The longtime economics professor uses baseball to spark a passion for learning in her students

T

he last .400 hitter in Major League Baseball was Ted Williams in 1941. The Red Sox left fielder hit .406 that year. No one else has done it in the 77 years since. Why? If you ask economics professor Deb Worden, the answer is in the numbers.

“One statistician’s theory says that the standard deviation of batting averages has gotten smaller over time,” Worden says.

As training has become more refined, all players have improved, she explains. Pitchers have improved, hitters have improved, the all-star has improved and the last guy on the bench has improved. As a result, the gap between the best player in baseball and the worst has shrunk, reducing the number of outlying batting averages, both high and low.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Worden grew up a big baseball fan. Her father died when she was young and, after her mother remarried, she and her stepfather bonded over the Pittsburgh Pirates. She remembers the smell of her stepfather’s I.C. Light beer and the sound of the announcer’s voice calling out names like Clemente, Stargell and Manny Sanguillen over the Three Rivers Stadium PA system.

In 1979, when she was 24, the Pirates won the World Series.

“Their theme song that year was ‘We Are Family’ by Sister Sledge,” she recalls. “Willie Stargell – everyone called him ‘Pops’ – picked it. He won the MVP that year.”

In the ’80s, the Pirates franchise fell on hard times. By then Worden had moved on, first to Westminster College for a bachelor’s degree in economics and then to Purdue to earn her PhD.

Baseball didn’t resurface in Worden’s life until 2002. She had been hired at George Fox eight years earlier – the first female professor in what was then the Department of Business and Economics. When she discovered that one of her work-study students was a baseball player, she decided to go to a game. She sat down in the bleachers for the first time and realized she knew everyone on the field.

“The first baseman, the third baseman, two outfielders – those were all my kids,” she says, still thrilled by the discovery. “The starting lineup was all business majors!”


“There’s a moment when you see your students go, ‘Oh, I get it!’ It’s so satisfying! They’re going ‘I understand!’and I’m going, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ How fun is that?”


It was two years before she missed another game. In 2004, the Bruins traveled to Appleton, Wisconsin, for the NCAA Division III World Series. Worden remembers listening to the game over the phone. From the stands, five rows behind the dugout, shortstop David Peterson’s brother was on his cell phone giving Deb and her husband Paul the play-by-play.

“When he told us they had made the final out, Paul and I ran outside screaming,” she recalls. “Our neighbors must have thought we were crazy.”

After rekindling her love of baseball, Worden brought the sport into her classroom. She taught classes like The Business of Baseball and Economics of Sports, and used countless examples in her statistics classes.

At first blush, it might seem that Worden is a stat junkie – a baseball archetype so common there is a movie about them. In reality, she is a lightning rod for people’s passions. Baseball offers Worden an opportunity to fuse abstract subjects like statistics, business and economics with something tangible that her students care about. “There’s a moment when you see your students go, ‘Oh, I get it!’” she says. “It’s so satisfying! They’re going ‘I understand!’ and I’m going, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ How fun is that?”

After teaching for 33 years, she has developed a knack for ushering conversations toward her students’ interests. When she begins to circle the thing itself, watch out. Her eyes light up. Her hands begin to flutter. By the time the conversation reaches a crescendo, she looks like a conductor in front of a symphony and the discussion has found its way into a fundamental theory of economics as it pertains to political polls from the Wall Street Journal, Columbia River salmon runs, or, of course, baseball.

“I got into teaching because I love to learn,” she says. “As a teacher, I get to learn new things every day.”

Worden also got into teaching because she deeply cares about connecting with her students, whether it’s through baseball stats or whatever else they may be passionate about.

“I love people,” she says. “I took a sabbatical during the 2007-08 academic year. It was wonderful – I got to go to spring training with the baseball team. But I hated being away from my students. Now I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to retire. I can’t imagine not teaching. I’m 63 and I’m excited to go to work every day. I’m still having fun!”