Interviews | Bobby Richardson
The Yankee dynasty of the late 50s and early 60s was defined by its power. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the “M&M Boys,” slugged home runs at a historic rate while Yogi Berra, Bill Skowron, and Elston Howard provided a jolt up and down the lineup. The ’61 Bombers slugged 240 home runs, eclipsing the Yankee record at the time by an astonishing 47 long balls. No Yankee team would surpass that mark until the 2004 squad hit 242 dingers forty-three years later.
But a propensity for the long ball does not necessarily make a team championship-caliber. The most prolific home run team in baseball history, the 1997 Seattle Mariners, slugged an obscene 264 homers behind Ken Griffey Jr.’s 56, but could not make it out of the ALDS. A championship team must be multi-faceted. It must be solid defensively, manufacture runs when the balls are not clearing the fences, and possess excellent role players to compliment its stars. That is what made the Yankee teams of the late 50s and early 60s so exceptional and what made Bobby Richardson such an indispensable part of the franchise.
Richardson began his career with the Yanks in 1955, broke into the starting lineup in 1957, and accrued a litany of accomplishments over his 12-year career. He was an 8-time all-star, won 5 consecutive Gold Gloves between 1961 and 1965, and played on 3 World Series championship teams. One of his greatest individual accomplishments was taking home the 1960 World Series MVP Award, becoming the only player from a losing team ever given that honor.
Beyond the tangible accomplishments, Richardson played an integral role in the Yankee machine, infusing the club with the necessities it takes to win game in and game out. He was a deft contact hitter, striking out every 23.8 at bats, and had a knack for getting on base with the big bats coming up behind him. He was also a superb 2nd baseman, nimbly turning double plays with the help of Tony Kubek at short and Clete Boyer at 3rd. In 1962 he led the league with 209 hits while batting .302, finishing 2nd in the MVP voting to Mantle and his 30 home runs. In the most defining moment of his career, Richardson, and not the 6 Hall of Famers on the field that day, made the biggest play of the 1962 World Series.
In a classic at Candlestick Park, the Yanks clung to a 1-0 lead in Game 7 of the World Series as it moved to the 9th. Ralph Terry, in a masterpiece, had allowed just 2 hits in 8 innings, but ran into trouble as the Giants attempted to stave off elimination. Matty Alou led off with a single, but Terry was resilient as he struck out Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller. Down to their last gasp, the Giants sent Willie Mays to the plate who doubled to right, putting the tying and winning runs into scoring position for Willie McCovey, who had 1 of San Fran’s 4 hits. Terry, who in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series yielded the iconic home run to Bill Mazeroski, dealt to the Giants’ slugger who roped what for a moment looked like the winning hit, but Richardson stuck his glove just over his left shoulder to snare the screaming liner and preserve a 1-0 Yankee victory and a 20th World Championship.
After retiring in 1966, Richardson managed the University of South Carolina Gamecocks from 1970-1976, leading them to a runner-up finish in the ’75 College World Series. He also made a bid for the United States Congress in 1976 out of South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, falling by a narrow 51.4% to 48.3% margin. Today he is a national leader for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and is a highly sought-after speaker.
He was kind enough to take time away from his Christmas preparations (he’s expecting 30 at the house this year) to speak with me.
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First of all, it’s a thrill to speak with you. You were my father’s favorite player when he was a boy, and the reason he played 2nd base.
Thank you, that’s very kind.
What first got you interested in the game of baseball?
My dad just loved baseball and I played every opportunity I got. I started in the Knee Pads League with the YMCA. At 14 I got cut from my junior high team, but made the American Legion team and lost in the game just before the World Series. Before that game I saw The Pride of the Yankees, the one where Babe Ruth plays himself, and I just fell in love with them. [The Yankees] followed up with me and came out and watched me play. They said when I graduated they’d sign me and they kept their word. At 17 I signed the day I graduated.
What did it mean to you when you became a regular in ’57?
Well, those first years I was in and out. [Casey] Stengel liked to play a lot of people which was a little discouraging. So becoming a regular in ’57 meant so much. It was so exciting. I loved playing and had so much fun. I roomed with Tony Kubek in the minors and then when we both came up and we had so much fun.
You struck out just 243 times in 5,780 plate appearances. What was your approach that made you such a tough out?
Well, there was that time I struck out 3 times against [Sandy] Koufax.
True, but I think that was the only time you struck out 3 times in a game in your career!
You’re probably right. I used a large bat and choked up. I wasn’t swinging for home runs so I had better bat control.
One of your most memorable plays was your catch on McCovey’s line drive to end the ’62 World Series. Take us through that moment.
There was a lot of rain in that series. It felt like we were never going to stop playing. What I remember most is McCovey was up, Hiller was on 3rd, Mays was on 2nd and I walked over to 2nd to talk to Kubek. We talked a lot. Kubek says to me, “I hope he doesn’t hit it to you!” I asked, “Why?” He said, “Because you already made one error.” We both laughed. The other thing I remember is right before the pitch the ump turned to me and asked for my hat. So I caught the ball and flipped the hat to him.
What was is like playing with Mickey Mantle every day for 10 years?
He was the player during that time. He could outrun anybody, he was a powerful switch-hitter, he played great defense, he was a quiet team leader, so it was just a thrill to play with him. Not a lot of people know this, but we were very close. When I was coaching at South Carolina he came down to our place in Boone and did an instructional film and we gave out 2,000 Mickey Mantle bats. We were very close friends.
At Roger Maris‘ funeral I gave the eulogy and he was a pallbearer. That day he asked me to give the eulogy at his funeral. He would remind me over the years that he wanted me to do that. I just didn’t think it would come so soon. It was a humbling experience. He was a true Hall of Famer and a great friend.
Do you have a favorite memory of him?
I have two actually. One in particular… He was the 1962 MVP. I led the AL in hits and when he accepted the award he made the statement, “Bobby should have won it,” which wasn’t true. He hit 30 home runs.
The other time I remember, we were playing in Minnesota, losing in the top of the 9th by 3 runs. I was up and he came over from the on deck circle. He says, “See if you can hit one outta here.” Well, I hit a grand slam and as I come home he’s laughing and I asked him why. He said, “I didn’t think you could do it.”
What is your funniest memory from your time in New York?
Well, I have a lot. Mantle was always the instigator. We had a gadget in the clubhouse, this snake-biter thing with what looked like a snake’s tail attached to a ball. Mantle would say, “Hey come look at this!” and it would shoot out and hit the guy in the chest. I always got a kick out of that. That stuff went on all the time.
What is your lasting legacy?
Almost 50 years have passed by. To this day I still get balls and letters in the mail every day with people asking for autographs. It’s amazing.
What about your career are you most proud of?
That’s a good question. I was an integral part of the team, but they were the Hall of Famers. I added a lot, I moved runners around, got on base, turned double plays, but I was just excited to be part of that. But you may know that I retired early. I realized that over 10 years I spent too little time with my family. Kubek felt the same way. So we both retired early. I felt that was more important.
Who is your favorite current Yankee?
Derek Jeter because he is a throwback to the old-timers. He’s a great ballplayer and he’ll finish his career in New York instead of going for the money somewhere else. I follow him pretty close. But Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera have become very close friends as well.
Well, thank you so much, Bobby. It’s really a thrill to speak with you. God bless you and Merry Christmas.
You too. Thanks.