By Paul Feinberg '85, Photos by Michael Grecco
Published Jul 1, 2013 8:00 AM
UCLA's baseball legacy only begins with Jackie Robinson. For decades, the national pastime and the university have remained a potent double play as Bruins continue to make contributions on the field and in the front office.
Here's a little-known fact about one of UCLA's most famous alumni: Baseball was easily the worst of the four sports Jackie Robinson played at the university. He could barely hit in his only varsity season as a Bruin baseballer, limping in with an anemic .097 batting average.
Still, Robinson was good enough to play in the Negro Leagues. And in 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed the young player to a minor league contract. The rest of the Robinson legend is, well, legendary.
On April 15, 1947, he broke the "color barrier" in Major League Baseball, changing the game and the country forever. Robinson's No. 42 is retired by every team in the major leagues. No baseball player is honored by more statues across the country (with three of the seven located at places where they named the whole ballpark after him, including the home of today's UCLA Bruins baseball team). And, of course, 42, the movie based on his life, was a smash hit this spring.
But here's an even lesser-known fact: UCLA's impact on the national pastime may have begun with Robinson—but it sure didn't end with him.
There have been Bruins who went on to have successful careers in the Show, of course. But the rosters of big-league clubs also have included and continue to feature many executives who were UCLA alumni, and several of those have had significant impact on the game. Even UCLA faculty have made contributions to America's rich baseball history. Here's a lineup of milestones in the happy marriage between Bruins and baseball.
Plays, Players and Managers
In 2004, the Boston Red Sox faced playoff elimination against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Former Bruin Dave Roberts '95 entered the game in the ninth as a pinch runner.
Roberts stole second and then scored the tying run on a single, and the Sox won in extra innings. Roberts' theft, or "The Steal" as it will forever be known in Beantown, was the catalyst that freed Boston from almost a century of humiliation. They would go on to take the pennant and then win their first World Series since 1918 (in 1920, the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees and the infamous "Curse of the Bambino" was born).
Bruin skippers have made their mark, as well. Gary Adams '62, M.S. '64 took over the ball club in 1975, John Wooden's last year as men's basketball coach. When the season ended, the administration made Adams a request. Would he be willing to share an office with Wooden?
Adams' response: "How much do I have to pay you?"
The pair shared an office for seven and a half years.
"We talked about baseball; it was his favorite sport," says Adams, who recently published a book called Conversations with Coach Wooden: On Baseball, Heroes, and Life. "The biggest thing I learned from Coach Wooden is that life is not about winning, as most people think. It's about being at your best when your best is needed," says Adams, who won two national titles at UC Irvine before coming to UCLA. More significantly, Adams began to prioritize his players' big league ambitions—a fact often leveled as an accusation by fans who wanted to see the program prioritize championships.
For example, Adams' players would take batting practice with wooden bats, even though aluminum bats were used in college games. He also gave his players the "green light" to steal bases and allowed his catchers and pitchers to call their own game.
The focus paid off. Thirty Adams seasons produced 37 major league players, including Roberts; Los Angeles Dodgers all-time home run leader Eric Karros '93; Los Angeles Angels World Series MVP Troy Glaus; 17-year veteran and two-time All-Star Jeff Conine; and Chase Utley, who hit five home runs for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 World Series.
John Savage took over the UCLA team in 2005. In eight seasons, his Bruins have reached the NCAA Regionals six times, a Super Regional three times and have twice advanced to the College World Series. In 2010, they were runner-ups, falling to South Carolina in the series' final game. Along the way, they've forged an identity, Savage says, rooted in power pitching and solid defense.
Ironically, Savage considers Major League Baseball one of his biggest competitors, as professional teams draft high school players committed to UCLA. One player who spurned the pros to sign with UCLA is pitcher Gerrit Cole, even though he had been selected in the first round by the Yankees right out of high school. Along with pitcher Trevor Bauer, Cole led the Bruins to the 2010 CWS, and Bauer won the Golden Spikes Award as Player of the Year in 2011. That same year, Cole and Bauer were selected first and third overall in the pro draft, the first time two pitchers from the same school were picked that high.
Earlier this year, UCLA Law School Professor Stuart Banner published The Baseball Trust: A History of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, a scholarly contribution to the literature of the sport. Banner, a legal historian, examines the landmark 1922 Supreme Court decision that established the exemption and its implications on the game for more than 90 years.
Banner says that impact is in part rooted in the court's opinion at the time—that the sport was not interstate commerce. This explanation puts to rest the notion that baseball's exemption was due to its stature as the national pastime. "It's a holdover from an earlier era of constitutional law," Banner says. "Congress could amend the exemption and change it, but they don't."
Congress chooses not to act, he explains, for several related reasons. The players have unionized and reach agreements with the owners via collective bargaining—and agreements reached through collective bargaining are exempt from antitrust scrutiny. The two most important effects of baseball's antitrust exemption today are a limitation on franchise movement and baseball's ability to operate its own minor league system. Minor league players are not unionized, which would make the minor league system susceptible to antitrust scrutiny if the exemption were lost.
"If that happened, the major leagues would stop funding the minor leagues," Banner says. "So the baseball teams lobby to keep the exemption in place. And the minor league teams are in a lot of congressional districts. So, don't expect Congress to remove baseball's antitrust exemption any time soon."
Artie Harris '60, M.S. '64 has lived a baseball life. He joined the Bruins' freshman team in 1956 and played four different positions in four years, finishing up as center fielder and team captain.
After serving as an officer in Vietnam, Harris returned home and earned an M.S. in kinesiology at UCLA, where he taught for two years. He landed a job as a teacher and coach for four years at his high school alma mater, Fairfax High, and then began coaching baseball and football at Venice High School. He moved on to West L.A. College and started their baseball program. In 1986, the school eliminated the sport and Harris joined the Dodgers' scouting department, where he still helps the team prepare for the annual baseball draft.
With today's conversation about player evaluation in baseball revolving around numerical analysis, Harris remains resolutely old school. He even played a version of himself in the Brad Pitt hit Moneyball, portraying a veteran scout who cannot abide the statistical approach adopted by the Oakland A's.
"Everybody is doing statistical analysis," Harris says. "But teams are not going away from old-fashioned scouting. Certain things are empirical, like the radar gun showing how fast a pitcher throws. But projecting what a high school kid is going to be like when he's 22 years old—that's scouting."
If Harris represents a traditional approach, Thad Levine M.B.A. '99 and Brian O'Halloran M.B.A. '02 are the new wave: M.B.A.s hired to work in the front office, once the sole province of ex-players and coaches. Levine is an assistant general manager with the Texas Rangers; O'Halloran holds the same position with the Red Sox and also holds the title of vice president.
"As baseball became a bigger business, owners became more interested in having people around them who were similar to the people involved in their other interests," O'Halloran says. Levine says that today's baseball clubs run the baseball side of their operations like entrepreneurial ventures, which led to a new emphasis on executives with business skills commingling with baseball people.
"The baseball side of an organization represents the expenses and, in the past, there were no checks and balances. There were often inefficiencies in how things were done," says Levine. "By bringing in people with more business knowledge, teams could eliminate losses and eradicate the inefficiencies."
Jackie Robinson may be the most famous connection between the Bruins and baseball, but the combination has been strengthened and expanded over the years on the field, in the front office and even in the ivory tower. Only one distinction, really, remains. But it's a big one.
For all of his success, Gary Adams never won a national championship. For his successor Savage, then, preserving the university's admirable legacy in the sport is not enough. His team is on a mission, and they are getting closer and closer to their goal with every season and every pitch. Capturing that elusive national title, in fact, may be the best play UCLA baseball will ever make.