On Aug. 29 the San Diego Padres’ Will Venable ’05 became Princeton’s 25th major leaguer. He also became the University’s first African-American major leaguer, an event notable because, well, it was a non-event. “I’m surprised by that,” he said when informed of the milestone days later. “I didn’t think about it before.”
Venable’s entry into the majors has been similarly matter-of-fact. (First impressions: “It’s pretty much what I expected, except the facilities are way nicer.”) And the center fielder’s performance reflected his attitude. After hitting a triple in his first at bat, he went on to be an everyday outfielder in early September, replacing injured starter Jody Gerut.
Venable’s easy transition may seem surprising because basketball was his favorite sport when he was growing up. Princeton recruited him as a basketball player, but on his visit to campus his father, former major-league outfielder Max Venable, steered him to baseball coach Scott Bradley’s office. “I told him, ‘I’m here if you want batting practice,’” Bradley remembered.
As a freshman, Venable played only basketball, but his mother asked him to consider baseball. In his sophomore year, Venable took Bradley up on his offer. He hadn’t played baseball since high school, but after a few swings, he was “whacking the ball all over the place,” Bradley said. Venable joined the team after the basketball season, batting just .239 in 27 games but providing what his coach called “a glimpse of how good he was going to be.”
As a junior Venable batted .344 and was chosen in the 15th round of the 2004 major-league draft, but Bradley felt that scouts undervalued Venable because he hadn’t played in the Cape Cod League, a summer showcase for college players. When Venable had an even better year as a senior, Bradley started calling scouts he knew. This time, Venable was a seventh-round pick of the Padres.
Venable is the fourth of Bradley’s former players to spend time in the major leagues this season — an unprecedented number for Princeton. He joined Padres teammate Chris Young ’02, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Ross Ohlendorf ’05, and Tim Lahey ’04, who made an early-season cameo on the Philadelphia Phillies’ roster before joining the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings.
Stephen Eschenbach is a freelance writer in Millburn, N.J.