Inside the rise of MLB’s Ivy League culture: Stunning numbers and a question of what’s next

MLB

AT A TIME when industries across America are facing a racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the rising support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein spoke out recently about the homogeneity of today’s Major League Baseball front offices. Including his own.

“I’ve hired a Black scouting director, [a] farm director in the past, but the majority of people that I’ve hired, if I’m being honest, have similar backgrounds as me and look a lot like me,” Epstein said earlier this month. “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.”

MLB’s analytics revolution has brought sweeping changes to the game on the field, from the proliferation of launch-angle data, which has led to players swinging more for the fences, to the implementation of defensive shifts against batters, something that was an anomaly not much longer than a decade ago. And it has fundamentally altered how teams approach roster construction, with a heavier emphasis on young, cheaper stars.

But the rise of analytics also has resulted in another massive shift: an influx of white, male graduates of Ivy League schools and other prestigious universities into teams’ front offices. In a data analysis conducted by ESPN, the percentage of Ivy League graduates holding an organization’s top baseball operations decision-making position — which, depending on the club, could be its president, vice president or general manager — has risen from just 3% in 2001 to 43% today; while the percentage of graduates from U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top 25 colleges — both universities and liberal arts schools — holding the same positions has risen from 24% to 67%.

This rise coincides with a drop in former players running front offices over the same period, from 37% to 20%, while the percentage of minorities running front offices has risen, but from just 3% to 10%. Additionally, no woman holds the top baseball operations position for any of the 30 major league clubs.

To be clear, MLB front offices have always lacked diversity. It wasn’t until 1994 that the Houston Astros‘ Bob Watson, a former player, officially became the first Black GM in the history of the league. (Atlanta Braves executive Bill Lucas essentially was the team’s GM in the late-1970s, but team owner Ted Turner elected to keep the title for himself.) And there wasn’t an Ivy League culture to blame for that exclusion. Indeed, the only graduate from an Ivy school running a front office at the time was Oakland Athletics GM Sandy Alderson, a Dartmouth alum, and more than half of the teams were run by former players. Baseball didn’t see its first Hispanic GM for another eight years, when the Montreal Expos hired Omar Minaya.

Still, the 2002 hiring of Epstein by the Boston Red Sox helped spark the current Ivy League trend in MLB, which represents one of the most significant barriers to entry in baseball today. And that makes what Epstein said all the more instructive in defining and attempting to solve a major diversity problem in the sport as it stands in 2020.


How we got here

“The majority of people that I’ve hired, if I’m being honest, have similar backgrounds as me and look a lot like me.” — Theo Epstein

THE SUCCESS OF Epstein — who helped snap historic World Series title droughts in both Boston and Chicago — and A’s vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane, of “Moneyball” fame, created a template for winning through data-driven decision-making. For the first decade of hires following the success of Beane and Epstein, the addition of similarly minded general managers marked progress in the diversity of thought in the sport. Epstein’s hiring, and his 2004 World Series championship, validated the hiring of 28-year-old Cornell alum Jon Daniels by the Texas Rangers and 28-year-old Tulane alum Andrew Friedman by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2005.

But the trickle of young graduates from prestigious colleges filling baseball front offices soon became a flood. Today, many minorities and women working in the sport — from on-field personnel to baseball operations staffers — say the pendulum has swung the other way, with analytically driven executives, mostly white men, no longer representing a fresh approach to the game, but the predominant one.

“There are teams that were too much the other way, too many baseball guys,” said one Hispanic American League baseball operations staffer, who, like others in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You can’t have too many baseball guys. Now, we have figured out that doesn’t work. They have biases. We’re kind of doing the same thing, but now we’re doing it with smart, rich, educated white guys.”

Among the emblematic recent hirings was Jeff Luhnow, born in Mexico City to white American expats, by the Astros in 2011. His extreme strategy of tanking produced a string of losing seasons but also a treasure trove of high draft picks, which Luhnow turned into foundational roster pieces such as Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa. His tenure included a controversial, trash-can marred World Series championship team in 2017 that ultimately cost Luhnow his job.

