Richards laid groundwork for success Orioles would enjoy down the road


March 10, 1991|By BOB MAISEL

Since I started doing an occasional Sunday piece on some of the characters and personalities I've known in more than 40 years of writing sports for this paper, there have been numerous requests to include one on Paul Richards.

It's not an easy assignment writing about Richards, because in a lot of ways he was a complicated individual. Those who didn't know him well considered him aloof, a sort of cold fish. But once you got past that veneer and earned his respect, there wasn't a more loyal friend or better company.

The late Jack Dunn, who at one time or another handled just about every job for the Orioles and was Richards' assistant general manager during much of the time we all traveled together, once described him as "two martinis from being a heck of a guy."

That was a reference to the fact that one of Richards' favorite things was to go to a good restaurant with friends after day games on the road -- and there were a lot of those at the time -- have a few drinks and a leisurely dinner, accompanied by much reminiscing and story-telling. He was a master at it.

He had one of the sharpest baseball minds I've had the good fortune of observing up close. Nothing escaped him, and he was a shrewd innovator. He was also exactly what the Orioles needed when they hired him away from the Chicago White Sox, near the end of Baltimore's first season in 1954, as manager/general manager. He laid the groundwork that led to success on the field and made the Orioles one of the most envied and copied organizations in baseball.

When he came to town, I asked him how he intended to go about rebuilding a team that had lost 100 games two seasons in a row, one as the St. Louis Browns, one as the Orioles. He said: "First, you improve the pitching and defense. They keep you in games, at least give you a chance to win. And, when you stay close, it gives the fans reason to have some hope.

"While you're doing that, you build the farm system so you gradually add players who can provide both offense and defense. That makes you a contender. Then, if you can stick a superstar in there, you have a chance to win it all."

It was the formula he followed, and, although he never won a pennant here before leaving near the end of the 1961 season to become general manager of the expansion Houston Colt .45s -- in his beloved home state of Texas -- he advanced the Orioles as high as second place and started them on the road to even better things.

Richards was born and raised in Waxahachie, Texas (he pronounced it Walkshachie), lived there his entire life and died there. That's the main reason he took the Houston job, to be closer to home.

Richards set up the system the Orioles still use today in handling instruction. He was the first I saw who brought all his farm managers and coaches to the major-league training camp. He wanted them to know exactly how he insisted every fundamental should be taught. By the time they opened their camps, they were all on the same wavelength, teaching the game the same throughout the organization. When players moved through the classifications on the way to the majors, they never had to re-learn the fundamentals. They were always the same. As simple as that sounds, some organizations still don't do it that way, and it sets them back.

Another reason Richards was a perfect match for Orioles needs in the early stages of the franchise was that he was not a stand-pat type. The Orioles needed change, along with numbers, because the farm system they inherited from St. Louis was barren. He made his first deal three weeks after taking the job, and in the off-season completed a 17-player trade with the New York Yankees. He once offered to trade entire 40-man rosters with the Kansas City Athletics, but that fell through when Arnold Johnson, the Kansas City owner, wanted to take Roger Maris and Clete Boyer out of it.

While wheeling and dealing, Richards was signing young talent, building the farm system. He made mistakes, wasted some money, but overall, things began to fall into place. It wasn't long before the young players started coming out of the farm system and producing.

The infield soon had Marv Breeding at second, Ron Hansen at short, a fellow named Brooks Robinson at third, with pitchers such as Milt Pappas, Billy O'Dell, Steve Barber, Jerry Walker, Jack Fisher, Chuck Estrada -- all home-grown -- with others on the way.

By 1960, the young Orioles went into New York in mid-September in a virtual tie with the Yankees, who were winning everything in those days. Casey Stengel had Whitey Ford primed. He beat Barber in a close game in the opener, and the Yankees went on to win all four on their way to another pennant. But the Orioles finished second and had become competitive.

On Aug. 30, 1961, in Los Angeles during a road trip, Richards asked me to come to his hotel room, told me he was resigning to take the job in Houston and said he would like me to write the story. It was the end of an early era of Orioles history, one that set the stage for the successes that were to follow.

Richards died as he would have wanted to -- on the Waxahachie Country Club golf range, working on some shots after a round of golf.

Paul Richards was a great baseball man, and I thought he was a good guy, although, for some reason, he was careful about who he let in on it.

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