`Reckless' Richards cracks open O's coffers

History: Manager/GM took over in 1954 and showed penny-pinching organization the cost of winning, and losing.

October 29, 2003|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

In seven years with the Orioles, Paul Richards made the largest trade in baseball history, signed Brooks Robinson, invented the oversized catcher's mitt and preached a pitching-and-defense philosophy that defined the Orioles for years after he was gone.

But many believe Richards' greatest contribution in turning around a losing team was a wild spending spree he undertook after being handed the keys to the franchise in September 1954.

Richards wasted piles of money on prospects who failed to blossom, but he also "opened the keys to the cash box, which had to happen if we were ever going to compete," said Joe Hamper, an accountant who joined the Orioles' front office in 1954 and stayed for 37 years, retiring as chief financial officer.

The franchise had been a dispirited, penny-pinching loser in St. Louis and was on its way to losing 100 games in its first season in Baltimore when Richards was hired in a dual role, replacing Jimmy Dykes as manager and Arthur Ehlers as general manager.

"We had operated very conservatively that ['54] season," Hamper said. "The mind-set was clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox had the big bucks, and we were not in that category."

The Orioles owners and club president Clarence Miles were neophytes who had pledged to spend "whatever it takes" to win, but they didn't know where or how much to invest.

Richards showed them. As the major leagues' first manager/GM since John McGraw, who ran the New York Giants from 1902 to 1932, he took liberal advantage of his unchecked authority to deal and spend.

"Overnight, we went from a conservative organization to a very aggressive and, in some respects, reckless organization," Hamper said. "It was a complete change in philosophy and a nightmare for those of us on the financial side, but the end result was the mentality that we were competitive and weren't going to back off."

Richards was a tall Texan who had batted .227 over parts of eight seasons as a backup catcher in the majors. He had then won as a minor league manager in Atlanta and Buffalo and turned the losing Chicago White Sox into contenders.

Conservative in speech and manner, he was a managerial progressive, an original thinker. Twice in Chicago, he had shifted a starting pitcher to the outfield and brought in a reliever, then returned the starter to the mound after the reliever faced one batter. In Buffalo, he had once walked a pitcher four times to keep a fleet leadoff hitter from running wild on the bases.

Nicknamed "the Wizard of Waxahachie," a reference to his hometown, Richards could teach the fundamentals of any aspect of the game, especially pitching. He revived the careers of numerous veterans by teaching them a slider he called a "slip pitch."

Soon after getting his first chance to run an organization, Richards demonstrated his progressive flair.

In November 1954, he made a trade with the Yankees involving 17 players, still the largest in baseball history. (An 18th player to be named was not documented.) The next season, Richards went through players like cards in a deck, the turnover so constant that, when asked to assess his pitching staff in July, he replied, "Do you mean the one coming or going?"

In 1956, he proposed swapping entire 25-man rosters with the Kansas City Athletics, backing off only after the A's asked to take Roger Maris and Clete Boyer out of the deal.

But in signing young players, he was really creative.

No limit on bidding

Any team could sign any player with the amateur draft still a decade away, and the bidding often involved signing bonuses. The Orioles had budgeted a paltry $100,000 in 1954 but spent more than twice as much on bonuses in 1955 after Richards arrived.

"He just came in and completely bamboozled the owners," said former Orioles GM Harry Dalton, who joined the front office as assistant scouting director in 1954.

Many of Richards' early signings were failures. Bruce Swango, a high school pitcher from rural Oklahoma, didn't own a pair of baseball spikes when he signed in 1955 and couldn't perform in front of crowds. The Orioles gave him a $36,000 bonus and released him nine weeks later.

Bob Nelson, a slugger nicknamed "the Babe Ruth of Texas," never hit a home run for the Orioles.

Jim Pyburn, a college football star at Auburn, signed a $48,000 contract, but he had a bad back and became a football coach.

Richards was relying on the advice of his private scouts, who accompanied him from job to job, rather than on the Orioles' respected scouting department headed by Jim McLaughlin, who had come with the franchise from St. Louis.

"Paul would get a call from one of his cronies saying, `This kid, boy, you've got to sign him.' And we would instantly give him $30,000, $50,000, $70,000, whatever it took," Dalton said.

Orioles assistant GM Jack Dunn famously joked that Richards had been given an unlimited budget and exceeded it.

"The owners didn't like it," Dalton said, "but it shocked them into realizing that if you wanted to be competitive, this was what you had to do."

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