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Theo Epstein ’95, the miracle-working baseball executive who led the Chicago Cubs to World Series glory last fall, will be this year’s Class Day speaker.
Hired in 2002 as the youngest general manager in the history of Major League Baseball, Epstein became a household name in 2004 when he led the Boston Red Sox to the team’s first World Series victory in 86 years and broke one of the most famous championship droughts in sports history. Last November, Epstein engineered another long-awaited World Series triumph, as the Cubs secured their first title in 108 years.
Class Day co-chairs Joana Andoh ’17 and Larry Milstein ’17, a former opinion editor for the News, made the announcement in an email to Yale seniors on Sunday afternoon.
“His story is something that goes beyond sports but rather speaks to a universal theme among graduates: the ability to dream and also to be able to achieve that despite a wide range of challenges and obstacles,” Milstein told the News. “That narrative is something that resonates whether you’re the biggest sports fan or someone who’s passionate about other things.”
No other sports figure has given Yale’s Class Day speech in the last 25 years. The previous three Class Day speakers — former Secretary of State John Kerry ’66 in 2014, former Vice President Joe Biden in 2015 and former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power ’92 in 2016 — all served in former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Before he became one of the most influential figures in baseball, Epstein was an undergraduate in Jonathan Edwards College and a sports editor for the News. He graduated from Yale with a degree in American Studies and was hired by the Red Sox at the age of 28. Nine years later — having helped the Red Sox break the notorious Curse of the Bambino and then win another World Series title in 2007 — Epstein left Boston to become president of baseball operations for the Cubs.
Last fall, Epstein told The New York Times that his time as a sports reporter at Yale had little impact on his career in Major League Baseball.
“You’re not going to draw epic similes between the Yale Daily News and the World Series,” he said.
Andoh and Milstein said that Epstein was their first choice for Class Day speaker and that they were particularly excited to have him address the class after the Cubs won the championship with a dramatic Game 7 victory over the Cleveland Indians on Nov. 2.
“Theo was someone who was on our radar, and the Cubs win coincided with that inspiration for wanting to reach out to him,” Andoh said.
Class Day adviser and former Jonathan Edwards Master Penelope Laurans said that for years, undergraduates have asked her to bring Epstein to Yale for a College Tea.
“More people asked if we could get him than any other single person,” she said.
Still, on the Facebook page Overheard at Yale, some students responded to the announcement with anger or confusion, expressing dismay that the Class Day committee failed to choose someone “more representative of the student body.”
Stefanie Fernandez ’17 said the announcement represents an affront to Yale’s first-generation and low-income students, especially those of color.
“The equation of overcoming ‘adversity’ to breaking sports team losing streaks is insulting and so far away from the real adversity that much of the graduating class will face,” Fernandez said.
Grace Pan ’17 called the Class Day announcement “a missed opportunity” after two years of conversations about diversity and inclusion at Yale. She added that many Yale students have “a sense of apathy about pro sports.”
“I don’t perceive pro sports as being any sort of unifying force in which members of the class of 2017 can find solidarity,” Pan said.
But other students hailed Epstein as an exciting new voice whose achievements in Major League Baseball, as well his leadership abilities and business acumen, make him an ideal Class Day speaker.
“Epstein is a sports figure, yes, but he’s also a businessman — making decisions about how to lead his ‘business’ to success,” said Andrew Herrera ’17, a catcher on the Yale baseball team. “That crossover will make it interesting both for those involved in sports and those not. I look forward to what he has to say.”
As an undergraduate at Yale, Epstein interned with the Baltimore Orioles for three consecutive summers.
This article was updated to reflect the version that ran in print on March 6.