Professor Alain Kornhauser *71, far right, is Mr. Summer Softball. He says that alumni stop him in airports to chat about the league, years after they’ve left Princeton.
Professor Alain Kornhauser *71, far right, is Mr. Summer Softball. He says that alumni stop him in airports to chat about the league, years after they’ve left Princeton.
Photo: Frank Wojciechowski

On a hazy summer afternoon, two teams face off for slow-pitch softball on one of the University’s West Windsor fields: Mechanical Advantage (representing the mechanical and aerospace engineering department) vs. the Civil Disobedients (representing operations research and financial engineering). The game features graceful diving catches and a towering home run, along with booted ground balls and the occasional whiff. In other words, it looks pretty much like any beer league in America, except that these players — graduate students, faculty, and staff — spend their days writing dissertations and exploring the mysteries of plasma physics.

Photo: Frank Wojciechowski

During the school year, the fields are the domain of varsity and club sports, with cross-country runners training on the perimeter and rugby squads practicing on the pitch. But in the summer, when most undergraduates are far from campus, the fields are taken over by aging amateurs and unabashed novices who relish their chance to run the bases and chase down fly balls.

For those who play, intramural softball is a memorable experience of departmental and interdepartmental bonding, according to league commissioner Alain Kornhauser *71, a pitcher for the Civil Disobedients. Kornhauser, a professor of operations research and financial engineering, has 46 consecutive seasons under his belt. “It’s the biggest University activity in the summer,” he says. “There’s nothing like it.” This year, departments, programs, and other affiliates sponsored 27 teams. 

The league is organized and competitive, but not overly so. Players double as umpires; foul lines are marked by plastic bags or traffic cones. With the athletics department providing the fields gratis, the only major expense is a new batch of bright yellow restricted-flight softballs, ordered each spring. The sandlot-style setup seems to keep the league from taking itself too seriously — and makes it more welcoming to those who don’t have much experience. Playful team names reinforce the just-for-fun idea: This year’s division champions were the Nightmare on Elm Drive (facilities department), the Tokabats (Princeton Plasma Physics Lab), and the Print Runs (Princeton University Press).

Those who play see the league as a perfect chance to get a little exercise while getting to know their colleagues. As Chris Limbach, a Ph.D. student and captain of Mechanical Advantage, says, “It’s a unique opportunity to socialize. We have some other socials in the department, but they can’t compare to softball.”