Budig At The Bat
August 1, 1994
Ever since he was a boy growing up in small-town Nebraska, Gene Budig had always dreamed of one day making it to the big leagues. “I saw baseball as an opportunity to go make a name, to be somebody,” he later recalled wistfully. “My ambition was to be the second baseman of the New York Yankees. My mother wanted me to be a Catholic priest. We were both disappointed.”
Years passed, then decades, and though Budig never did make his name in the House that Ruth Built, he began to distinguish himself first as a newspaper reporter, then an officer in the Nebraska Air National Guard, as a professor of education, journalism, and aerospace studies, and eventually, as chancellor of the University of Kansas. However, on June 8, 1994, a little more than two months following his 55th birthday, the long-awaited call finally came: Budig was going to the major leagues, not as a player, but as the seventh president of baseball’s American League.
Gene Arthur Budig was born on May 25, 1939, in Lincoln, Nebraska. He spent his first few months of life in the St. Thomas Orphanage before becoming the third adopted child of Arthur and Angela Budig of McCook, Nebraska, population 7,500. His earliest and fondest memories were of going to baseball games with his father to see the semi-pro McCook Cats, for which he later worked as a batboy. “Baseball represents what’s good in our past,” Budig once told the Kansas City Star. “It is the direct link to the best times of our lives. You go to the ballpark and you regain your youth. You turn back the clock. I go to a ballgame and remember my father. That is a pleasant memory every time.”
In August 1951, Budig was 12 years old when he heard about how baseball’s consummate showman, St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck, had sent in the 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to pinch-hit against the Detroit Tigers. “I thought this might be my chance,” recalled Budig. If the pint-sized Gaedel (who walked in his only at-bat) could make it into a major league game, anything was possible. Budig immediately dashed off a letter to Veeck asking for a tryout, and shortly thereafter received a response: “He agreed to a tryout in [his] letter but he said I ought to wait until I was 18 years old. I showed it to everyone,” said Budig. “I went up and down the streets telling people I had a major league tryout – I just had to wait.” The tryout never materialized, but Gene and his father were personally invited by Veeck to St. Louis to watch a three-game Browns series. The friendship that soon developed between Budig and Veeck lasted until the latter’s death in 1986.
His baseball dreams on hold, Budig worked as a reporter and editorial writer for the Lincoln (Neb.) Star and the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal while pursuing a journalism degree at the University of Nebraska. He graduated in 1962, received his Master’s Degree in English the following year, and earned his doctorate in education in 1967. While in graduate school, Budig not only served in the Nebraska Air National Guard, but also worked in the governor’s office at a number of top-level administrative posts. (Budig would eventually retire from the Guard in 1992 as a major general after 30 years of military service.) His first position in higher education came in 1967 when he became assistant professor of educational administration at the University of Nebraska. By 1972, Budig had become a full professor and had served as Assistant Vice Chancellor, Assistant Vice President and Director of Public Affairs for his alma mater.
The following year, Budig moved on to Illinois State University to become not only the institution’s youngest full professor at 34, but also the Board of Regents’ unanimous choice as its youngest president. Four years later, in 1977, his meteoric rise continued when he accepted the presidency of West Virginia University. At WVU, in addition to his administrative duties, Budig distinguished himself as one of the nation’s most prolific and respected writers on higher education, taught graduate-level courses in educational administration, served on doctoral committees, and in November 1978, was selected by Change magazine, in conjunction with the American Council on Education, as one of the nation’s top 100 leaders in higher education. A self-described workaholic, Budig’s philosophy is simple: “You out-work everyone else. That’s how you achieve.”
On March 20, 1981, following a nationwide search, the Kansas State Board of Regents unanimously chose Budig to become the 14th chancellor of the University of Kansas. That same day he accepted, saying that he aimed “to help a great public university become greater.” Announcing his appointment, the Board’s chairman, E. Bernard Franklin, said that Budig “has a distinguished record of service to higher education and we are fully convinced that he will provide excellent academic and administrative leadership.”
Franklin also cited Budig’s reputation as a “highly productive writer of professional articles” and his special ability to “interpret the mission and value of higher education to the general public.” Thus, on August 1, 1981, Budig took office, succeeding Archie R. Dyckes, who had resigned a year earlier to become president of the Security Benefit Life Insurance Co. in Topeka. (Dr. Del Shankel, KU’s former executive vice chancellor, served as interim chancellor until Budig arrived.)
During his first year as chancellor, the 42-year-old Budig toured the entire state of Kansas, visiting each of its 105 counties in an effort to introduce himself and listen to the concerns and opinions of countless elected representatives, community leaders, alumni and ordinary citizens. “After an extensive tour of the state,” Budig told Kansas Alumni, “I returned convinced that the people are receptive to ideas and reasoned presentation. Without question, they believe in our state universities; without question, they respect the role of higher education. Furthermore, they look to the University of Kansas for leadership.” Among Budig’s goals as chancellor were to attract and retain the nation’s best educators, expand the University’s libraries and physical plant, improve services and increase efficiency at the Medical Center, and, naturally, to loosen the purse-strings of the State Legislature.
