He made it all the way to the major leagues as a catcher and even though he once connected on a College World Series home run, Pete Varney's most memorable connection to Harvard athletics didn't occur on a diamond.
Richard "Pete" Varney holds a doubly rare place in Harvard sports history. He's one of only 29 Harvard alums who has played major league baseball, but that's not what he's remembered for around the League.
He's the one who caught the two-point conversion that tied the 1968 edition of "The Game," the famous Harvard-Yale match up that ended in a tie, but was (and is) considered a win up at Harvard, to the point of the Crimson proclaiming at the time "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29."
It's perhaps the most famous Harvard game of all time. Both Harvard and Yale were unbeaten, and this would be the first time both teams would be going into The Game unbeaten since 1931. Yale was led by quarterback and future NFL player Brian Dowling, who was immortalized by fellow Yalie and cartoonist Garry Trudeau as B.D., a football player who never removes his helmet in "Bull Tales," a precursor to "Doonesbury." Yale also had at running back future NFL All-Pro Calvin Hill. While Harvard didn't have any future NFL players at The Game, it did have a future Oscar-winner in Guard Tommy Lee Jones, who made first-team All-Ivy that year, in addition to future major leaguer Varney.
The game itself didn't disappoint. Yale went up 22-0 over Harvard in the first half, and led 29-13 with three-and-a-half minutes left to play. But then Harvard came roaring back, recovering a fumble, scoring, and making the two-point conversion. Harvard then recovered an onside kick, moved the ball up and, with three seconds left, quarterback Frank Champi threw a touchdown pass to receiver Vic Gatto. Then, with no time left, Champi completed the two-point conversion pass to Varney, preserving the 29-29 tie.
Varney's pretty prosaic about the game, and his role in it, though he does list it as his most memorable Harvard sports moment. "We were excited because the game was on regional TV," he recalls. As for the conversion, "we ran the play so many times during the year, it was mechanical. You just had to get open."
Though he may be low-key about his role, Varney sacrificed a lot to get there. Chosen by the Kansas City Athletics with the first pick of the 1966 supplemental baseball draft, he gave up an $80,000 bonus to attend Harvard. "I knew that teams liked me," says Varney, "but I wanted the best education I possibly could get. If I didn't get into Harvard I would have turned pro."
In addition to football -- where he was a three-time letter winner and made second-team All-Ivy in 1970 -- Varney was a catcher for the baseball team. As a sophomore he led the team with a .377 batting average. As a senior he made first team all-EIBL with a .326 average, helping lead the Crimson to a 4-1 victory over Brigham Young in the 1971 College World Series with a home run. This is Harvard's only World Series win, and no Ivy League team has won a College World Series game since.
Selected first again, this time by the Chicago White Sox, in the secondary phase of the 1971 draft (he was drafted seven times, many times in the first round, during his high school and college years), Varney went on to a four-year major league career. He calls it a "cup of coffee, with no time to put in cream and sugar," but he did get 190 at bats in 69 games, compiling a .241 batting average, as a catcher with the White Sox and Atlanta Braves. He also caught four-time 20-game winner and knuckleballer Wilbur Wood, who was from nearby Belmont. "We used to sneak into Harvard to work out," he remembers. As for catching Wood's knuckler "I really chased after it pretty fast," laughs Varney.
Retiring from baseball in 1977 Varney went into coaching, starting at Narragansett High in Templeton, Mass. After three years he moved on to become baseball coach at Brandeis University, a position he continues in today. While at Brandeis Varney has compiled a record of 514-287-4 and has appeared in 12 NCAA tourneys, with last year's team appearing in the NCAA Division III World Series.
He had "a great experience" at Harvard, and is "glad I went through," but Varney wonders whether he could repeat his accomplishments today, especially in light of the different admissions climate. "I wouldn't have fit into the formula," he thinks.
— Stephen Eschenbach