Before his public fall, Luhnow had leveraged his degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and his experience at the management consulting firm of McKinsey & Company to create the definitive modern baseball front office.

The years after Luhnow joined the Astros saw the 2015 hiring of then 30-year-old Harvard graduate David Stearns by the Milwaukee Brewers, the 2016 hiring of then 40-year-old Princeton graduate Mike Hazen by the Arizona Diamondbacks and, more recently, the 2019 hiring of then 36-year-old Yale graduate Chaim Bloom by the Red Sox. Bloom had gotten his start in baseball from the Rays, a team led by 44-year-old Harvard graduate Matthew Silverman. What baseball once called a smart hire in the front office has become similar candidates getting hired again and again, opening after opening.

“If I’m going to put my geek cap on, it’s a statistical impossibility that every — that the best candidate for every position in baseball is a middle-aged Caucasian male,” San Francisco Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, a 43-year-old Muslim Canadian-American with Pakistani roots and a degree from MIT, said to PBS in 2015.

Chicago White Sox vice president Ken Williams, who is Black and a Stanford graduate, told USA Today in December: “The natural assumption is that it’s a racial problem and it’s easy to jump to that. But there’s much more to it. The Ivy League-educated, analytically based, Power Point-savvy individuals are being hired because they speak the same language as ownership groups. They’re hiring people in the limited circle that are new to the industry because they can relate to them.”

Those on the field see the same trend.

“There’s big-time discrimination of age and salary, along with the intellectual thing,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said in that same USA Today story. “It’s not a question of whether you went to school, but where you went to school. Now it appears they’re just hiring their friends.”

Baker continued: “Nothing against the Ivy League, but how many minorities are friends and fraternity brothers of those who went to those schools? Most of us weren’t at those schools, or if we played baseball, we weren’t in that fraternity.”

A 2017 story on IvyLeague.com detailed the paths of A’s general manager David Forst, a Harvard graduate; Diamondbacks assistant general manager Peter Woodfork, a Harvard graduate; and Cleveland Indians general manager Mike Chernoff, a Princeton graduate, toward jobs in big league front offices.

“As more Ivy League graduates found their way into front offices, networks began to develop that helped younger alums find jobs,” the story reads. “Chernoff worked under Princeton graduate [Mark] Shapiro in Cleveland. He followed the path of fellow Princeton alum Mike Hazen — now the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks — who interned with the Indians two years prior to Chernoff.”

The Ivy League creates a networking bubble for many in baseball. Forst, Woodfork and Colorado Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich all played on the same Harvard baseball teams. Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington received his first opportunity with the Red Sox in 1999 when he was hired by Dan Duquette, a fellow graduate of Amherst College (one of the so-called “Little Ivies”).

“The one thing that does not change between the old front-office and the new front-office makeup is that people will hire their friends or people who remind them of them,” said one minority baseball staffer who has worked in the sport for more than a decade. “People will hire people like them.”

It’s not that minorities don’t graduate from Ivy League schools: According to a 2015 Harvard Crimson survey of students enrolled in the Class of 2019, 11.2% identified as Black, 12.5% identified as Hispanic, 6.5% identified as South Asian, 1.4% identified as American Indian and 23.5% identified as Asian. Harvard’s graduation rate ticks in at 98%, among the highest at American colleges and universities.

But pulling from a hyper-specific group of Ivy League graduates means inheriting that group’s diversity and classism problems, including the legacy admissions programs notorious in elite colleges that favor white and wealthy applicants. Yale University currently boasts four undergraduate alumni running baseball teams, tied with Harvard for the most represented school among top baseball executive undergraduate alma maters. In 2018, the acceptance rate at Yale was 6.9%, with the cost of attendance in 2020 — which includes tuition and living expenses — estimated at $78,725.

