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My Favorite Player: BOBBY RICHARDSON

(Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY.)

Sport Magazine used to run small notices about joining fan clubs, and there it was in 1961 — the address to join the Bobby Richardson Fan Club, operating out of New Jersey.

Perfect. I was in. Bobby was my guy.

I had been a Yankees fan since 1955, and of course Mickey Mantle was the hero of the day, baseball’s first television star. But by 1959, my loyalty shifted from Mick to Bobby.

I had nothing against Mantle. It was more like my wanting “my own guy” since everyone else was a Mantle fan. And Richardson filled the role. His handsome Topps baseball card in 1958 stood out with its red background and I, too, was playing second base and wearing No. 1 in the Police Athletic League in Queens.

The newspapers always called him “little Bobby Richardson,” and I, too, was a bit height-challenged in fifth grade. So if you were going to pick on Bobby, you had to get past me first.

I also felt bad for him, because Yankees manager Casey Stengel did not show him much respect. Casey preferred the hard drinkers (as he had been), not the milkshake guys like Bobby and Tony Kubek. Sometimes he would embarrass him by batting him ninth in the lineup behind Don Larsen (a decent hitting pitcher), or he would pinch hit for him in the third inning.

A superb defensive second baseman, five-time Gold Glove winner Bobby Richardson combined with Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek to form one of the best double play combos in the major leagues during the 1960s.
(Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY.)

And so when Bobby batted .301 in 1959, he not only showed up Casey’s notions about his hitting skills but pretty much cemented his place on the wall where I’d hang Sport Magazine photos. (One year Bobby was a subject of a “Sport Special” story, and the magazine ran his full-page color photo backward, with the NY on his right side.)

Before I joined the fan club, I wrote him a letter, and to my delight I got home from school to see a black-and-white postcard of Bobby on the dining room table signed, “Really appreciated your letter, Sincerely, Bobby Richardson.” Oh wow!

After I joined the fan club, in addition to a membership card and a newsletter, I would receive little four-page religious tracts with the mailing.

“What’s this?” I wondered.

Well, they were messages about accepting Jesus as savior, and my parents were wondering what their son was doing when he was supposed to be doing Hebrew School homework. I’m not sure I had an explanation.

What Bobby was doing, of course, was spreading the word through his position as a professional baseball player, feeling it was his calling to take advantage of that platform. And I decided, “OK, that’s fine” and didn’t let it get in the way of my admiration. In fact, there was something quite admirable about it.

Bobby was ahead of his time. There was not yet a Born Again Christian movement, there was no Fellowship of Christian Athletes, there was no Baseball Chapel. It was pretty much him (and Al Worthington) doing God’s work in baseball. And I wasn’t put off by it at all.

In 1962, the fan club held a contest asking members “in which game would Bobby get his 100th hit of the season?” By then I was a little SABRmatician, and of course I said, “the 81st game,” and of course I won. (He would get 209 hits that season, and, trust me, I am not pausing to double-check this on Baseball-Reference.com.)  My prize was an autographed baseball from Bobby and an in-person meeting at Yankee Stadium.

I still remember the meeting; for it was the first time I was ever that close to a real Yankee. The flannel uniform, the dark cap (which sometimes photographed black, not navy), and the presence of my hero, greeting me at the railing by the first base box seats, were priceless memories.

We fast forward. I’ve now gone through high school and college, Bobby has retired to South Carolina, and I’m hired by the Yankees PR department to answer Mantle’s fan mail. It’s the summer of 1968, and I’m on the Yankees payroll.

So I write to Bobby on Yankees stationery and say, “Guess what?”  And thus begins what could have been a very awkward transition. We were once hero-child “friends,” and now we are going to become adult friends. It is not always an easy dynamic. But Bobby made it so.

We were able to strike up a more genuine friendship, and as the years went on, I became the team’s PR director in 1973 and his principal conduit to all things Yankee. I’d send him his Old-Timers Day invitations and keep him posted on news of interest. I had long ago sent him the four volumes of scrapbooks I had kept during my youth. 

Bobby Richardson amassed 1,432 hits, 34 home runs, and 390 RBI during his 12-year career with the New York Yankees.
(Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY.)

I made sure his place in Yankee history was often recalled. Not only did he twice hit .300, he was a seven-time All-Star, 1960 World Series MVP (the only player on a losing team ever selected), set Series records for RBI and hits and caught the dramatic final out in 1962, a line drive by Willie McCovey, to secure the Yanks’ last Series championship until 1977.

In 1992, I had him once again sign my fan club baseball, 30 years after I had first won it. Each year we talk on the phone the day after the World Series to salute another year of his single-game and series RBI records still standing (six and 12 respectively). Over 53 years, no one has touched them. We share laughter and amazement over that, and this year we talked about it being a good thing that the Cardinals started to walk David Ortiz or else.

At 78, Bobby remains vital and genuine. I guess clean living did work. Take that, Casey. 

We still meet in person when time allows; he’s still inviting me to his home in Sumter, SC (which I’ll make one day), and we talk when an old teammate passes on and Bobby just wants to reminisce about him. He was at Mantle’s bedside at the end and spoke at his funeral — a tribute to both of them).

So here’s to converting childhood fan club memories to an adult friendship that hopefully goes on for a long, long time.

The author with his favorite player and friend Bobby Richardson.

 

 

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