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Bobby Richardson: The Underestimated New York Yankee

Updated on October 30, 2012

In 1962, it all came down to the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. And the player who did the most right then to clinch the world title for the New York Yankees was the underestimated clutch player of the team, second baseman Bobby Richardson.

Candlestick Park that day staged the show-down game between the Yankees and the San Francisco Giants, tied 3-3 in the series. Outrageous winds whipped through the ball field, making fly balls all the more uncertain. Typhoon Frieda had caused a three-day rain delay, rendering the playing field a soggy mess.

The Yankees’ starter Ralph Terry remained on the mound in the ninth inning. The right-hander had battled Giants pitchers for 8 1/2 innings to a 1-0 Yankees lead. This game had become a battle of strong pitching, gritty defense and trench-warfare batting and base-running.

In the bottom of the ninth, Terry yielded a base-hit bunt to Matty Alou, the leadoff batter. Alou stayed at first base as the next two hitters tried bunts to advance the runner. They both struck out. Up next came Willie Mays.

With two outs and a runner on first, Mays stepped up to the plate. The 2-0 pitch was low and away, a fastball. Mays connected, sending a line drive into the right field corner.

Right fielder Roger Maris sprinted for the ball, knowing Alou was taking off around second and on toward third and hoping to head for home. The second baseman Bobby Richardson took up a position as cutoff man well into right field. Maris stopped the ball near the foul line before it could reach the fence and carom away toward certain Yankee disaster. Despite challenges stemming from the ugly field conditions, Maris accurately threw to Richardson.

In turn, Richardson relayed the ball perfectly to home plate. His excellent execution and heads-up play caused Alou to brake after rounding third base.

That left the Yankees clinging to their one-run lead, with runners on second and third with two outs. They weren’t out of the woods yet — by a long shot.

Up next came Willie McCovey, who’d tripled two innings earlier and gone long on a Terry pitch in game two of the series. Behind him waited the slugger Orlando Cepeda.

After deciding to pitch to McCovey instead of walking him, Terry noticed that Richardson was positioned deep in the hole. Terry wondered if the middle infielder was out of position.

McCovey swung at the first pitch, sending it along the right field line. The swirling winds took McCovey’s fly ball into the seats, foul. On the next pitch, McCovey connected.

McCovey rifled one he remembered years later as the hardest ball he’d ever hit directly at Richardson. The second baseman didn’t have to take a step. He raised his glove to his chest, catching the bullet for the final out of the inning, the game, the series. Bobby Richardson had played the hitter perfectly.

In fact, had he been stationed anywhere else, even just a couple of steps one way or the other, Richardson might not have been able to get to the rocket, the ball was moving so fast. Richardson’s acumen saved the tying run and perhaps a walk-off win — which would have given the Yankees a humiliating defeat.

A Southern Gentleman With the Yankees

Bobby Richardson was born and raised in Sumter, South Carolina. The Yankees signed Bobby when he finished high school in 1953. He played in the Yankee farm system, including with his big-league shortstop complement Tony Kubek in Denver under the tutelage of manager Ralph Houk (later the parent club’s coach, manager and general manager).

Richardson distinguished himself. He made the All-Star team in the minors. He was invited to Casey Stengel’s special instructional school, held just before spring training began for promising young talent to work on fundamentals and to display their abilities to the major league club’s leadership.

The small-built infielder was quiet, self-composed, modest, and a faithful Christian. He contrasted with his predecessor at second, Billy Martin. Stengel loved Martin’s chatter and emotive play. Richardson and Martin were day and night. But Richardson won his teammates’ respect both on and off the field.

Though not a power hitter, Richardson could get on base (more consistently when Houk became manager and played him regularly instead of playing only intermittently under Stengel’s platooning and pinch-hitting ways).

Finishing second to Mantle in MVP voting in 1962, Richardson led the league that year with 209 hits and had a .302 batting average. Mickey said Bobby should have gotten MVP in ’62.

And as he had defensively to secure the ’62 World Series victory, Richardson could come through in the clutch. For instance, he hit one homer and had 26 RBI during the regular season in 1960. But during the World Series, Bobby hammered a grand slam and a 2-run single in game three and two triples in game six. His 11 hits, 12 RBI, two triples, two doubles and grand slam, not to mention his fielding, merited Richardson the Most Valuable Player of the series award, even though the Yankees lost the series in the seventh game.

His glove really did Richardson’s talking on the field. Peter Golenbock, the author of Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964, described Richardson as “smooth, solid, reliable” and “catlike and quick at second.” He called Richardson, Kubek and third baseman Clete Boyer in the early ‘60s “a cornerstone of one of the tightest infields ever aligned.”

The Kubek-Richardson combo — dubbed the Milkshake Twins by Stengel — rivaled any pair in turning double plays. Richardson won Gold Gloves at second for five consecutive years, 1961-1965.

When he made an error, Richardson owned up to it. For example, in the sixth inning of the fourth game of the 1964 World Series, St. Louis Cardinals batter Dick Groat grounded to Richardson for what should have been a double play. It would have ended the inning and preserved the Yankees’ 3-0 lead.

