The Inside Scoop on YU's Own Professor Robert Tufts
I recently had the opportunity to interview former Major League Baseball pitcher turned Sy Syms Management Professor Robert Tufts, who offers a truly unique and inspiring life story. After graduating college with a B.A. in Economics from Princeton University, Tufts was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 12th round of the 1977 MLB Draft. He went on to play in the MLB from 1980 to 1982, first for the Giants and then the Kansas City Royals. After his retirement from baseball, Tufts went back to school to get an MBA in Finance from Columbia University, which led to a successful twenty-year Wall Street career. In 2009, as Tufts was preparing to transition into academia, he was tragically diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma Cancer. Tufts was reported as cancer-free in 2010, and in response to his battle with cancer, co-founded My Life is Worth It, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping fellow cancer patients.
Feder: Many of us have dreamt or maybe even still dream of playing professional sports for a living. At what point in your lifetime did you dream of playing Major League Baseball?
Tufts: My brother was an All-State pitcher at Massachusetts and got a scholarship to the University of Florida to play baseball, so I viewed that as the be-all-end-all. My thinking was that if I could do anything that approximated what he did, that would be great. However, I was fortunate enough to surpass him, which was a shock to me as a younger brother, and get drafted by the Giants. Once that happened, I realized that the door was open, and I began to really concentrate on my moving my baseball career forward.
Feder: When did your dream of playing in the MLB begin to seem like a possible reality?
Tufts: Actually never, ironically. In 1980, I had a terrible year for the Giants minor league affiliate and thought I would get released. However, since I was a left-handed pitcher, they told me that I could hang around and play another year, so I thought 1981 would be my last year as a professional baseball player. As the story goes, I actually threw exceptionally well that year. The Giants, meanwhile, decided to revamp their relief pitching mid-year and call up some minor-leaguers. Just like that, I was a major-league baseball player.
Feder: What was your coolest memory from your time in the MLB? How about your biggest challenge?
Tufts: Pitching the first game was great, but I think my best memory was actually in Kansas City, where I got to hang around the legendary George Brett (who has the 16th most hits in the history of baseball). He is one of the most genuine and outgoing people that I have ever met. As for my biggest challenge, it was sometimes difficult to keep the enjoyment of the game up, realizing that I am getting paid a lot of money to produce results. Baseball in a lot of ways mirrored a typical business job. I had a to do my work and continuously do it well, because if I didn’t, there was someone right behind me ready to take my place.
Feder: According to Baseball Almanac, you are one of six Major League Baseball players to have converted to Judaism during their careers. Can you describe what led you to convert?
Tufts: When I was at Princeton, people came to my room and tried to proselytize me and basically told me to just accept Jesus as my path to a relationship with God. I thought to myself, “Why can’t I have my own relationship directly with God?” That got me thinking about my mother’s experience in her church, which was more focused on social justice than personal advancement. I attribute this line of thinking as to why I started looking for another way to connect to God.
Feder: After your time in baseball, you decided to go back to school and get an MBA, eventually leading to a successful Wall Street career. What was the transition from professional baseball to corporate America like and was it something that you had always planned on doing following your professional baseball career?
Tufts: Well, I had always planned on doing something after baseball. I knew that if I didn’t play baseball for an extended period of time, I would need to get an MBA and become a traditional business person. If I had played longer and accumulated more wealth, I probably would have done something more focused on my hometown community. Switching to corporate America, though, was a shock. At Columbia’s MBA program, I was about three or four years older than nearly everyone. My classmates were largely less mature and in it for the money, as opposed to actually trying to learn something. It was humorous to me because when I was in college, I wasn’t exactly the most dedicated student, and now I was all about the education.
Feder: It’s really interesting how things change after gaining a new perspective on life, especially after having a job such as a professional baseball player.
Tufts: It actually made me more mature, because I had already done all of the stupid things when I was younger.
Feder: How did teaching become a passion of yours?
Tufts: I love the fact that being a teacher is in a lot of ways similar to being a coach. Like a coach, a teacher sees if their students are happy or not and how they react to different situations. The teacher can help the student in many different ways, such as coaching in the classroom and advising.
Feder: Why did you decide to take your talents to YU?
Tufts: I actually turned down an offer to teach full-time at NYU, because I would have been teaching only one, maybe two classes. At YU, I teach freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Sometimes, I have the same student in as many as four different courses, which enables us to develop a bit of a relationship and discuss topics beyond the basic classwork. That’s what teaching should be about.
Feder: Can you tell me about the charity you co-founded, My Life is Worth It?
Tufts: My Life is Worth It is dedicated to strengthening doctor access for patients, choice treatments, and choice medicines, which are all key in order to achieve better results. We are basically fighting those people who want to focus on the numbers and dollars of healthcare, as opposed to the treatment and the lives. I’m a perfect case study of what our mission is all about. When I got diagnosed with cancer, the current American system or the European model would have said that my treatment would cost too much for how long I was expected to live, so I’m not going to get it. However, I got the treatment and happened to have been an outlier on the positive side, and I have paid it back thousandfold. I went back to work, paid taxes, paid premiums, and advocated for and helped those with chronic diseases. Now, I want to move towards doing more of the patient advocacy, which in general will be pro-innovation and pro-entrepreneurship.
Feder: What are some of the life lessons you have picked which you would like to impart upon the YU students?
Tufts: Never give up. I’ve reached the point where I could have died to illness two or three times, and I have fought the illnesses off. It hasn’t changed my view of life, but it has made me appreciate that every thing that I do, big and little, has an impact. With this approach in mind, I am going to dedicate myself as I turn 60, seven years past cancer diagnosis, to helping other cancer patients and make sure that they have the same chance that I had.
Feder: Let’s close this out properly, by bringing it back to baseball. Who is your pick to win the World Series this year?
Tufts: Hmmm. I’ve been waiting a few years for the Pittsburgh Pirates to finally get over the top, so I’m looking to see if they can take the World Series. The same thing goes for the Cleveland Indians.