Gene Budig, last president of the American League, dies at 81
By Richard Sandomir
Gene Budig, the soft-spoken former chancellor of the University of Kansas who in 1994 became the final president of baseball’s American League, died Tuesday at his home in Charleston, S.C. He was 81.
His wife, Gretchen Budig, said the cause was complications of fatty liver disease.
Budig (pronounced BYOO-dig) did not expect to be the last to hold his position (nor did Leonard Coleman Jr., his National League counterpart). The job, which included supervising umpires, disciplining players and owners, and arranging schedules, was created in 1901 when Ban Johnson founded the American League and became its first president.
But in 1999, five years after his appointment, Major League Baseball owners voted to eliminate the league presidents and fold their functions under Commissioner Bud Selig. That left Budig and Coleman jobless.
Budig, a Yankees fan since childhood, was disappointed. “He loved that job — it was his dream job,” his daughter Kathryn Budig said in an email.
Budig championed diversity and hired Larry Doby, the first Black player in the American League, as his special assistant in 1995.
“Larry Doby is a historic figure, a treasure who deserves to be remembered,” Budig told The New York Times shortly after naming him to the position. “This appointment will call attention to his contributions. He will provide unique insights.”
Budig also took his disciplinary duties seriously. In 1998, he imposed a five-game suspension on Mike Stanton, a relief pitcher for the Yankees, for hitting Eric Davis of the Baltimore Orioles with a pitch. George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner, responded angrily.
“I’m not sure what Dr. Budig’s experience is,” said Steinbrenner, who had clashed several times with Budig but later became friendly with him, “but I’m not sure when the last time he wore a jockstrap was.”
Budig, who was known for his reserve, did not reciprocate with thunder. Instead, he asked someone at the athletic department at Kansas to send him the largest jockstrap the department had, which he autographed and shipped to Steinbrenner.
“Gene always fought his adversaries with a subtle wit,” Coleman said in an interview.
Gene Arthur Budig was born on May 25, 1939, in Lincoln, Neb., and raised in McCook, in the western part of the state. His birth parents gave him up to an orphanage and he was adopted by Arthur Budig, an auto mechanic, and Angela (Schaff) Budig, a nurse who worked at the hospital where Gene was born.
When he was 12, Gene sent a letter to Bill Veeck, the maverick owner of the St. Louis Browns, asking to try out for the team after learning that Veeck had once sent the 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to pinch hit as a gag.
“He said, ‘I’m pretty good at second base. Can I come for a tryout?’” Gretchen Budig said in an interview. “Bill wrote back and said, ‘Sure, when you get out of high school.’”
Gene never tried out for Veeck, with whom he later became friends. But he played for his high school team and at the University of Texas, Austin, during his only semester there. He graduated from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and remained there to earn a master’s in English and a doctorate in education.
After holding various jobs at the university, including assistant vice chancellor and assistant vice president, Budig left for Illinois State University in 1972 as a vice president, dean and professor of educational administration. He was named president the next year.
In 1977 he was hired as president of West Virginia University. He left four years later when he was appointed chancellor at Kansas, where he remained until 1994.
While there, he oversaw the construction of several buildings and helped secure an $18 million state grant to rebuild Hoch Auditorium, which had burned down in 1991 and was renamed Budig Hall in 1997.
He also approved the hiring of two high-profile men’s basketball coaches: Larry Brown in 1983 and Roy Williams in 1988.
By 1994, Budig had become known in baseball circles as a member of the board of the Kansas City Royals. He was chosen that year to replace Bobby Brown, a former Yankees infielder, as American League president. He followed another academic in baseball’s hierarchy, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who had left the presidency of Yale to become the National League president in 1986 and was named baseball commissioner three years later.
After the league presidencies were eliminated in 1999, Budig worked briefly as an adviser to Selig; taught a course, “The Business of Sport and the Public Trust,” at Princeton University; and served on the advisory board of the Pinstripe Bowl, a postseason college football game played at Yankee Stadium.
In 2007, after moving to South Carolina, he acquired a large minority stake in the Charleston RiverDogs, a low-level minor league affiliate of the Yankees.
In addition to his wife, Gretchen (Van Bloom) Budig, whom he married in 1963, and daughter Kathryn, Budig is survived by another daughter, Mary Frances Budig; a son, Christopher; a sister, Mary Ann Myers; a brother, Richard; and five grandchildren.
When Budig left Kansas to run the American League, there were some doubts about his decision. The Kansas City Star criticized him for leaving serious work to manage athletes. And on his third day as league president, Steinbrenner told him that he was overqualified.
“I heard that quite often,” Budig told Yankees Magazine in 2020. “It was like a lot of people thought I was wasting my life. And, God, far from it.”