All of the Yale graduates running teams, including Epstein, Bloom, Mike Elias of the Baltimore Orioles and James Click of the Astros, who replaced Luhnow, are white men. Among the Harvard graduates — Bridich, Stearns of the Brewers, Silverman and Michael Hill of the Miami Marlins — Hill, a Cuban-American, is the lone minority. White Sox GM Rick Hahn also attended Harvard Law School after graduating from the University of Michigan. According to the Harvard Law School website, the cost of attendance prices at $100,625.

Since 2001, the average acceptance rates of the alma maters of top baseball operations executives have fallen from 50% to 26%. The drop in acceptance rates also has coincided with a rise in the average cost of attending these colleges in 2020, from $47,049 to $64,012. The growing homogeneity of front offices is directly tied to the exclusivity and expense of attending schools that all but qualify a graduating student for successfully pursuing a job in baseball.

Just 0.4% of all college students in the United States attend one of the eight private Ivy League institutions, while nearly 74% of all college students in America attend a public college, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020, just five (17%) of the top baseball operations executives graduated from public colleges.

“Systematically, you’re missing minorities who may have less of an opportunity to go to those places and be exposed to the things that those types of school exposes you to, that ultimately makes you a better candidate to get in,” said one female National League baseball operations staffer.

And as an Asian-American baseball staffer explained, “The more we entrench ourselves in analytics, we’re entrenching ourselves in by nature a more privileged group of job candidates who have the ability and financial ability to get into a school to learn data manipulation and things like that.”

The influx of analytics across the sport changed the entry-level jobs available. Whereas 20 years ago, many began their careers in baseball front offices as scouts or assistants, today, many first jobs require data analysis and fluency with programming languages such as Python and R.

“You get these teams looking for these very technical and very specific skills, whether it’s R or Python,” said one minority baseball operations staffer, a participant in MLB’s Diversity Fellowship Program, which provides entry-level positions to minority college graduates. “When you look at the landscape of colleges and where you are going to find those skills, it leans towards Ivy Leagues and other prestigious colleges where people take computer science courses, mathematics courses, but aren’t doing the scouting that once prevailed in baseball.”

While Harvard admitted a majority-minority Class of 2023, a New York Times study from 2017 suggests that even with affirmative action, Blacks and Hispanics are more underrepresented at top colleges than they were 35 years ago.


Why it matters

“I need to ask myself why. I need to question my own assumptions, my own attitudes.” — Epstein

WHEN ONE AMERICAN League baseball field staffer with a Hispanic background began his first job in baseball out of college for an organization run by an Ivy League graduate, he immediately felt he didn’t fit in. Most of his colleagues were white men, he said, who shared similar education backgrounds and who all seemed to dress similarly. Without many colleagues on his team going through an equivalent cultural transition, he felt isolated.

“It was something I wrestled with inside pretty deeply,” he said. “My first year, I was trying to be somebody that I wasn’t because that’s what I perceived they wanted. I wanted to be an Ivy League guy. I thought that was the way to go about things instead of trying to be myself. I was a young guy trying to make my name in baseball and have a career in the game of baseball, and I didn’t want to be an outcast.”

As one of the few minorities working for his team, the field staffer struggled with speaking up in meetings, afraid of going against the grain in a room full of people who tended to share similar baseball philosophies and private education backgrounds. The experience can be similar for former big leaguers. Once a defined and clear career trajectory to one day run a team, former players now find themselves in the minority in front offices. A lack of diversity — cultural, educational or otherwise — in the room can keep minorities silent when roster-building decisions are made.

“If you’re the former player that’s a special advisor, and then you’re sitting at a roundtable with all these guys, you already probably feel a bit inferior from a cerebral standpoint,” said the field staffer. “Granted you played, but you also know I don’t want to be the guy that says no, and then they’re like, this guy doesn’t agree with our stuff, he’s not buying in, let’s get him out of here. It’s what you always face as the minority in the room.”

