“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.
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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.
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“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.
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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
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