Yankees Magazine: Paving the Way

After a long and storied career in sports and academia, Gene Budig has poured his considerable experience into ensuring the New Era Pinstripe Bowl’s success

January 7th, 2020
New York Yankees

On the walls hang his heroes. There’s an illustration of Ted Williams, a portrait of Yogi Berra, an image of George Brett showing him how to sign autographs. There are frames holding his three college degrees, one atop the other, and one showcasing the building at the University of Kansas that is named after him. There’s a small table with assorted baseballs and trophies. Nearby, a photo of him posing with Joe DiMaggio. “These pictures may not mean anything, and I apologize if they don’t,” he says, too modestly, before settling into a chair and crossing his legs.

This is a good room in which to talk with Dr. Gene A. Budig.

Except, it’s not really a room. His wife, Gretchen, calls it a shrine, and that’s more accurate. Like a museum, this sunlit condominium in Charleston, South Carolina holds memories, artifacts and snapshots of a long, prosperous and winding career that has led from Midwest academia to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. This is where he lives with Gretchen and their 12-year-old yellow Labrador, Rookie, a kind and hobbled “killer dog,” Gene likes to joke. “What this is,” he says of his memorabilia, “is representative of everything. In everything I did, I attempted to really excel.”

That much is evident. At 80 years old, Budig speaks in short and deliberate sentences, offering glimpses into a past that required him to socialize with major politicians and argue with the sports world’s biggest personalities. He has lived in the plains and the mountains and on the coast. He has worked in the military, on campuses and in high-rise office buildings. He has written books and newspaper articles. He has remained an ardent supporter of education and a loyal baseball fan.

Gretchen has been by his side through all of this, helped raise three children, and now she sits across from him, filling in her husband’s gaps and doses of philosophy with more stories and details and visual aids. She brings out a mounted newspaper clipping with a photo of Gene’s Little League team and starts reading the article. Gene always had a plan, he was an organizer, always planning his next move. “You were concentrated all those years on what you were doing and what you were accomplishing,” she says to him. “You were very, very focused.”

When they moved to South Carolina in 2007, Gene could have eased into retirement. Instead, he planned more moves. He became part owner of the Charleston RiverDogs, the Low-A affiliate of the Yankees, his boyhood team. “I’ve always been a Yankees fan,” he says. “I carried that forever. I’ve never really deserted the Yankees on anything.” He continued to plan. His recurring position as chairman of the advisory committee for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl is testament. Leaning on his experience as president of three universities and his long-standing relationship with late Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner III, Budig has played a vital role in the return of postseason college football to Yankee Stadium. “Being able to have those connections to get that thing started was very valuable to the Yankees,” Gretchen says.

It has also been valuable to the Budig family. Attending the New Era Pinstripe Bowl has become a cherished annual tradition, an opportunity to share another memory inside Yankee Stadium and reflect on the life that led him there.

“It’s a very special place,” Budig says.

One thing to know about Dr. Gene A. Budig is that he is fascinated by the arcs of people’s lives. He wants to learn about where people were born, how their childhood shaped them and took them to various career destinations. “I’m always curious how people end up where they end up,” he says.

Budig’s own arc began in 1939, in McCook, Nebraska, adopted as an infant by an auto mechanic and a nurse’s aide. On the way home from the hospital, Gene’s mother noticed a flat spot on the back of her son’s head and began rounding it into shape. “He had been laying on his back in the crib for so long, they just didn’t know enough to turn these babies,” Gretchen says. Now, Gene frequently asks his wife for head rubs, a sensory bridge to his Rockwellian childhood, where “everybody liked everybody,” he says. Growing up in a small town, he had a lot of time to think about his future, about his friends and relationships. Through his parents’ lack of schooling, he realized the value of education as an equalizing force, as an opportunity to aim higher in life.

When he enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he majored in education and met Gretchen, Budig’s sepia-toned mythology blossomed. Gretchen remembers Gene taking such copious notes in class -- part of his journalistic pursuits -- that he hardly ever opened his textbooks. He aced tests but rarely read the source material, angering his Sigma Nu fraternity housemates. “They would come to my room at night and put lighter fluid under my door and try and burn my door down because they thought that everything was too easy for me,” Budig says, in a remarkably casual tone for describing such a dangerous prank. Looking back, he acknowledges his photographic memory as an enormous gift in his life. “I think it was fundamental, and it allowed me to do so many things.”

Even today, Budig can still recite the names of his Little League teammates and remember random details about old neighbors. He feels lucky to have this kind of memory. Now it’s mostly a party trick, useful for anecdotes. But back then, in the midst of earning a graduate degree and a doctorate in education, recounting specific details and stories became an invaluable part of his professional trajectory.

