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Gene Budig, academic who ran American League, dies at 81

Mr. Budig, at Game 3 of the American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, in Fenway Park in 1999.
Mr. Budig, at Game 3 of the American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, in Fenway Park in 1999.ELISE AMENDOLA/Associated Press

NEW YORK — Gene Budig, the self-effacing educator and baseball fan from small-town Nebraska who became the head of three major universities and the last president of the American League, died Tuesday. He was 81.

His death was announced by the commissioner’s office and the Charleston RiverDogs, a minor league team he co-owned. No cause was given. He had been in hospice in South Carolina.

Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement that Dr. Budig was a “friend to many” in baseball and praised his “lifelong connection” to the game. Former commissioner Bud Selig said Tuesday he “appreciated his work and his support,” calling him a ”wonderful person."

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Dr. Budig succeeded Bobby Brown as AL president in 1994 and augmented his staff with Larry Doby, the first Black player in the AL. Dr. Budig held the job until baseball owners abolished league presidents under a reorganization urged by Selig in 2000.

By then, with interleague play already a part of the game and umpires being put under the control of the commissioner’s office, it was clear those longtime positions were being phased out.

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was among those skeptical of Dr. Budig’s credentials. To the bombastic Boss, the outsider — small in stature, owlish in appearance, exceedingly soft-spoken — belonged more in school than in sports.

Incensed by a suspension imposed on pitcher Mike Stanton following a brawl between the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles in 1998, Steinbrenner thundered about Dr. Budig: “I’m not sure when the last time he wore a jockstrap was.”

Dr. Budig, whose childhood dream was to play second base for the Yankees, didn’t publicly respond. Rather, he brandished his razor wit. He contacted old pals at the Kansas University athletic department, had them ship him the largest jockstrap they had in stock, signed it and sent the undergarment to Steinbrenner.

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In 2007, when Dr. Budig moved to South Carolina, he became a part-owner of the RiverDogs, a Yankees affiliate in the Class A South Atlantic League. By then, Dr. Budig and Steinbrenner were on much friendlier terms.

RiverDogs chairman and co-owner Marv Goldklang said Tuesday that Dr. Budig was more than a partner, and his humor and guidance will be missed.

A chancellor at Kansas and president at West Virginia and Illinois State, Dr. Budig also was a newspaper reporter, a governor’s assistant, a major general in the Nebraska Air National Guard, and a teacher at Princeton.

Mixing his passion for academics and athletics at Kansas, Dr. Budig oversaw a prescient move in 1988. With many prominent alumni clamoring for the program to hire a big name to succeed Larry Brown as men’s basketball coach, Dr. Budig instead backed someone who had never been more than an assistant in college: Roy Williams, a future Hall of Famer.

“Ol’ Budig knew a little something,” the professor liked to say about many subjects, with a wry smile.

Dr. Budig remained close to Williams and they were part of a regular breakfast gathering in the Charleston area that featured present and past coaches in college basketball and football.

Gene Budig was born on May 25, 1939, and was adopted from an orphanage shortly after birth. He grew up in McCook, Neb. He earned three degrees at the University of Nebraska: a bachelor’s in journalism in 1962, a master’s in English in 1963, and a Ph.D. in education in 1967.

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He was a reporter and editorial writer for The Lincoln Star and Lincoln Journal while attending school, then worked as an administrative assistant to Nebraska’s governor. He served in the Nebraska Air National Guard until retiring in 1992.

Dr. Budig became an assistant professor of educational administration at Nebraska in 1967 and rose to full professor, assistant vice chancellor, and assistant vice president and director of public affairs.

He moved to Illinois State in 1972 as a vice president, dean, and professor of educational administration and its youngest full professor. He became acting president in 1973 and president later that year.

Dr. Budig was appointed president of West Virginia in 1977 and was hired as Kansas’ chancellor in 1981. He visited every county in the state during his first year and presided over a campus expansion. He also helped lobby the state for money to rebuild an auditorium following a fire; the building was renamed Budig Hall in 1997.

Dr. Budig lived in Princeton, N.J., and taught at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

He leaves his wife, Gretchen Van Bloom Budig, and three children: Christopher, Mary Frances, and Kathryn; a sister Mary Ann Myers; a brother, Richard; and five grandchildren.