“There’s definitely a separation between being a player and a front-office guy or a coach and a front-office guy. I think it’s just a misunderstanding of people, maybe sometimes on our end, feeling like [the front offices] look down on [non-Ivy Leaguers], and then on the other side, us looking at them like they’re a bunch of nerds.”

AL staffer who often serves as an intermediary between the front office and those on the field

The American League baseball staffer also sees how the lack of front-office diversity affects the development of non-white players.

“There’s so much that goes into making a big league player a big league player, and for Hispanic players, who are an important part of our game, being able to make them feel at home is so important,” he said. “We’re missing that diversity to mirror it off the field.”

Every baseball operations staffer interviewed for this story expressed a similar opinion: that the homogeneity in front offices has led to a decrease in interpersonal skills, known colloquially as “feel” around the sport.

“When we view the game more analytically, the players become more of an asset, less of a human being. We’re forgetting or leaving behind this interpersonal approach to the game that not just impacts on the field but impacts off of it,” said one female scout. “With that comes a loss of feel, because the more that you’re dealing with real people, the more that feel is important, the more that the appreciation for the human being playing the game is important.”

Those we spoke to said the Wall Street culture, exemplified by the Astros, of valuing data and wins above all, has now spread across every front office. Wall Street and Ivy League schools have long been tied together, with 29% of Harvard graduates in 2011 taking finance jobs and a constant stream of recruiters interviewing students on those campuses.

“I feel like we’re really fake. We’re trying to run like a corporate company, when really baseball isn’t that or traditionally hasn’t been that,” the American League field staffer said. “So it’s really interesting just because the work dynamic is so different. We’re trying to run it like a Fortune 500 company, and it just causes a very toxic, almost Wall Street-type environment. We’re trying to look good on the PR side, being the most forward-thinking organization. Now I think that’s more valuable than even winning a World Series. We want to be the most forward-thinking organization.”

Diversity issues don’t stop at team front offices. All eight men running MLB’s executive office are white, with commissioner Rob Manfred and deputy commissioner Dan Halem both graduates of Cornell. The MLB Players Association, led by former big league first baseman Tony Clark, who is Black, represents a player base that is 28.5% born outside the United States and 7.7% Black.

“There’s definitely a separation between being a player and a front-office guy or a coach and a front-office guy,” said the American League field staffer, who often serves as an intermediary between the groups. “I think it’s just a misunderstanding of people, maybe sometimes on our end, feeling like [the front offices] look down on [non-Ivy Leaguers], and then on the other side, us looking at them like they’re a bunch of nerds.”


What’s next?

“I need to find a way to be better.” — Epstein

DEBATE CONTINUES OVER the effectiveness of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview a minority for every head-coaching opening. The policy hasn’t solved many of the diversity issues among the coaches. Research from professors at Georgetown, George Washington, Emory and Iowa State in 2016 found that white position coaches and assistants were twice as likely to be promoted to coordinators than their Black peers.

Baseball’s equivalent, the Selig Rule — named after Manfred’s predecessor as commissioner, Bud Selig — requires teams to interview a minority candidate for any managerial or front-office opening. But that hasn’t prevented teams from operating around the mandate. In 2015, the Marlins even made general manager Dan Jennings their interim field manager despite no prior coaching experience. And while nearly 30% of major leaguers have Latino backgrounds, only four managers — Rick Renteria of the White Sox, Charlie Montoyo of the Toronto Blue Jays, Luis Rojas of the New York Mets and Dave Martinez of the Washington Nationals — share those roots.

Minorities and women within the sport we spoke to said the Selig Rule doesn’t do enough to address the systemic problems preventing minorities from getting their first job in the industry, let alone rising in the ranks of power.