After getting married, Budig worked as an administrative assistant for Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison, whose people skills, vital to holding office, made for lasting personal connections. “He had this uncanny ability to shake somebody’s hand and remember their family and their kids and how they were doing,” Gretchen recalls. “It taught us a lot.” She and Gene would occasionally take care of the governor’s mansion and host senators at their home for dinners, learning to humanize larger-than-life politicians. In one instance, Gretchen remembers Gene, on an airplane, crossing out half of Ted Kennedy’s speech, which the Massachusetts senator was due to deliver in Lincoln, because it didn’t relate to Midwestern sensibilities. “Virtually every time you have contact, you develop something that’s lasting with the person,” Gene says.

After four years working for Morrison and finding time to attend ROTC and climb the ranks of the Air National Guard, Budig’s passion for education merged with his professional goals when he was named president of Illinois State University in 1973. “I wanted that job because I knew it would lead to the next step,” he says. “Life is not worthwhile if you aren’t always advancing in your own mind … you’ve got to satisfy yourself. That sounds so simple, and it’s so complex.” He held the post for four years before taking the same position -- for nearly the same tenure -- at West Virginia University. In 1981, he became the 14th chancellor of the University of Kansas, holding that position until 1994.

Throughout his various college stops, Budig relied on his powerful memory and experiences in Lincoln to develop relationships with key alumni and grow each school’s educational infrastructure. At Kansas, he refurbished and developed numerous buildings, including the reconstruction of the burnt-down Hoch Auditorium, which was eventually renamed Budig Hall. He learned how to petition for big donations, which allowed him to establish more than 180 faculty positions during his 13-year tenure. He even gave Roy Williams his first college basketball head coaching job. For Gene and Gretchen, though, students were always the priority. “We loved them, and we’d listen to them, and we’d learn from them,” Gene says. “They were central to our adult education. I feel grateful that we were there at a time like that.”

At first, he was criticized. Upon news that Budig was leaving Kansas to become president of baseball’s American League, the Kansas City Star ran an editorial questioning his decision to “move from serious work to the toy department of life,” arguing that he was “stepping down from [his] lofty and prestigious pursuit to manage jocks.” Steinbrenner thought as much when he visited Major League Baseball’s midtown Manhattan offices to meet Budig. In his book, “Grasping the Ring,” Budig recalls his first encounter with The Boss, who stormed into his office on his third day of work, “refused to take a chair, and declared that he never liked AL presidents and he felt that would be the case with me. ‘You’re obviously overqualified for the job; you’re a college president,’ he asserted.”

“I heard that quite often,” Budig says, reflecting on his career pivot. “It was like a lot of people thought I was wasting my life. And God, far from it.” He says he was eager for a change of scenery, for a chance to reacquaint himself with the sport he loved. Gretchen remembers Gene floating when DiMaggio came to West Virginia, and later recalls him negotiating with her to walk past Fenway Park during a winter trip to Boston, just to touch the stadium wall and view the field. “I had no idea how immersed he was, how much it was in his heart,” Gretchen says. While in Kansas, Ewing Kauffman, then owner of the Royals, would meet with Budig once a month to talk education, but baseball naturally took over their conversations. So when former Yankees infielder Dr. Bobby Brown officially stepped down as American League president in 1994, Kauffman suggested Budig take his place. Gene didn’t hesitate. “Again, it’s a continuance of luck,” he says.

Budig and his wife, Gretchen, met while they were students at Nebraska. Together, their lives moved from one campus to another, with stops at Illinois State, West Virginia and Kansas.New York Yankees

Not even two weeks into Budig’s tenure, Major League Baseball began its labor strike, which would end the 1994 season prematurely. Still, Budig remained confident that he had made the right choice moving to the East Coast, trading cornfields for Manhattan skyscrapers. “Life is never what you planned,” he says. “We learned, I think, how you really sort of roll with things. I think we were very good at that. But most people would be bitter and wonder, Why is this happening to me?”

Over his five years in office, until Commissioner Bud Selig disbanded the positions of league president ahead of the 2000 season, Budig administered league matters, schedules and umpires, often disciplining players and teams. Randy Levine, the Yankees’ current president, acted as MLB’s chief labor negotiator during that time, and the pair developed a strong relationship in their adjacent offices. “It was very obvious to me that Gene was a man of the highest integrity, the strongest intellect, really great judgment, and he was just so likable,” Levine says. Even so, Budig’s most notable adversary remained Steinbrenner, who tested him often by purposely mispronouncing his last name and publicly criticizing umpires. “He was ready to pounce at all times; he’d drive me crazy,” Budig says. On numerous occasions, Budig fined Steinbrenner for badmouthing an umpiring crew. “How could you let them get away with that!” Gretchen recalls Steinbrenner huffing. Budig often gave him little response, treating him respectfully but ambivalently. It made an impression.