But the ball got stuck in Richardson’s glove webbing. By the time he freed it and threw to shortstop Phil Linz, Linz had nearly passed second base. Baserunner Curt Flood hit Linz hard and made him drop the ball. That left the bases loaded, one out and teed up a Ken Boyer grand slam and a 4-3 Cardinal victory. That evened the series at 2-2.

“It was my fault all the way,” Richardson readily confessed to reporters after the game.

Whitey Ford, in Few and Chosen, has ranked Richardson the third greatest Yankee second baseman of all time. When you consider just who the competition is, that’s not too bad.

Off the field, Richardson lived out his beliefs. He didn’t judge those who drank and chased women, nor did he condone their behavior. Richardson attended church services when on the road, and he often spoke at events for ministries such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Youth for Christ. He spoke at some of Billy Graham’s services and participated with a number of Christian organizations.

He started holding team chapel services before Sunday games for any others who wanted to join him. Quite a few did come — even Mickey Mantle, on occasion. His Christianity has just been integral to who Richardson is. And his teammates accepted that and respected him.

One time, everybody got a kick out of what happened to the detectives the club’s management sometimes hired to tail Yankees who might test the limits of the team curfew. During the 1958 season in Detroit, Mantle, Ford and some others had fun leading their tag-alongs on wild goose chases.

Well, some of the private eyes tailed Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Bobby Shantz and Johnny Kucks. That was not the curfew-breaking set, but the gumshoes weren’t clued in on that fact. Richardson and company exited the hotel and were headed for the YMCA to play Ping-Pong.

When they noticed detectives shadowing them, the Yankee quartet started darting in doors. They entered a movie theatre, where they bought popcorn. The private eyes bought movie tickets, assuming the players would stick around for the show, but the foursome then left the theatre. Richardson, Kubek, Kucks and Shantz continued the rabbit trails. They eventually reached the Y, where Kucks bested Richardson in a Ping-Pong tournament.

Hero to Heroes

Bobby Richardson was a hero among heroes playing with the famed New York Yankees of the 1950s and 1960s. His peers — Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, Elston Howard, Moose Skowron — got most of the headlines, but Richardson became an example to those guys.

How do we know? Two former teammates, shortstop Phil Rizzuto and star pitcher Whitey Ford, both sent sons to play college baseball under Bobby’s coaching at the University of South Carolina in the 1970s. (This was pre-NCAA champion days for the USC Gamecocks. Bobby Richardson built the Gamecock baseball program into the contender it continues to be today.) Whitey said Richardson “was one of the most well liked players on the team.”

When Bobby ran for Congress from South Carolina in 1976, he ran as a Republican challenger to an incumbent Democrat. That was still unusual in those days, the tail end of the Democrats’ “Solid South.” Among the many, many baseball stars who joined Richardson on the campaign trail were Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. (Richardson lost the election 51%-48%, by fewer than 4,000 votes; the GOP was just then ascending in the South, and having a Christian Southerner, Jimmy Carter, at the top of the ticket didn’t help Richardson.)

Several Yankee luminaries, including Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, had Richardson give eulogies at their funerals. When Mantle was hospitalized several times at Baylor University Medical Center during his last months in 1995, Richardson would receive one of the first phone calls. On his deathbed, Mantle finally yielded to liver disease and cancer, but not without first asking Bobby to pray with him and placing his faith in the Lord whom Richardson had quietly reflected over the years.

Former roommate Kubek said in Sixty-One: The Team, The Record, The Men, “I’ve always said that the heart of the 1961 team was Bobby Richardson and Whitey Ford.” Teammate John Blanchard recalled, “Everybody respected Bobby because he was so sincere. He never forced his religion on us, but we knew what kind of man he was.”

His manager Ralph Houk told the New York Times in the waning weeks of Richardson’s professional baseball career at the end of the 1966 season, “He has to be the finest type of all-around player I ever managed. . . . Not only is he marvelous on the field, but his influence on his teammates is beyond measure.”

The words and actions of his managers and colleagues affirm that a quiet person who lives out his principles while consistently striving for excellence in his profession can win the respect of others. As a hero among a lineup of superheroes, Richardson planted giant footprints.

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Perhaps the best testament to Bobby Richardson’s contribution to the New York Yankees and beyond came from Arthur Daley, the Times sportswriter. He saw all the players year after year, on the field, in the clubhouse, at the Stadium and away. Yet Daley closely observed Richardson while remaining outside the inner circle of the team. He was paid to be a nonparticipant-observer of one of the most storied teams in baseball.

In September 1966, Daley assessed Richardson this way: “This is a truly remarkable young man[,] and the one thing that distinguishes his idealism is that he has operated with such a quiet lack of ostentation that he still was able to win the complete respect of his colleagues.

“ . . . Some day [the Yankees] will replace him as a second baseman. But they never will replace him as a fellow who made big league ball a little bit better just by being a part of it.”

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