|They don't sneer like they used to.|
Paul Rapier Richards. I have been an avid baseball fan for nineteen years, excluding those early years spent weening and teething and those late adolescent years spent seeing just how far I could insert my head up my ass, and I had never heard that name. At least not in a context that would commit it to memory. And yet Paul Richards has probably had more impact on post-WWII baseball than most any other man. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that he never guided his club to the pennant. In fact, he seemed to make a habit of getting out just before the getting got good.
Paul Richards's baseball career in brief:
- Played parts of 8 seasons from 1932-'35 and 1943-'46, mostly as a catcher, winning the World Series with the '33 Giants and the '45 Tigers
- Was a star catcher for the Atlanta Crackers from '36-'42, taking over as manager in 1936 and leading the franchise to league-wide dominance
- Resuscitated the Chicago White Sox as manager, putting together the "GO-GO-SOX" team that dominated Chicago area sports. Managed from 1951-'54 and 1967
- Managed the Baltimore Orioles 1955-'61, served as GM '55-'58, where he signed Brooks Robinson, Steve Barber, Milt Pappas, and Chuck Estrada, among others
- GM Houston Colt .45s (Astros) '62-'65 where he signed Joe Morgan, Mike Cuellar, and Rusty Staub among others
- GM Atlanta Braves '66-'72
Pitching had long been considered the key to winning baseball games, and indeed, Richards was a part of the majority that believed pitching constituted 75% of winning baseball. However, Richards took it one step further, declaring that pitching and defense made a successful team. "The most important thing to me is to get the other fellow out. Almost every game is decided by the loser giving it away rather than the winner winning it. A good defense, inclusive of pitching, is the most vital part of a successful team," Richards stated upon becoming manager of the White Sox. He was known at the time as a harsh disciplinarian, often keeping his players after a game to drill fundamentals if several errors or baserunning gaffes occurred during the game, oftentimes even after double headers. It would be amusing to see managers attempt this today--tar and feathering may very well come back into style.
While constructing a team around pitching and defense wasn't exactly a new idea at the time, Richards took it to the extreme, often orchestrating trades that sacrificed key offensive players in favor of glove specialists and durable starters. He also instilled the value of baserunning on his team, hearkening back to a pre-Ruth style of ball that favored the stolenbase and the sacrifice bunt. His White Sox teams led the league in stolen bases several of the years he managed. During the 1950s, Richards ordered more sacrifice bunts than any other manager. Modern statistical knowledge certainly debunks some of the merits of base-stealing and all but proves the sacrifice as foolishness; however, Richards wasn't completely behind the curve in this matter. He was the first manager to record on-base percentage* (back before there was a term for it, he recorded it as batting average with bases on balls), placing a far greater value on walks than any other manager in the game. And to go along with his reputation as a superior teacher of baseball, Richards showed that he also still had a willingness to learn and evolve as a manager. In 1964, he spoke out against the sacrifice bunt, declaring it "the most overrated tactic in baseball." He goes on to elaborate that "the defense against the bunt in obvious situations has become so proficient as to make the value of it negligible. When you sacrifice, you are giving away one third of your inning. Too often you end up with your hitters bunting and your bunters hitting." He would go on to build his teams in Houston and Atlanta around these principles when most everyone else bungled along.
*It is true that Branch Rickey was the first to begin exploring the merits of walks and a player's ability to get on base as early as 1913, even hiring a full-time statistician in 1947 who ultimately formalized a method for calculating OBP. However, the stat man had already been fired after Rickey's departure and his breakthrough was ignored for years.
Paul Richards also insisted upon giving his pitchers four days rest rather than the accustomed three, stating "I don't care what pitcher it is, he's always going to have more stuff with four days' rest than he has with three". Hindsight would prove Richards correct, as all of MLB has adopted a standard five man rotation (though many pine for the old days when men were men, as they say, and threw upwards of 300 innings). Richards was the first major league champion of the pitch count, believing that youthful arms needed to be monitored until proper strength was built up.