Despite his heated reactions, Steinbrenner quickly came to appreciate Budig’s demeanor and integrity. “You didn’t take any of the guff that he gave, and he respected you for that reason,” Gretchen tells her husband. Soon, a friendship formed. Gene observed that Steinbrenner had two modes: one, he once wrote, was “driven by ambition and emotion,” and the other was “generous to a fault.” When Budig fined him, Steinbrenner would often argue about where his money should be allocated. “He wouldn’t let you decide where the money went,” Budig says. “He would always give the money, but he had some charity that you didn’t even know about and that’s where he would put it.” In the midst of the Yankees’ late 1990s dynasty, which allowed Budig to present several AL championship trophies to his boyhood team, Steinbrenner still managed to find charitable time for his favorite disciplinarian. When the University of Kansas held a ceremony to dedicate Budig Hall in 1997, Steinbrenner chartered a private jet to Lawrence, signing autographs and telling the Kansas governor about the remarkable job Budig had been doing as AL president.

Gene smiles reflecting on his time in baseball. It established his personal connections with the game’s biggest stars. It afforded him breakfast with Phil Rizzuto in Cooperstown. It earned him perfect seats and endless hot dogs and soda at every game he attended. “He could probably name every player on every team at that point,” Gretchen says. But after staying seven years in Princeton, New Jersey, with Gene teaching and working for The College Board, Gretchen was eager to find a warmer climate in which to spend retirement. Not long after settling on Charleston, Gene was on the phone with Steinbrenner, asking if he could purchase a stake in the RiverDogs. Budig had dealt with so many owners for so long; he was ready to become one, to spend the sunset of his life watching youngsters start their ascent to the big leagues. “What’s fun about being part of a Minor League team like this is you can watch these kids,” Gretchen says. “All of a sudden you’ve got Aaron Judge in the outfield with the Yankees, and you’re going, ‘Oh good, you graduated!’”

“That was a thrill to watch them grow,” Gene says.

The plan is to eat lunch nearby, a five-minute drive to their country club’s restaurant. It’s an unseasonably cold November day, so Budig wraps his big Yankees winter coat — the one Joe Torre gave him — over his brown sweater. The extra navy-blue layer represents his favorite team, but really, it’s a reminder that Gene continues to be a cherished part of the Yankees family.

When the organization looked to bring a college football bowl game to Yankee Stadium, it turned to Budig. “I knew that he was incredibly respected by college presidents, by athletic directors, by players,” says Levine, who asked Budig whether he could use his connections and fulfill the Steinbrenners’ desire to host football in the Bronx. Working his contacts from his time in the Big 12 and Big East, Budig helped establish the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, an annual matchup between the two conferences that began in 2010 before shifting to the Big Ten and ACC in 2014.

In that time, Budig continued to use the relationships he had established over his academic career to the bowl game’s benefit. “It was amazing how many of these people he knew,” says Mark Holtzman, executive director of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. “It’s a little bit of a beauty contest sometimes to get the right schools, and he knew the hot buttons; he knew all these people. He’s so likable, it was seamless.” It has been particularly meaningful for Budig, who sees the success of the bowl game as a final gift to Steinbrenner’s legacy and a tribute to their long-standing friendship. “It’s drawn huge numbers of people, especially in New York,” Budig says. “The Steinbrenners asked me to do it — I’m grateful that they did.”

Outside of the shrine in the Budigs’ home, on a table in their hallway, sit crystal footballs commemorating each New Era Pinstripe Bowl matchup over the years. Gene has tried to attend each one, though his health has slowed him recently. This year, to commemorate the 10th year of the bowl game, Gene and Gretchen vow to be at Yankee Stadium, joined by their children Mary Frances, Christopher and Kathryn, plus their five grandchildren. “Do you know how rare this is?” Gretchen says.

The family is spread out over the country, though Kathryn, a world-renowned yoga instructor, has made a home in Charleston near them. Gene and Gretchen make a point to show off the latest issue of Charleston Home and Design magazine, featuring Kathryn on the cover alongside her wife, Kate Fagan, an author and former ESPN journalist. Occasionally, the family will get together with actor Bill Murray, a yoga student of Kathryn’s and fellow part-owner of the RiverDogs. One year, on short notice, they invited him for Christmas, and he showed up with gifts for each of them. “He made sure that we had all of his Christmas movies recorded,” Gretchen laughs. “We had a ball.”

After finishing his hamburger, Gene waits for Gretchen to pick him up by the curb and drive home. The two have been married for 56 years; they’ve seen a lot in that time. “We’ve put up with so much crap, and no human should put up with it like we did,” Gene jokes. He feels fortunate to be discussing the wide arc of his life. It’s fair to feel tired though. After so many years of being in positions of leadership, he is grateful to be taken care of now, to attend sporting events without having to organize them, to simply enjoy a hot dog and a soda at the ballpark and reminisce.

“If you learn in your life to roll with the punches and you do not cry easily, you’re going to have a great life,” he says, offering a final dose of modest wisdom. “You’ll find happiness.”