighth-rounder Kyle Hendricks of Dartmouth (3.21 ERA, 56 strikeouts in 56 AAA innings) might take his place in their rotation.

    Hendricks was drafted by Texas and traded with third base prospect Christian Villanueva for Ryan Dempster — the Matt Garza trade isn’t the only bad one Jon Daniels has made with the Cubs. Before long, it may not take an Ivy League degree to determine that.

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    One Response to The Ivy League and MLB

    1. Mike says:

      It’s comforting to know Lavarnway will have a future earning capacity in some other form with his Yale degree, since it won’t come from baseball that much longer.

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