Perhaps Richards's biggest claim to fame was his reputation as a pitching guru. As a catcher with New York in the '30s, he helped corral Carl Hubbell's wildness. In Detroit he sculpted both Dizzy Trout and Hal Newhouser into dominant pitchers. Throughout his years in the minors, both as player and manager, he succeeded in resurrecting the careers of numerous pitchers thought washed up. Richards stressed the importance of the change-up, or as he called it, the slip-pitch. He forced all of his pitchers to learn it and master it. At the time, the change-up was not widely used, whereas now it is a weapon in nearly every dominant pitcher's arsenal. He even designed a new catcher's mitt that made it easier to catch the knucklers of Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro, which along with moving them from the bullpen to the starting rotation, put them on the path to their respective Hall of Fame careers.
So yes, Paul Richards was an innovator of the game, as well as a great teacher (Brooks Robinson, Nellie Fox, and Hal Newhouser each credit him with raising their game to the next level---they are, of course, all in the HoF). And amazingly, there are people out there who argue the manager in baseball has little to no effect on the outcome of the game. A manager's true impact outreaches the individual game*; it spans seasons and careers. But no, this was not the point of this post, rather simply some backstory to hopefully lend some credibility to the admittedly silly game I am about to play. I do not apologize.
*Of course a manager's in-game decision making can lead to a loss or a win. And often harsh judgement is warranted for some decisions. However, the value of a manager transcends a specific call, successful or not. As Tony LaRussa says, "there's a lot of stuff goes on."
One of the more famous stories about Paul Richards goes something like this. While managing the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, Richards devised an odd strategy to prevent Montreal's leadoff hitter, Sam Jethroe*, from wreaking his havoc on the bases. That season Jethroe stole 89 bases (stealing home 9 times) and scored 151 runs. And so the story goes that late in the game, with two outs and the pitcher at bat, Richards ordered an intentional walk to get to Jethroe (who as a switch-hitter batted .326 that season with a .403 OBP). Here is Richards's reasoning as told to Donald Honig:
We had it figured out that anytime Jethroe led off an inning and got on first, his chances of scoring were ninety percent. We had statistics on it. So if we walk the pitcher intentionally and let Jethroe hit with the pitcher on first and two out, the only way that Jethroe's going to hurt us in that particular situation is with a triple. If he gets a hit, the chances are the pitcher is only going to second, and even though Jethroe is on base, he can't hurt us with his speed because he's got the pitcher in front of him. So we tried it, and it worked.
You are not crazy if this unorthodox scheme brought Tony LaRussa to mind, as he was a protege of Richards's. But I don't even think LaRussa would pull something like this. Although there is some sense to it. There is no record of Richards attempting any such maneuver in the big leagues, in fact, there are those that dispute the play happened at all (Richards at one time being one of them, and another time not). I certainly have never witnessed anything like it, but it got me wondering--what speedy leadoff man has ever instilled enough fear with his legs to warrant a manager willingly putting a pitcher on base to avoid having him leadoff an inning? A lot would have to be taken into account--the leadoff batter's power, the #2 hitter, the cleverness of the opposing manager (as there are ways to counter this). For fun, I compiled the top 10 players in single season stolen bases (1950-present, for statistical purposes) and examined their dominance on the basepaths.
*Sam Jethroe was signed by Brooklyn and moved from the Negro Leagues in '48. In Montreal he was tagged with the admittedly offensive, but kind of awesome nickname, the Ebony Comet. Sadly, there were worse nicknames out there.
