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The History of Northwestern in Major League Baseball

Northwestern, like any other northern school, is generally not considered a “baseball factory”. The college baseball world is dominated by Sun Belt schools that offer beautiful weather to top recruits. Northwestern baseball players spend much of their season dealing with the grey skies, cold mud, and the unpredictable weather of the Midwest.

Despite these odds, over 20 former Wildcat players have made it to Major League Baseball. Their careers run the gamut, from a magical “One-Hit Wonder” to All-Stars and World Series Champions. One played for the worst team in modern history; one played alongside two of the biggest names in the history of (other) sports; and another was once traded for a future legend. Here is a brief look at Wildcat alums that have played in MLB. Each players debut season is listed in parentheses.

CURRENT PLAYERS

Bo Schultz (2014): Like most Major Leaguers, Schultz’s five-year minor league road to the majors took him through small towns ranging from Geneva, Illinois (home of the Kane County Cougars) to  Reno, Nevada (home of Arizona’s AAA affiliate). However, unlike any rookie before him, his road led to Sydney, Australia. This year’s Opening Day game, played March 22 at the Sydney Cricket Ground, was part of MLB’s effort to expand baseball’s international popularity.

Schultz, a 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher, entered the game in the eighth and threw one scoreless inning, giving up a single hit. The Medill alum will likely serve as a middle reliever for the D-Backs, although he does have starting experience in the minors.

George Kontos (2011):  Kontos, also a right-handed pitcher, made his Major League debut with the Yankees in September 2011. He appeared in seven games that year, pitching six innings and giving up two runs.  After being traded to the Giants in April 2012, he spent the next two seasons in San Francisco, appearing in 96 games out of the bullpen. He contributed to the Giants 2012 World Championship, appearing in one World Series game that year.

J.A. Happ (2007): Happ, a three time All-Big Ten player, is currently NU’s most tenured major leaguer.  Happ was drafted by the Phillies in the 3rd round of the 2004 draft. Happ is among the most decorated NUplayers in recent history, making the All-Big Ten team in each of his three years at NU.

He had a strong career in Philly, going 12-4 for the 2008 National League champions.  However, his strong start made him attractive trade bait for the Phillies, who were looking to add a veteran player to continue their championship run.  In July 2010, the highly-regarded Happ was traded to Houston as part of a package to land Roy Oswalt.  After finishing that season strong with the Astros, he struggled for the next couple years (due in large part to a poor supporting cast). He was traded to Toronto in 2012, he was seriously injured by a line drive to the head May 2013. Fortunately, Happ battled back to the starting rotation in August.   He has been hampered by injury problems, and is starting this season on the disabled list due to back issues.

THE PIONEERS

Football is Northwestern’s most popular sport, but it is not the oldest. Northwestern fielded its first varsity baseball team, known as “La Purissimas” in 1869, seven years before football was launched. NU competed in the “College Baseball Association of the Northwest” along with schools like Racine College and the University of Chicago.  Games of that era were played without gloves, and often had very high scores.

Frank Griffith (1892): Frank Griffith, a pitcher who could also play some outfield, became the first NU alum in the majors on August 13, 1892. He started one game with the Chicago Colts of the National League. He gave up five runs in four innings.  The Colts, now known as the Cubs, played at Chicago’s South Side Park, which was located only a few blocks from the current home of the White Sox.  Griffith moved on to Cleveland in the 1894 season, but his tenure there was only modestly better, lasting only seven games.  The Spiders, then a National League club, would dissolve a few years later and be replaced in 1901 by the American League team now known as the Indians.

Paddy Driscoll (1917): Driscoll became the first Wildcat alum of the modern “World Series Era” Major Leagues on June 12, 1917. If his name sounds familiar, there is a reason. Driscoll is among the greatest football players in Northwestern history, and is one of only two NU alums (along with Otto Graham) in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Like many top athletes of his time (such as Jim Thorpe and George Halas), Driscoll played multiple sports.  Like Griffith, Driscoll played for the Chicago’s National League squad. However, by 1917 the team was known as the Cubs, and it was playing at the “new” Weeghman Park (now called Wrigley Field) on the North Side.  Driscoll, an infielder, lasted only two months with the team. He had 28 at bats over 13 games, with a measly .107 batting average. Luckily for his pro sports career, the National Football League would begin play two years later.

THE FACE OF THE PROGRAM

Joe Girardi (1989): Girardi, currently the manager of the New York Yankees, is by far the most famous Northwestern alum in MLB.  He is manager of the sports’ most iconic franchise in America’s largest market.  That means that he deals with more media more frequently than any other player, coach or manager in North American sports.

