How alum Kim Ng became a baseball pioneer

Before her rise as the first woman GM in MLB history, Ng was a college softball star and data whiz

Though she grew up in Queens, in the shadow of Shea Stadium, Kim Ng, AB’90, was a Yankees fan. “In the late ’70s, the Yankees were such a great team. I grew up with all the greats—Thurman Munson, Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson,” Ng told the University of Chicago Magazine in 2018.

This past autumn, it was another Yankee—Derek Jeter, now a co-owner and the chief executive officer of the Miami Marlins—who delivered the news many had been waiting for, when he offered Ng the position of general manager.

Ng, 52, whose 30-year career in baseball includes stints with the White Sox, Yankees and Dodgers, and as the league’s senior vice president for baseball operations, is the second Asian American GM in Major League Baseball history. (Farhan Zaidi, who currently leads baseball operations for the San Francisco Giants, was the first.)

She’s also the first woman to ever hold the role.

When Ng’s hiring as general manager was announced Nov. 13, the significance of her achievement resonated far beyond the baseball world. Former First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted her congratulations, as did Billie Jean King—a childhood hero of Ng’s.

Her phone exploded with emails, voicemails and congratulatory text messages from friends and former colleagues. They were “just so happy that I had broken through, but really more for the sport and more about what it meant for us in society,” Ng said at a Nov. 16 Marlins press conference.

The question of how women can break through in sports has been on Ng’s mind for years—and is one that was shaped in part by her days at the University of Chicago. As a public policy major, Ng wrote her senior thesis on Title IX, the 1972 law that, among other effects, dramatically expanded the number of women participating in college sports. Ng, a captain and MVP of the Maroon softball team, believed the legislation “explained why I had a lot of the opportunities that I did, and how much work we still had to do,” she told the Magazine in 2018.

After college, Ng was hired as an intern by the Chicago White Sox and soon joined the team full time. She stood out—a relentless worker, formidable negotiator and computer whiz (newly important, as data and statistics became a bigger part of the game).

At times, standing out was painful. In 2003, Mets special assistant Bill Singer accosted Ng, then an assistant general manager for the Dodgers, in a hotel bar, mocking her in singsong fake Chinese. Ng was angry—not just that it happened, but that she would be known for being harassed. Would the incident have occurred, Ng wondered, if she were an Asian American man?

By that time, speculation that Ng might be baseball’s first woman GM had already bubbled up. “I think the possibility is out there,” she said in 1998. She earned her first interview for the top job in 2005, with the Dodgers. Her name emerged again and again, and she would interview four more times, for three different teams, without getting the call. “You think, maybe this isn’t going to happen,” she admitted at the Marlins press conference.

Others felt the frustration too. “If you look at her résumé, she should have been on the fast track,” MLB Network analyst and former Mets pitcher Ron Darling told viewers. Her first boss in baseball, former White Sox assistant GM Dan Evans, agreed. “She’s remarkably ready for this role,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “and she’s been ready for an extended period.”

Ng’s personal disappointment was coupled with the fear she was letting down other women. “The idea that this is all sitting on my shoulders—it’s a lot of pressure. It’s hard,” she said in a 2018 Magazine interview. “But I think someone’s going to have to do it.”

When she learned that someone would be her, “it actually took a couple seconds for it to soak in,” Ng said on Good Morning America. Accustomed to playing things “fairly close to the vest,” she kept her initial reaction muted. Jeter said, “You’re not even going to smile?”

She let her guard down when she broke the news to her mother and four sisters, who “got very emotional,” she said. (Now on Ng’s to-do list: buying “about five dozen hats” for family.)

The relief of having achieved a longtime dream was quickly followed by new worries. Ng told reporters it was as though a 10,000-pound weight had been lifted from one shoulder, only to be placed on the other. As she told the Magazine in 2018, the job of general manager is never easy: “It is the ultimate challenge in this industry. … When your team loses the World Series, that’s the first person you’re going to blame.”

For the Marlins, the challenges include a slim payroll, a 16-season playoff drought (broken, finally, in 2020) and perennially low attendance—plus, of course, a pandemic that seems likely to disrupt baseball for at least another season.

Ng is clear about her goal: a World Series win for Miami. That effort has already begun, as she familiarizes herself with the players on the roster and in the team’s minor league system. “I want to hear, firsthand, from the coaches that have been dealing with them, from the scouts who drafted them. … That’s, at this point, the nuts and bolts of the job,” she told the MLB Network.

As she has been for 30 years, Ng is ready to get to work.

—This story was first published by the University of Chicago Magazine.