In the spring of my freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, I saw an ad in the student newspaper, the Daily Cal, seeking sports reporters. I had no designs on being a sportswriter, but it sounded fun, so I went to the ramshackle Daily Cal office building and said I was interested.
“Good,” said the sports editor, John Crumpacker. “Can you cover baseball? Our beat writer has mono, so we need someone immediately.”
Next thing I knew, I was standing in the office of Cal baseball coach Jackie Jensen, one of the most legendary athletes in Cal history, a football and baseball star (fourth in the Heisman voting in 1948) who went on to win the American League MVP award in 1958 with the Boston Red Sox. He had quit major-league baseball at age 34 because of a fear of flying (here’s a classic SI feature on Jensen from 1976 by Ron Fimrite — highly recommended), and eventually landed the coaching job at his alma mater. And I landed in his office, petrified. I’ll forever be grateful to Jensen — who would be fired after the season, and died young in 1982 — for suffering my hesitant, indecisive questions with grace and patience. I painstakingly pounded out a story (on a manual typewriter — these were ancient times) –and turned it into Crumpacker (who would become my college roommate and lifelong friend, not to mention one of the best sportswriters in the business for the San Francisco Examiner, and then SF Chronicle).
The story was good enough for them to assign me another, and eventually to give me the Cal baseball beat — one which I held, by choice, for the remainder of my college career, even after I became sports editor my junior year. I lived and breathed Cal baseball in those days and developed a great relationship with Jensen’s successor, Bob Milano, who would go on to have a long and successful career with the Bears.
I bring all this up because the stunning news came down yesterday that Cal baseball is biting the dust, the victim of, you guessed it, budget cuts. The program dates back to 1892. Here’s today’s Chronicle story from my buddy Crumpacker. Also getting cut are men’s rugby (in which Cal has won 25 national titles since 1980 under legendary coach Jack Clark, whom I covered as a Cal football player), women’s lacrosse, and men’s and women’s gymnastics. Cal baseball has a pretty good legacy, producing players like Jeff Kent, Brandon Morrow, Xavier Nady, Brennan Boesch and Connor Jackson, not to mention old-timers like Jensen, Mike Epstein and Andy Messersmith (and the alums are not happy with the decision).
Now, this might not mean much to anyone not connected to Cal, but it should. It’s another ominous sign of the tenuousness of the so-called non-revenue sports in these tough economic times. UW went through it a few years ago when it cut swimming, which was very painful to those associated with the sport. I daresay that most athletic programs around the country are dreading the day they may have to face decisions, and shortfalls, like the one Cal officials had to deal with. Many already are.
Myself, I’m going to take today to remember fondly my formative days with Cal baseball — watching players like Rod Booker, Tom Coburn, the Zunino brothers, Greg and Gary, Bob Bohnet ,Bob Silverman and all the rest — and say thanks one more time to the great Jackie Jensen for being nice to a scared freshman.