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Card Corner: The 1961 Yankees: Bobby Richardson
Posted By Bruce Markusen On May 31, 2011 @ 11:31 am In 1960s,1: Featured,20th Century,Baseball,Bruce Markusen,Card Corner,Player Essays | Comments Disabled
Bobby Richardson might not have made it in today’s game. To be more specific, he might not have been able to start for most teams at second base. He was a reliable and rangy defender with hands of silk at the keystone, but as a .260 hitter who drew few walks and hit with little power, he probably wouldn’t have carried the offensive standard of today’s game. Of course, that should do little to diminish his complementary role on those great Yankee teams of the early 1960s.
Emerging as a 19-year-old rookie, the handsome Richardson made his big league debut in 1955. He was hardly an overnight success. He didn’t hit much over his first four seasons and had to settle for a role as a part-time player and utility infielder, while spending time on the minor league shuttle to Triple-A Denver. When Casey Stengel played him at second base, it was usually in a platoon with veteran infielder Jerry Lumpe. In many ways, Richardson seemed out of place on a Yankee team filled with hard hitters and big drinkers. Richardson’s clean living and deep religious beliefs prompted a famed remark from his manager, Casey Stengel. “Look at him. He don’t drink, he don’t smoke, he don’t chew, he don’t stay out too late, and he still don’t hit .250!”
It was not until 1959 that he started to hit better and finally took hold of the second base job, essentially succeeding Gil McDougald at the position. Richardson played well enough to earn a berth on the All-Star team, hit a tidy .301, and fielded everything hit in his direction. Unfortunately, after making appearances as a bit player in the 1957 and ‘58 World Series, Richardson was denied a more meaningful role in that fall’s World Series; the ‘59 Yankees finished 79-75, a disappointing and distant third in the American League pennant race.
In 1960, Richardson’s hitting fell off to .252, as he reached base barely 30 per cent of the time. Although he looked like a leadoff hitter, he didn’t play like one. Frankly, the Yankees would have been better served leading off with either Tony Kubek, who had a slightly better on-base percentage and far more power, or Hector Lopez, who reached base 36 per cent of the time. Fortunately, the Yankees did not need a ton of offense from Richardson because the rest of their lineup was so potent.
In reality, Richardson always led with his glove. He had the perfect physique for a second baseman. At five-foot-nine and 175 pounds, Richardson was built strong and low to the ground, making him an immoveable object on takeout slides at second base. He worked extremely well with Kubek, his shortstop partner and his best friend on the team. Richardson’s rock-solid defensive play more than satisfied the Yankee brass, which recognized the subtle role that his fielding played in helping the team regain the pennant after a one-year absence.
Given the disparity between his defensive play and his hitting, his performance in the 1960 World Series deserved consideration as the upset of the century. Richardson hit Pirates pitching (which included Vernon Law, Bob Friend, and Vinegar Bend Mizell) to the tune of a .367 batting average and set a new World Series record by collecting 12 RBIs. The Yankees’ inability to win the Series against the upstart Pirates could not be blamed in any way on Richardson, who became the first member of a losing team to claim the Series’ MVP Award. Normally overshadowed by the likes of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, Richardson hit line drive after line drive to earn Sport Magazine’s nod as MVP.
Given his hitting in the Series, it seemed appropriate that Topps featured him holding a bat on his 1961 Topps card. His hitting returned to a level of normalcy in ‘61, but the writers didn’t seem to care. Despite hitting only .261 with a mere 30 walks, extremely poor numbers for a leadoff man, Richardson actually received some votes in the league MVP balloting. Remarkably, he hit even more efficiently in the ‘61 World Series than he had the previous fall, as he batted a robust .391 against Cincinnati pitching. Somehow, it didn’t matter that Richardson failed to drive in a single run during the Series; the Yankees overpowered the Reds of Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson in a four-game sweep.
Then came a marvelous individual season in 1962. Richardson reached career highs in batting average (.302) and on-base percentage (.337), while surprisingly leading the league by thrashing 209 hits. Even more shockingly, Richardson slammed eight home runs, after never having hit more than three long balls in any of his previous seasons. With his offense at a career peak, Richardson actually finished second in the American League MVP vote, behind only Mr. Mantle. He also made the All-Star team, marking the first of five consecutive berths he would claim in the Midsummer Classic.
The hot hitting did not carry over to the World Series. In what amounted to a reversal of 1960 fortunes, Richardson batted only .148 against the National League champion Giants. Yet, defensively he made the final play of the Series–snaring a monstrous line drive off the bat of Willie McCovey that nearly separated Richardson’s glove from his hand. Richardson was positioned perfectly; if he had taken one step in either direction prior to the pitch, McCovey’s low line drive likely would have eluded him, brought home Matty Alou and Willie Mays, and won the Series for the Giants. Instead, Richardson caught the ball, preserving a most dramatic 1-0 decision and the world championship for the Yankees.
Richardson would make two more appearances in the World Series. Both came in losing causes, but the 1964 go-round would represent more offensive triumph for the unpredictable veteran. Amazingly, he hit .406 and drove in three runs as part of a seven-game loss to the Cardinals. With that performance, Richardson lifted his career average in World Series play to .305.
He would never return to the postseason again. Now in full franchise decline, the Yankees endured lackluster seasons in 1965 and ’66. Tired of the travel and the constant shifting of his family from its home base in South Carolina to Florida to New York, Richardson wanted to retire at the end of the 1965 season, but the Yankees, knowing that Kubek’s advisors had already advised him to retire, did not want to lose their double play combination in one fell swoop. (Richardson and Kubek had become known as the “Milkshake Twins” because of their choir boy personas and non-drinking lifestyles.) The Yankees offered Richardson a five-year contract: one year as a player, and the other four as a team ambassador. Richardson agreed to the deal.
Richardson did not hit much in 1966, but he continued to handle his position with grace, dexterity, and range. On August 31, he made his retirement decision public and official. Finishing out the season in an 8-for-55 slump, Richardson played his last game on October 2, as the Yankees put a sad end to a last-place finish in the American League.
Unlike some retired players who fade into the background, Richardson has remained a public figure. If anything, he has been busier in “retirement” than he was as a player with the Yankees. Known for his religious devotion, Richardson has made numerous speeches to Christian groups. In 1970, he received an invitation from President Nixon to preach at the White House.
In 1976, Richardson took a stab at politics. A Republican, he ran for Congress in his home state of South Carolina, but lost the bid to incumbent Democrat Kenneth Holland. Free from the political world, he concentrated his efforts on coaching baseball. He coached the South Carolina Gamecocks to a second-place finish in the College World Series before taking jobs with Liberty University and Coastal Carolina.
Now retired from coaching, Richardson is one of the living links to the 1961 Yankees. With Mantle, Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, Elston Howard, and Johnny Blanchard now gone, Richardson is one of the dwindling number of position players still with us from that team. I’m sure that he has a few stories in him about those bawdy Yankee teams, but he’s probably too decent a man to repeat them out loud.
In recent years, Richardson has become somewhat of a target of Sabermetricians, who have criticized him for his inability to draw walks or hit home runs. He’s certainly not the all-round player that Robinson Cano has become at the pivot. But for his time, Richardson was a pretty decent fit for the team known as the “Bronx Bombers.”
Bruce Markusen hopes to interview Bobby Richardson the next time he comes to Cooperstown.
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