MALCOLM GILLIS, THE PRESIDENT of Rice University, likes to tell the story of the football player who was being recruited by Rice and another Texas university of, shall we say, less intellectual rigor. The coach of the other school asked the prospect about his scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. “Fifteen-fifty” was the answer—a breathtakingly high score that is close to the maximum score of 1600. There was a moment of stunned silence, and then the coach said, “Hell, son, you could get into school here twice for that.”
I went to see Gillis in early July because he is a distinguished economist, and I wanted to discuss with him a most unlikely variant of the law of supply and demand: Two weeks earlier, the Rice baseball team had supplied enough hitting and pitching prowess at the College World Series to meet the demand of its fans for the university’s first national championship in any sport. Next to the fall of the Berlin Wall and my children learning to get themselves up in the morning without vigorous parental prompting, nothing I have encountered in life has come as a greater surprise. I say this not only as a Rice alumnus but also as a former sports editor of the unfortunately named Rice Thresher.
During the sixties, when I was at Rice, success in athletics eluded the university with great regularity, particularly in baseball. As I recall, the rivalry between the Owls and the Texas Longhorns at the time of my tenure on the Thresher stood at something like 117 wins for Texas, 13 wins for Rice. Rice played its home games at a ballpark whose main feature was a sinkhole in right center field, so that when opposing batters smote the ball in that direction, only the head and shoulders of our outfielders remained in view as they gave chase. Attendance was sparse, except on the roof of a nearby residence hall, where engineering students used a coat hanger and surgical tubing to fashion a slingshot that propelled water balloons toward the pitcher’s mound in the hope of disconcerting the enemy hurler as he warmed