“There’s a huge flaw in the system of forcing owners or GMs to interview minority candidates for high-level baseball jobs both on the field and off,” said one Hispanic American League baseball operations staffer who graduated from an Ivy League school. “That’s a mistake because it opens the door for the token interview. We’re going to interview you, you’re a Hispanic or African-American or you’re a woman who could be in this conversation, but we’re not even taking this seriously and we just need to check a box and we’re going to check the box with you. That’s almost more disrespectful than not interviewing anybody at all.”

“It shouldn’t just be when it’s convenient or at the forefront. It shouldn’t just be Theo Epstein saying it’s a problem when it’s convenient for him to say it’s a problem. That’s the burning question right now: Are we going to conform to be one of them or are they ever going to try to be more like one of us?”

Former participant in MLB’s Diversity Fellowship Program who now works in a major league front office

Kim Ng, the senior vice president of baseball operations for MLB who has served as assistant general manager for the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, has interviewed for nine top baseball operations positions without an offer. In 2018, Ng interviewed for the top Mets job, which went to former agent and Stanford graduate Brodie Van Wagenen — who had no previous experience working in a front office. Will Ng become the league’s first female general manager?

“The idea that this is all sitting on my shoulders — it’s a lot of pressure. It’s hard,” Ng told her alma mater’s University of Chicago News in 2018. “But I think someone’s going to have to do it. At the end of the day, if this doesn’t happen, I’m not going to see it as, ‘My career was a failure.’ That might be other peoples’ take, but that’s not mine.”

Other women are rising through the game’s ranks, including Eve Rosenbaum, a Harvard grad hired by the Orioles in January as director of baseball development. But for many minorities and women who entered the sport in the past decade, getting their first job meant convincing power brokers who largely hire candidates with similar backgrounds to their own. Once inside, a lack of role models to follow has left minorities and women with another hurdle as they navigate the politics of their workplace.

“We can be grassroots with this and really taking a more active stance towards this as opposed to a passive one, which is when it’s time to look for interns,” said the Hispanic American League baseball operations staffer who graduated from an Ivy League school. “We’re going to look for these guys or these men and women, we need to be doing this more proactively and cultivating these candidates in the same way we would be scouting an amateur player, when they’re a sophomore, junior in high school or a non-draft eligible college player. We need to view it the same way.”

Two years ago, MLB implemented its Diversity Fellowship Program, designed to address this issue. The fellowship, which lasts 18 to 24 months, gives its recipients a window into the inner workings of baseball front offices via entry-level positions. The league’s first class featured 22 college graduates, not just from Ivy League schools but also from historically Black colleges and universities such as Morehouse College and public schools such as Jackson State and Arizona State. The large majority of the first fellowship class continue working in the game today, according to LinkedIn profiles.

Still, those we spoke to who participated in the program said the fellowship is merely a starting point. More must be done.

“Baseball needs to do a better job of reaching out to minority communities,” said one participant, who now works in a front office as a baseball operations staffer. “When teams are doing their hiring, you notice they reach out to Ivy League schools, but they need to do a better job of reaching out at an even earlier point, whether that’s high schools that are historically minority-driven or HBCUs. Going beyond the scope of the elite colleges where everyone is hiring from is a good starting point, but don’t wait for people to reach out to you.

“If you take the premise that a baseball team is more than just a baseball team and more than just a business, but also socially responsible for the things happening in our society, then it needs to be a conversation that happens continuously, more than just diversity hiring. Right now, there’s a nature of not being socially responsible for the benefit of baseball, and teams need to think about those things and how they affect the way minorities and women perceive their organization and the sport in the long run.”

As Americans continue to take to the streets protesting the killing of George Floyd, minorities working within the sport hope to see the words of power brokers like Epstein turn into action to create systemic change.

“It shouldn’t just be when it’s convenient or at the forefront. It shouldn’t just be Theo Epstein saying it’s a problem when it’s convenient for him to say it’s a problem,” said the diversity fellowship recipient. “That’s the burning question right now: Are we going to conform to be one of them or are they ever going to try to be more like one of us? Or will the pendulum swing back and will this fade as a distinct era in baseball operations?”

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