By most accounts, Budig’s 13 years as chancellor were enormously successful. He presided over an impressive amount of physical growth on campus, including the Dole Human Development Center, the Adams Alumni Center, the KU Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Anschutz Science Library, the Lied Center for the Performing Arts, and the Regents Center in Overland Park. Under Budig’s leadership, KU enrollment reached an all-time high of 29,161 in 1992, the once-troubled KU Medical Center returned to sound financial footing, and the number of distinguished professorships at KU nearly tripled from 49 in 1981 to 135 in 1994.
In 1986, Budig became the first state employee to earn over $100,000 in a single year (his salary was $101,000), but instead of accepting the raise, he donated a large portion of it to the KU Endowment Association for student scholarships. The move was also intended as a show of solidarity with University faculty, whom Budig believed were not being paid what they were worth.
In 1991, tragedy struck the campus when lightning caused one of the University’s oldest and best-loved landmarks, Hoch Auditorium, to burn to the ground. Through Budig’s tireless lobbying efforts, however, KU received an $18 million appropriation from the state to rebuild the structure. In recognition, the new building was christened Budig Hall when it was officially dedicated in October 1997.
In this instance, and in countless others, Budig proved himself a remarkably persuasive and persistent fundraiser, in both the private and public domains. Reflecting on his career, Budig once remarked to the Lawrence Journal-World, tongue-in-cheek, “I had great ambition to be a professional baseball player. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hit, I couldn’t field, but I was fast and that has, by the way, served me very, very well for many years in academic administration.”
Despite all his successes in academia and university administration, Budig never let go of his desire for a career in the major leagues. Even as he served with distinction at KU, his true ambitions were starkly apparent, whether it was wowing visitors by showing off his tremendous collection of baseball memorabilia, hobnobbing with baseball bigwigs like former Kansas City Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, or slyly suggesting to reporters that “there is life after being chancellor of the University of Kansas.” According to the Star, “that life, he once confided to an interviewer, could include a position with – what else? – Major League Baseball.”
So it came as little surprise when, on June 8, 1994, Chancellor Budig received the news that the team owners of Major League Baseball had selected him as the new president of the American League. Even less surprising was his decision to accept at once. Over the years, he had become close friends with many major league owners and officials, including the acting commissioner and Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig. On the day of his acceptance, Budig paid homage to his friend and mentor, Ewing Kauffman, who had died the year before: “I am here because of Mr. Kauffman. Mr. Kauffman encouraged my interest in baseball [and] thought that I had something to offer the game. He wanted people who had experience in large organizations involved in major-league baseball.” In addition to Budig’s background in managing large organizations, the chancellor, according to the Wichita Eagle, had developed another essential skill that would be useful in his new position. “Dealing with the egos on the KU faculty,” suggested the paper, “should be good training to handle the spoiled millionaires who own big-league baseball franchises.”
When asked why he would leave his prestigious position at KU, Budig told the Star, “I have been a university president for 21 years. That is a long time…. I wanted to do something new and different.” He did admit however, “Leaving the University of Kansas is very difficult” because it “has been very good to me and my family over the years.” To the Oread magazine, he said, “I will leave the university with a sense of satisfaction and appreciation. Many things have been made better, and it has been the highest honor to be associated with the people of KU. Lawrence will always be special to our family. It is home.”
While most shared Budig’s excitement at beginning a new career in baseball, others were not so supportive or understanding. Shortly after his announcement that he would be leaving KU, an editorial in the Star asked readers to “face it: Budig, as chancellor of the University of Kansas, is moving from serious work to the toy department of life. If anyone was ever overqualified for a job, it is Gene Budig as president of the American League.” The paper lamented, “He is stepping down from [his] lofty and prestigious pursuit to manage jocks. Give the American League credit: The owners nabbed a high-quality individual to administer league matters, including disciplining errant players, scheduling and managing umpires.”
In a similar vein, KU alum Bill James, who has written extensively on baseball, told Kansas Alumni that “league presidents aren’t burdened with many specific duties: their signatures are stamped on official baseballs; they make ceremonial appearances; they give speeches; they rule on manager and player suspensions; and they supervise the hiring and firing of umpires.” He added, “All of that together is distinctly less than a 40-hour-a-week job.”
Of his legacy at KU, Budig wanted “to be remembered as one who worked hard for others and who never lost sight of the university’s importance to society.” And to “establish a permanent symbol of [his] outstanding work for the university,” in 1994 the KU Endowment Association established the $250,000 Gene A. Budig Teaching Professorship in the School of Education. “No farewell gift could have been more meaningful,” said Budig.
Following his 13-year tenure as chancellor, the fourth longest in the University’s history, Budig was pleased to leave his successors an institution whose “academic programs are strong and responsive to the needs of society.” (Ironically, Budig’s immediate successor was the same Del Shankel who had been serving as interim chancellor prior to Budig’s arrival. Shankel remained as KU chancellor until 1995, when Dr. Robert E. Hemenway assumed the position.) Budig told the Lawrence Journal-World that he was “proud of the fact that KU has not backed away from its responsibilities in research, instruction and service. The reputation is there,” he insisted, “the real challenge will be to keep it.” “Leaving home hurts deeply,” wrote Kansas Alumni of the departing chancellor, “but the ache has been eased by the anticipation of beginning the job of his dreams. Budig has for several years known he would end up in baseball; his turn finally has come.”
Following Major League Baseball’s restructuring process, Budig resigned as president of the American League on January 8, 2000, and became senior advisor to baseball commissioner Bud Selig. He resides in Princeton, New Jersey, where, in addition to his baseball duties, he teaches at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas