upper waypoint

Gavin Newsom Says Baseball Saved Him. But the Legend of His Career Doesn’t Always Match the Reality

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A middle aged man pitches a baseball in a full ballpark and wearting a "nationals" outfit.
Then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom warms up before the All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game, held ahead of the All-Star Game in San Francisco, on July 8, 2007.  (Robert Galbraith/Reuters via CalMatters)

For their 2004 home opener, the San Francisco Giants invited a special guest to throw the ceremonial first pitch: Gavin Newsom, then just a few months into his first term as mayor of San Francisco.

As Newsom took the pitcher’s mound, wearing dress shoes and a button-down shirt underneath his custom Giants jersey, the announcer informed the crowd that “he played first base for the University of Santa Clara and was drafted by the Texas Rangers.”

The introduction was quickly overshadowed by Newsom nearly hitting a photographer with the ball. But it left a lasting impact on a few attendees that day — a group of former Santa Clara University baseball players who were struck by the glowing treatment of Newsom’s resume.

“It’s kind of the standing joke that Newsom played on the team,” said Vince Machi, who arrived at Santa Clara in 1985, the same year as Newsom, and played baseball for three years. “There’s always been kind of a joke between the guys who stay in touch.”

Sponsored

Twenty years later, as the Giants kick off their latest home season Friday, Newsom is now a national political figure — not just an outspoken champion of the Democratic Party but a potential future presidential contender. He regularly appears on cable news to discuss California policies and attack Republicans. Lately he has traveled the country as a leading surrogate for President Biden’s re-election campaign.

Through his rise over the intervening two decades, his baseball career has provided Newsom a triumphant narrative to push back on the perception that his upbringing was privileged and easy: The high school standout scouted by the major leagues, who overcame his dyslexia and academic shortcomings to earn a partial scholarship to Santa Clara University before an injury forced him to find a new purpose.

It has become so closely associated with Newsom that “Saturday Night Live” opened a show in March with a sketch where the Democratic governor, portrayed by Michael Longfellow, defends President Biden’s mental fitness by recounting: “The other day he was taking a nap and I whipped a baseball at him and he caught it like De Niro in ‘Awakenings.’”

Newsom told the story himself again in January on the podcast Pod Save America: Because of poor test scores, he was headed to community college until he got a call from the Santa Clara University baseball coaches. “It was literally the ticket to a four-year university. It changed my life, my trajectory,” he said.

But former coaches and teammates said that biography, repeated again and again through interviews and glossy magazine profiles and coverage of his 2021 baseball-themed children’s book on overcoming dyslexia, has inflated Newsom’s baseball credentials, giving the impression that he was a more accomplished player than he was.

Most notably, Newsom never played an official game for Santa Clara University; he was a junior varsity recruit who played only during the fall tryouts his freshman and sophomore years, then left the baseball program before the regular season began. He does not appear on the Broncos’ all-time roster or in media guides published by the athletic department to preview the upcoming season.

A middle-aged white man wearing jeans and a blue buttoned shirt and sunglasses throws a snowball with snow and trees in the background.
Gov. Gavin Newsom tosses a snowball after the California Department of Water Resources conducted a media snow survey at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada on April 2, 2024. (Fred Greaves/California Department of Water Resources)

A deeper look at his recruitment also reveals that Newsom’s admission to Santa Clara University — like so many of his formative opportunities — was substantially boosted by friends and acquaintances of his father, William Newsom, a San Francisco judge and financial adviser to the Gettys, the wealthy oil family. One associate connected Newsom to the baseball program when he was in high school, while his father’s best friend, then a member of the university’s board of regents, wrote him a letter of recommendation.

Mike Cummins, the assistant coach at Santa Clara while Newsom was there, said the governor has “embellished his baseball career a little bit at times.”

“He never played in a varsity game. He may have played in some scrimmages,” said Cummins, who is now the head baseball coach at California State University, East Bay. “He’s embellished it. It’s half-truths. He was recruited to Santa Clara, he was there in the fall, but he never played. He didn’t have a varsity career there.”

The misconception has been propelled as much by what Newsom doesn’t say as what he does — a polished sweep over his time at Santa Clara University that rarely gets more detailed than, “I played a little baseball. Just my first and second year,” as he told The Santa Clara, the student newspaper, in a 2008 interview.

Not for the first time in his career, Newsom has allowed a more flattering version of events to develop in the public discourse while being slow to clear up the inaccuracies. During his first gubernatorial campaign in 2018, he acknowledged that he never attended rehab, as was widely reported more than a decade earlier after he pledged to seek treatment for problems with alcohol.

Some Broncos players from the era, who said they still regularly get asked about Newsom when people find out they played baseball at Santa Clara, wanted to correct the record.

“He didn’t earn it. He didn’t earn the right to say it,” said Kevin Schneider, who pitched for two seasons and now runs a pitching academy in San Francisco. “I worked my ass off. So did everyone else on that team. For him to just go all these years, to say he did something he didn’t that takes not just talent but also dedication and effort and sacrifice, it’s not right.”

Spokespeople for Newsom rejected multiple requests to interview the governor about his baseball career. They said Newsom had never exaggerated his experience at Santa Clara University and that it was not his job to fix whatever mistaken assumptions the public may have developed.

“He’s been very honest and consistent about what happened to him in college and more personable than you would get from most politicians,” spokesperson Bob Salladay said. “He is not responsible for other people’s impressions or interpretations of him and his life. He is doing his job, and he cannot spend his entire day correcting people when they make errors about him. He’s moved on.”

Newsom speaks about his baseball journey with “emotional, real truth that is visceral to him,” said Nathan Click, another spokesperson for the governor. “We all go through life and remember the emotions we feel about things, not, you know, facts.”

“He chooses to talk about the emotional side of it, because he thinks that is the place that young people in particular, who are going through struggles, people with dyslexia, can find themselves in his story,” Click said. “That matters way more than, you know, whether he was a rostered player or what his stats were in the fall ball, JV, freshman year, Santa Clara University season.”

From high school standout to Santa Clara University

By all accounts, Newsom was a talented baseball player at Redwood High School in Marin County, where he was also a star on the basketball team before graduating in 1985. His name appears in the San Francisco Examiner’s prep coverage from the time — banging home runs, hitting a game-winning single in the Marin County Athletic League championship his senior year and being named to the all-league first team.

Publications including The New YorkerThe New York Timesthe Marin Independent Journal and Men’s Journal have reported over the years that the Texas Rangers drafted, recruited or showed interest in Newsom in high school. In 2009, a Newsom spokesperson clarified to the San Francisco Chronicle that he had merely been scouted, not drafted.

Newsom was among the hundreds of high school players across the country whom the Rangers organization looked at while preparing for the annual amateur draft, according to a spokesperson for the team.

Spokesperson John Blake wrote in an email that the Rangers’ chief California scout from the time “said that we did watch Governor Newsom play in high school, but he doesn’t remember us specially scouting him.” He said major league teams are very thorough in scouting California and “it is likely there were several players on this particular high school team that our scouts had interest in seeing, including Governor Newsom.”

Newsom spokesperson Click said the governor received business cards from those scouts after they watched him play, which he has spoken about in past interviews. “They made a point to come up to him and introduce themselves, which means something,” Click said.

Newsom headed down the Peninsula to Santa Clara University, a private Jesuit college where he was a freshman in the fall of 1985. Having struggled in high school, with a reported SAT score of 960 out of 1600, Newsom has long credited baseball with securing his admission.

“I had a pretty severe learning disability, dyslexia, struggled academically, and the only reason Santa Clara University would have ever accepted me was because I was a left-handed first baseman who could hit fairly well,” he told The New York Times in 2019.

A young high school male with baseball uniform crouches on one knee and leans on a baseball bat.
Gov. Gavin Newsom played baseball and graduated from Redwood High School in 1985. (Photo from Gavin Newsom’s social media via CalMatters)

Newsom also had help from several well-connected alumni.

Bill Connolly, a San Francisco investment banker and associate of William Newsom who played baseball at Santa Clara in the 1960s, put the younger Newsom on the team’s radar, according to Cummins, the former assistant coach. Connolly died in 2017, and his widow could not be reached for comment.

Connolly “was a very good supporter of us at the time, money-wise,” Cummins said, and pushed the coaches to check Newsom out. “That was pretty normal at the time,” Cummins said, especially in a pre-internet era when recruiting was more regional and word-of-mouth. He said the baseball team was not a “backdoor” to admit Newsom into the university.

Click said Newsom does not remember his family asking Connolly to recommend him to Santa Clara University “and if it’s true, it would be news to him.”

Alongside then-head coach John Oldham, who died in February, Cummins eventually visited Newsom at home and recruited him to Santa Clara. The team had a junior varsity squad at the time, which it used as a “minor league,” Cummins said, so Newsom had a guaranteed spot in the program, but would have to perform well enough to play in varsity games.

He was offered a scholarship of $500 in October 1985, during fall quarter of his freshman year, according to a photograph of a section of the paperwork provided by Click, though it’s unclear if that’s the only payment he received. Click said Newsom was unable to locate the original document. The cost of attendance for Santa Clara University that year was $10,251, including tuition, room and board.

Eager to ensure his spot, Newsom’s family also solicited letters of recommendation from former Gov. Jerry Brown, who attended Santa Clara University for one year and appointed William Newsom to the Superior Court and the state Court of Appeal during his first term as governor, and from John Mallen, an attorney who served on Santa Clara’s board of regents at the time.

Mallen, who described William Newsom as “my best friend for 75 years,” said he did not frequently write letters of recommendation for applicants while he was on the board.

Illustration with newspaper clippings.
A series of newspaper clippings that highlight Newsom’s baseball accomplishments during high school. (Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./CalMatters)

“In fact, I may not have helped anybody else get in,” Mallen said.

Though he does not have a copy of the letter anymore, Mallen said it was probably addressed to the president of the university and would have been a character reference for the younger Newsom.

“I mean, I’d known him since birth,” Mallen said. “He was a good athlete. That I remember.”

Mallen said it “absolutely” would have been “hugely influential” in helping Newsom gain admission to Santa Clara: “I think it was a big help.”

Click denied that the letters of recommendations played any role in Newsom’s acceptance.

“Baseball was the reason he got into university and the partial baseball scholarship shows it,” Click said.

College baseball cut short by elbow injury

Newsom has previously said he played baseball his first two years at Santa Clara University before injuring his throwing arm and reevaluating his path, a timeline repeated in major profiles of Newsom, most recently by Los Angeles Magazine in 2021.

“Ultimately, I had an ulnar nerve issue and threw out my arm and had a surgery and really didn’t come back,” he told WBUR, a Boston public radio station, in 2019. “And then I had to make that tough choice of, ‘What the hell do I do with my life?’ Because I was just so consumed by baseball.”

To report this story, CalMatters reached out to coaches and teammates listed on the Broncos rosters for the 1986 and 1987 seasons. They said Newsom played only during the fall tryout periods of his freshman and sophomore years, when prospective players trained and rotated into practice games against other local universities, and no official statistics were kept.

Several people recalled that Newsom was around for just the first few weeks, perhaps as much as six weeks, as a freshman. He did not make the 1986 roster, as reflected in the game program and media guide “The Boys of Spring.”

A team roster on an illustrated background.
Gov. Gavin Newsom does not appear on the 1986 Santa Clara University baseball roster. (Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./CalMatters)

Newsom was not one of the standout prospects that year — “We would have known he was a big scholarship player who crapped out,” said Jim Flynn, who was a freshman pitcher — but no one interviewed by CalMatters disputes his athletic ability.

Victor Cole, a freshman in the 1986 season who split his time pitching and playing outfield for the varsity team and playing outfield for the junior varsity team, said Newsom “was a good athlete” and “he looked like somebody who could play college ball.”

