Hoop madness comes to Cooperstown
By Steve Light
Spring training is in full swing, but the eyes of the sports world this week are fixed on the college basketball tournaments. While we all wait for the Cinderella team that will make our brackets fall to pieces, let’s not forget that many of baseball’s brightest stars have stepped on the court in college, and even in the NBA.
The most famous crossover player – Michael Jordan – perhaps had a better handle on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament than he did the curve ball. The former North Carolina star hit the game winning shot in the championship game against Georgetown in 1982, but in his one season with the Double-A Birmingham Barons Jordan hit .202 with three home runs, 51 RBIs and 30 stolen bases.
Yet MJ wasn’t the only basketball star to take the field. Another basketball Hall of Famer, Dave DeBusschere, pitched for the Chicago White Sox in 1962 and 1963, compiling a 3-4 record with a 2.90 ERA over 36 games. And when former Celtic, Trail Blazer, and Phoenix Sun Danny Ainge led his BYU team to the regional finals in 1981, he had already made it to the majors. Drafted in 1977 by the Toronto Blue Jays, Ainge made his big league debut on May 21, 1979. In three seasons with the Jays, Ainge batted .220 with two home runs, 37 RBI, and 12 stolen bases. Perhaps spurred on by his tournament success – his coast-to-coast drive with seven seconds left sunk second seeded Notre Dame in the regional semifinals – Ainge quit baseball following the 1981 season and focused on his basketball career.
On the flip side, many baseball stars have found success on the basketball court as well. Point guard Kenny Lofton helped the Arizona Wildcats make it to the Final Four in the 1988 tournament before being drafted by the Houston Astros that summer. Even Hall of Famers have gotten in on the act, Robin Roberts starred on the court for the Michigan State Spartans, while Tony Gwynn was San Diego State’s floor general in his college career. Gwynn still holds school records for assists in a single season and assists in a career. He was even drafted by the San Diego Clippers of the NBA, but luckily for us, chose baseball instead.
Six-foot-six Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was a standout baseball and basketball player for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Winfield and the Gophers made it to the tournament in 1972 and even earned a first round bye. The Gophers lost their first game in the Midwest Region to eventual national-runner up Florida Sate, 70 – 56, with Winfield playing all 40 minutes and chipping in eight points and eight rebounds. In the regional third-place game, the Gophers bounced back to beat Marquette 77 – 72, with Winfield compiling 16 points and nine rebounds. Scouts so highly rated Winfield’s athletic ability that he was not only drafted by the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and the Utah Stars of the ABA, but also his hometown Minnesota Vikings of the NFL. He had not even played college football.
As the regional semifinals and finals come to nearby Syracuse March 25 and 27, the Hall of Fame will celebrate the connections between baseball and basketball on Friday, March 26 with a full day of programs, including special trivia contests that test our visitor’s knowledge of baseball and the NCAA tournament.
Stephen Light is manager of museum programs at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.