Before his managing days, he spent 15 years playing in the majors, most of which with two franchises: The Yankees and Cubs. The catcher made his debut with the Cubs in 1989, and was part of a memorable division championship season.  Although he did not have great batting numbers at that time, he endeared himself to Cubs fans over the next few years.  The Cubs lost Girardi in the 1993 expansion draft, where he joined the new Colorado Rockies franchise.

Girardi’s greatest break came in November 1995 when he was traded to the Yankees. Girardi, who had evolved into an excellent defensive player and solid batter, joined a rising group of stars like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera.  This group would win four of the next five World Series and become the toast of "The Big Apple." The Yanks’ 1996 World Championship, their first in 18 years (a century by Yankee standards), landed Girardi on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

After four seasons in New York (with three Series titles), Girardi returned to the Cubs for the 2000 season.  His return season to the Cubs marked his only All-Star appearance in 2000.  As both an NU alum and Peoria native, Girardi was a fan favorite throughout his Cubs tenure.  His intelligence (an Industrial Engineering grad) and easy going personality also made him a favorite among the media and fellow players. It was no surprise that he became a manager, first for one season with the Marlins, then with the Yankees.

His selection to become Yankee manager in 2008 was soon rewarded.  In 2009, he led the Yankees to their 27th World Series title.  Throughout all of his success, Girardi has maintained extremely close ties to Northwestern.  He communicates with Pat Fitzgerald on a regular basis, and has hosted Fitzgerald at spring training on multiple occasions.  He is also still active with the NU baseball program, and speaks glowingly of his NU years at any opportunity.

AFTER MANY YEARS, A WALK-OFF WINNER

Mark Loretta (1995): Loretta, a seventh round draft pick in 1993, was an infielder over 15 seasons with the Brewers, Padres, Red Sox, Astros, and Dodgers.  Loretta had a great career at NU, and is the only Wildcat to ever be named Big Ten Player of the Year (1993).

He had the most impressive Major League batting numbers of any Wildcat over a prolonged career, compiling a lifetime .295 average.  He was also a two time All Star (2004 and 2006), a unique feat among NU alums. Although he was a very solid player, team success eluded Loretta for most of his career. However, in his final season, he made it to the playoffs as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.   He had one pinch-hit at bat in the Division Series against St. Louis, and he made the most of it. He hit a walk-off single to beat the Cardinals 3-2 in game two of the series, helping propel the Dodgers to the NLCS. You can hear the legendary Vin Scully’s call (which includes a very cool NU reference) here.

SURVIVING THE 1962 METS

Jay Hook (1957): Hook made his debut in 1957 with the freshly renamed Cincinnati Redlegs (due to the zealous anti-communism of the McCarthy Era, the team briefly stopped using the name “Reds”)  Although he spent parts of eight seasons in the majors, Hook’s greatest claim to fame was being part of the worst team in baseball history.  The Reds (renamed back from Redlegs in 1959) lost him in the 1961 expansion draft, where he was selected by the Mets.

Hook, a right-handed pitcher, had a record of 8-19 in 1962. That may not seem very good on paper, but in context it was very solid. The Mets went 40-120 that year….a record of futility that continues to stand.  Hook accounted for 20 percent of his team’s wins, a percentage that very few modern pitchers can match.

THE ONE HIT WONDER

Chuck Lindstrom (1958): This Wildcat came to Northwestern to play for his father, Baseball Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom. Freddie, a 13 year veteran of the major leagues, became Northwestern baseball coach after numerous minor league managing jobs.  He spent 13 years as NU head coach, leading the Wildcats to their last Big Ten title in 1957.

Chuck had an an extremely successful career at NU, and still holds the program record with a career .415 batting average.  He joined the White Sox as a catcher late in 1958 after two years in the minors. He played in only one game, which occurred at Comiskey Park on September 28, 1958 against the Kansas City Athletics. It was the final game of the season, and it was a lovely sunny day.  Lindstrom entered the game in the fifth inning. In his only at-bat, he hit a triple – the rarest of all hits.  He knocked in a base runner, getting an RBI. He then scored later in the inning, gaining an official run in the record book. Lindstrom never again played in the big leagues. But he has a very unique stat line: One AB, a 1.000 batting average, 1 RBI, 1 run, a 3.000 slugging percentage, and a 4.000 OPS.  Luckily for his family, White Sox manager Al Lopez notified him in advance that he would play that day.  Freddie and his wife were in attendance to see their son’s glorious day.