“Everyone who was recruited had talent. So he had talent,” said Cole, who briefly played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992 and now coaches at Christian Brothers University in Memphis.

Machi, who also arrived in 1985, said Newsom caught his attention because they were competing for the same spot, playing first base.

“I do recall him being a fairly athletic guy. It wasn’t like he was a fish out of water,” Machi said. “As a competitor, you’re always looking around.”

But within a few weeks, Newsom had “just disappeared,” Machi said. “He didn’t have any accolades on the field.”

Struggling with pain in his left elbow, Newsom underwent ulnar nerve surgery in late 1985 and took the rest of the season off, Click said. Dr. Michael Dillingham, an orthopedic surgeon in Daly City who was the team doctor at the time, confirmed to CalMatters that he performed the operation.

After the surgery, however, Newsom did not rehabilitate his arm through the Santa Clara baseball program, recalled Larry Donahe, then a freshman pitcher who also sat out the 1986 season recovering from an elbow operation for the same injury as Newsom.

“If he had a bad elbow and was hurt and was doing any sort of rehab, I probably would have seen him,” said Donahe, who had a full-ride scholarship and continued to play for the Broncos through other surgeries his sophomore and junior years. “He never came into the training room.”

Click said Newsom was in a cast and then physical therapy for several months and did not begin training seriously to return to baseball until the summer.

He tried out for the Broncos again in fall 1986 as a sophomore but “couldn’t make it work” because of continued elbow pain, Click said. Before the regular season began, Newsom gave up his beloved sport for good.

Players said Newsom was not particularly close to his teammates and they were uncertain of the circumstances of his departure. Many wondered if he lost interest in baseball because of the fierce demands of Santa Clara’s program.

Because the NCAA had not yet established limits on student-athletes’ time, players described the team in that era as a full-time job, even during fall tryouts: multiple games each week; practices that ran from the early afternoon until after the dining hall stopped serving dinner and all day on the weekends; extra training including 5 a.m. workouts; and vision strengthening and success visualization classes, where players would lie on the floor with their eyes closed and imagine how to improve their technique.

“If you had a life, you chose to do something else. If you were a baseball lifer you loved it,” Matt Toole, who played baseball at Santa Clara from 1985 to 1989 and then two seasons in the minor leagues, wrote in an email.

Newsom “actually played well enough to make our team both years,” he wrote. “He had a lot of potential but he chose not to play.”

A photo of a young boy in baseball uniform with a hat and bat.
A young Gavin Newsom in a baseball uniform. (CalMatters)

Click said Newsom may not have felt comfortable sharing his injury publicly at the time because he was ashamed not to live up to the success he experienced earlier in his baseball career.

“It was really a crushing moment for him,” Click said, “especially somebody who had been really hyped up by everyone around him in Little League, in high school.”

But the legend of Newsom’s feats on the diamond endured. In a 2010 story previewing the Giants-Rangers World Series, The New York Times contrasted the baseball careers of the mayors for the two teams.

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert joked about his brief stint playing junior varsity at Claremont McKenna College: “They put me in when it was time for the outfielders to do wind sprints.”

The Times called Newsom “more serious about the game,” noting the then-San Francisco mayor played for two years at Santa Clara University.

“I was your standard 6-foot-3-inch first baseman,” Newsom told the paper.

Sponsored

lower waypoint
next waypoint
How California and the EU Work Together to Regulate Artificial IntelligenceCarnaval San Francisco Celebrates 46 Years With Spectacular Mission Street ParadeUS Universities Expand Climate Change Degree Offerings Amid Growing DemandArts and Crafts: 'Koko et Kiki'The Hidden Dangers of Sharing Adorable Photos of Your Child OnlineIs California’s Wine Industry in Trouble?Inheriting a Home in California? Here's What You Need to KnowD Sharp: The DJ Behind the Warriors GamesAcademic Workers' Strike Will Roll On as UC's Request for Court Order Is DeniedEighth-Grader's Call to 911 About Teacher's Outburst Causes Stir