Henderson simply because he was the most dynamic and feared baserunner of his time. He hadn't set any records yet, there was no hindsight into his greatness. He was so completely there and ready to beat you in '82. He gets a knock for his lower stealing%, which shows that far too often the attempt wasn't worth the risk. However, he caused great anxiety in the opposing pitcher and was even better at stealing third than second. And he was on base a lot. He had yet to develop his homerun stroke, making the risk of having him bat with a runner on not as significant. Eric Davis, one of the most dynamic players of his era, already had the power to make a fool out of any manager walking the batter in front of him.
|Thank goodness they were chasing bases instead of skirts.|
Tim Raines, though often not thought of as a dominant base stealer, may very well have been the best all-time (hopefully the HoF will admit this sooner rather than later). He wasn't the constant agitator that Henderson was, teasing pitchers with his presence on first base, but pitchers were well aware of not only his desire to steal, but also of the likelihood of his success. Much more so than Henderson, Raines worked the count in choosing the right moment to go. With Raines on the basepaths, the stolen base was almost always the smart play. His career success rate of 85% is the stuff of greatness. And he got on base a lot.
Maury Wills makes the final three despite his lower OBP and was quite probably more feared than Henderson and Raines in his time. In the '60s, an era of dominant pitching (partly a result of the 1963 expansion of the strikezone), Wills played behind two of the best in Koufax and Drysdale. The Dodgers could pitch better than anybody, but they couldn't hit. That didn't stop them from winning three pennants and two World Series in the 1960s, in large part because of Maury Wills's legs. It was not uncommon for Wills to single, steal second and third, and come home to score on a groundball out or sacrifice fly. Often the result would be a 1-0 Dodgers victory. Just get Sandy or Don one, the announcers would say, and we've got it. Opposing teams and pitchers knew Wills was the key offensive cog for the Dodgers and did everything to prevent his beating them. His 89% success rate in 1962 is phenomenal, and all of it on grass without that added leverage of Turf. Opposing pitchers knew that if they shut down Wills, they shut down the Dodgers. No player of his era, or perhaps any other, was feared more on base.
|The King of baseball's 2nd Deadball Era|
We are in an era of decline in the stolen base, despite the recent shift toward pitching dominated play. A lot of factors play into this: a league-wide lack in speed, reluctance of managers to potentially give away an out (though the sacrifice bunt seems to be thriving), playing to the long ball, no more Turf. A lack of smart basestealers has a lot to do with it. 80% is believed to be the cut off for risk vs. reward in basestealing. Not one team in MLB posted this rate. The power struggle between pitching and hitting shifts in cycles. During the power outages in the '60s and '80s we saw record stolen base numbers. After two decades dominated by offense, pitching is wrangling back control.* We could be on the verge of another period of stolen base frenzy. It may not always be smart baseball, but it is most definitely always fun.
*MLB and especially the television media hate it when pitching is dominant. They lowered the mounds in '68, they ignored steroids for who knows how long. Now we may be on the verge of a computerized strike zone, which will shift the advantage to the hitter. The "casual fan" may be thrilled, and the replay men on TV will rejoice with more to do, while the rest of us will be tested once again with just how boring the homerun can get.
One last word on Paul Richards. As with most great baseball men, there is a flipside to the coin. Richards wasn't just a disciplinarian. By many accounts, he was considered to be an outright prick. He often chastised his players in the media, wrankled the asses of many reporters, helped his friends at the expense of others, manipulated team expense reports, violated League policy in concern with bonus baby signings (though it seems these babies were designed to be violated), hustled on the golf course, berated umpires with what many believed was the vilest of tongues (he was ejected 80 times in less than 11 full seasons), and most notably was one of the most vocal opponents of the newly formed Players Association, and especially their leader Marvin Miller, whom Richards referred to as "a little mustachioed four-flusher." And as all of the above would suggest, he was arrogant. On Opening Day of Houston's inaugural season, Richards declared to the press box, "someday when Houston is in the World Series and they are raising the pennant in center field, I hope you'll pause and give ten seconds of silence for ol' Richards". There is an old saying that a great man is never a good man. And a good man has not what it takes to be great. The same, I believe, holds true for baseball men.
**for far more information on Paul Richards, check out Warren Corbett's book The Wizard of Waxahachie. It's a fascinating read, and like all the good baseball books, transcends the sport**