THE MAN TRADED FOR “MR. BASEBALL”

Gene Oliver (1959): Oliver debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959, and went on to have a solid career as a backup catcher until 1969.  He was a proverbial journeyman, playing for the Cardinals, Braves, Phillies, Red Sox, and Cubs.  A lifetime .249 hitter with solid defensive skills, his best year was with the Milwaukee Braves in 1965. He hit 21 home runs, one of six members of the Braves to hit at least 20 homers in that season. In the pitching-dominated National League of the 1960s (and over 20 years before “The Steroid Era”), this was an amazing accomplishment.

Oliver has another interesting claim to fame.  On June 6, 1967, he was traded by the then Atlanta Braves to Philadelphia in exchange for Bob Uecker. As many of us know, Uecker (ironically dubbed “Mr. Baseball” for his mediocre career) went on to become the long-time broadcaster of the Milwaukee Brewers and the role of “Harry Doyle” in each of the “Major League” movies.

COMPETING WITH LEGENDS

Mike Huff (1989): Huff, who had a lofty .358 batting average at Northwestern, went on to a outfield career with four teams over eight seasons.  Although originally drafted by the Dodgers, he spent most of his time with the White Sox and Blue Jays.  In 1993, he hit over .400 during spring training with the White Sox.  However, he was beaten out for an roster spot by Bo Jackson, the multisport superstar that was recovering from hip replacement surgery.  Huff spent most of that year in the minors, but eventually made it back to the White Sox roster and played sparingly in 1993.

When he reported to spring training in 1994, he was part of a media circus even larger than Bo Jackson. Michael Jordan, the NBA superstar, was in White Sox camp that year. His Airness was part of the group contending for an outfield position that year. Jordan didn’t make it…he was sent to the minor leagues. Huff went to the Blue Jays, where he spent the next three seasons.  He remains a member of the White Sox organization today, serving as Vice President of the Bulls/Sox Training Academy.

THE CONSUMMATE CUB

Bob Will (1957): This Wildcat earned an All-Big Ten selection in 1952, then began his minor league career in 1954. He made his Major League debut with the Cubs in 1957, and spent all or part of the next six seasons as an outfielder in the organization.  His best season was 1960, when he hit .255 in 138 games.  Perhaps as much as any player, Will embodied the scrappy spirit of the Cubs. He was 5’10”, 175 pounds and wore glasses….he looked more like an accountant than a ballplayer. However, he managed to stick it out for six major league seasons.

THE SHORT TIMERS

Numerous other NU alums have made the majors, each with short careers. These guys didn’t become stars, but they were able to live the childhood dream of being in the big leagues. They  include Mark Koplove, who spent parts of six seasons with Arizona from 2001 to 2006; Chris Nichting, who played 92 games for multiple teams from 1995 to 2002; Marty Clary, who spent 58 games with the Braves from 1987 to 1990; Dick Bokelmann, a St. Louis Cardinal for 34 games from 1951 to 1953; John Trautwein, who played nine games for Boston in 1988; Tom Metcalf, a Yankee for eight games in 1963; Ed Lagger, a Philadelphia Athletic for eight games in 1934; Floyd Stromme, who played five games for Cleveland in 1939; and Herb Harris, who played two games for the Phillies in 1936.

NORTHWESTERN LINKS TO MLB

Northwestern has numerous interesting past and present links to MLB. Here are a few:

*John Farrell, manager of the defending World Series Champ Red Sox, is father of Luke Farrell, a 2013 Northwestern graduate. Luke played on the Wildcat baseball team, and is currently in the Kansas City Royals farm system. He will start the year with the Single “A” Lexington Legends.

*Dodgers Chairman and Owner Mark Walter, along with his wife Kimbra, donated $40 million to the WE WILL Northwestern fundraising campaign on March 14.

*Late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was an assistant football coach at Northwestern in 1955. He was part of Lou Saban’s staff that went 0-8-1 in its only season in Evanston. “The Boss” soon returned to the family business, and eventually purchased the Yankees in 1973 for $8.8 million. The team is now worth over $1 billion.

*Many Northwestern students and alums know Professor Emeritus Irwin Weil, a legend in the Slavic Languages Department. His classes on Russian Literature have been among the most popular on campus for decades. Weil’s father Sidney Weil owned the Cincinnati Reds from 1929 to 1933, during the height of the Great Depression.

*Northwestern’s dominance of the sports media extends to local MLB radio booths. NU alums calling games this year include Glenn Geffner of the Miami Marlins and Josh Lewin of the New York Mets.