Watching the waning days of Albert Pujols’ career, one gets to remembering. The man cast such a huge shadow over the sport for so long, his early days seem like a different era. For a sense of how long, I remember hearing about him for the first time from a physical copy of USA Today’s Sports Weekly — the thing we used to read while walking to school uphill both ways, etc. The Cardinals, it was reported, were so impressed with a 21-year-old third baseman who’d barely played above low-A that they were considering plugging him into their Opening Day lineup.
Pujols’ rapid rise to prominence is unusual but not completely unheard of, and the rise of a precocious young hitter from the Dominican Republic conjures up certain images: signing as a teenager, working up through the low minors, proving himself against grown men at an age when his American counterparts are still eating meal plan tater tots and going to frat parties.
But Pujols, who moved to New York and then to Independence, Missouri, as a teenager, was a college baseball player. He played one season at Maple Woods Community College (now Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods). There, he did about what you’d expect one of the best hitters ever to do against juco competition: hit .466 with 22 home runs in 56 games, led his team to a regional title, and earned All-American honors. That spring, the Cardinals picked him in the 13th round of the draft, and two years after that he was in the majors. Two World Series, three MVP awards, and almost 700 home runs later, you know the rest of the story.
As a self-described college baseball aficionado (others might use adjectives like “sicko” and “know-it-all”), I’m tickled by the idea that if one were to measure the success of a college baseball program by something like cumulative WAR or award hardware, Pujols alone puts Maple Woods on par with most Power Five programs. It’s even funnier that thanks to Bryce Harper, late of the College of Southern Nevada, there are multiple junior colleges with active multiple-MVP winners, but no Division I schools.
There are two points here, one serious and one not.
The serious point is that while certain programs have a reputation for developing talent, and certain regions have a reputation for producing it, truly exceptional baseball players come from everywhere and take dozens of different paths to the majors. They’re the sons of athletes, teachers, farmers, stevedores, librarians, whatever. They’re found playing in front of 10,000 screaming fans in the SEC or playing in front of nobody in particular at high schools in upstate New York.
The truly remarkable thing is that, for more than 70 years now, organized baseball has had a scouting network capable of finding almost all of them. A few more might slip through the cracks now that the draft is half the size it was five years ago, but generally speaking, even a kid from some random community college can get a shot in the pros if he’s good enough.
The non-serious point is that illustrating this point offers a convenient pathway to a phenomenon diehard baseball fans tend to live: Absolutely meaningless, arcane trivia.
See, it turns out there’s absolutely no correlation between the reputation of a college baseball program and its ability to turn out MVP-level players. Volume, yes, that a school has some control over, but not the peak of its greatest alumni. So, in the interest of distracting America’s white collar workers on a Friday afternoon, I’ve constructed a quiz. Since modern MVP voting rules came into play in 1931, 38 colleges have produced at least one MVP of the American or National League. How many of those can you name? (Including the two I’ve already given away earlier in this post.)
Turns out baseball history is littered with juco legends, without even counting two all-time greats in this quiz who famously transferred from junior colleges to major conference schools. Further complicating matters: A number of MVPs are listed on Baseball-Reference as having attended a college but never played baseball there. Ernie Banks, for instance, took night classes at the University of Chicago, where he presumably learned many fascinating things about economics. I sorted those cases out as best I could using SABR’s player biographies (if anyone has evidence one way or another of whether Carl Yastrzemski played on Notre Dame’s freshman team, or if Don Baylor played at Blinn College, I’ll update the quiz). Players are listed only at the school they were drafted and/or signed from.
Admittedly, only a [chooses euphemism carefully] particular kind of person would seek out this information, or even find it interesting when confronted with it. But this kind of abstruse trivia is baked into baseball fandom, so have fun.