Reviews

I think that's a wonderful standard to earn; the baseball man. - Tony La Russa

In elegant prose, impeccable scholarship and a bibliography that is worth the price of admission, historian Warren Corbett pens a masterful biography on a forgotten king of the diamond in The Wizard of Waxahachie: Paul Richards and the End of Baseball as We Knew It (October 2009, Southern Methodist University Press).

 

wizard
Warren Corbett - The Wizard of Waxahachie (352 pages)
Richards spent seven decades in the pro game as a player, manager and club executive, while proving to be a bridge from the game of iconic figures like Ty Cobb, Connie Mack and John J. McGraw to the modern era of "Money Ball" and the vast power of the Major League Baseball Players Association. A controversial visionary, he was the first manager to monitor pitch counts and meticulously track on-base percentages, while inventing the "elephant ear" catcher's mitt for use with knuckleball pitchers and experimenting with game tactics, though stressing the need to constantly school players in the fundamentals at the plate and in the field.

"During his sixty-year career Richards composed a more detailed record of his baseball philosophy than any other man," writes Corbett. "He published one book, wrote a 101-page manuscript of another, penned magazine and newspaper articles, left behind two oral histories, and spoke tens of thousands of words that were reported by sportswriters."

Corbett surgically removes layers of stories to get to the bottom of any number of diamond lessons taught by Richards, who was born on November 21, 1908, in Waxahachie, Texas, and passed away on May 4, 1986, less than two miles from his birthplace. And one of the earliest accounts that ultimately shaped his philosophy -- writes Corbett -- came during an exhibition game in 1917 when Richards said in the book that he learned his first important baseball lesson by watching Cobb:

"'John McGraw's (New York) Giants were training not too far away in Marlin Springs, and they came here for an exhibition game. Naturally I went out to see the game. Well, in the first inning Cobb (Detroit Tigers) dropped an easy fly ball that was right in his hands. I've never forgotten that. The greatest player in the world drops a ball. It's odd the things you remember, isn't it? If he had gone four for four, I would probably have forgotten it a long time ago because he was supposed to do that. But I can still see that easy fly ball dropping out of his hands to the grass.'"

The recollection from the memory of an eight-year-old -- and repeated by Richards over the years -- is not totally accurate, Corbett writes: "Every time Richards recounted this epiphany, he said it happened in a game at Waxahachie between the Tigers and Giants. Cobb never played against the Giants in Waxahachie."

The first big break on the ball field came in June 1923, when an injury to the senior third baseman at Waxahachie High School found the head coach penciling in Richards -- an eighth grader -- into the lineup. The years were then dictated by the baseball season, with Richards paying some serious dues (seven years in the minors) before making the show a home with the Giants in 1933.

But by age 27 in 1936, Richards was a washed up catcher with a .216 career batting average in Major League Baseball. Hired by the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association as a player/manager in 1938, he led the club to an impressive 96-62, while hitting .316 and swatting 13 homers. The team captured the SA pennant and defeated Texas League champion Beaumont Exporters for the Dixie Series championship.

Richards received a break to claw back into the majors during World War II and was part of a battery with pitcher Hal Newhouser that was made of pure gold for the Tigers. But the dugout die was cast in 1947, with Richards -- at age 38 -- hired as player/manager for Buffalo in the International League. After a change in the general manager's office, Richards left the Bisons for the Seattle Rainiers in the Pacific Coast League in 1950.

"During Richards's season in Seattle he left evidence of his most important strategic innovation," Corbett writes. "Every morning he clipped the newspaper box score of the previous day's game and taped it into the book. He recorded how his pitchers had fared against both left-handed and right-handed batters - at bats, hits, bases on balls, home runs. He tallied the same data for each of his hitters, keeping track of platoon splits.

"After every weeklong series he turned to a blank page in the back of the book and totaled each player's results for the season to date. He calculated batters' averages against both types of pitching and pitchers' batting average allowed against both types of hitter. Then he added one more column, headed 'B.A. with bases on balls.' Today the statistic is called on-base percentage, but that term was unknown when Richards became the first manager to track it."

The narrative steams around the base paths as Richards is hired to manage the Chicago White Sox in 1951, with his eye on talent a perfect compliment to general manager Frank "Trader Lane" Lane. But it was his managerial stint -- along with being general manager for several years -- with the Baltimore Orioles (September 1954 - September 1961) that cemented Richards as a master tactician. Richards set the foundation for the great Baltimore clubs of the 1960s and 1970s.

"It was widely reported that the Orioles had wanted Richards only as a manager but gave in when he insisted on complete control," Corbett writes. "The evidence that Richards enforced pitch counts is incontrovertible and comes from men who knew him first hand: (Milt) Pappas, Eddie Robinson, Larry Dierker, and Tony La Russa."

Richards moved to Houston to build the expansion Houston Colt .45's/Astros, worked in a number of management posts with the Atlanta Braves and failed to consummate a deal to purchase the Texas Rangers before joining a syndicate led by impresario Bill Veeck as director of player personnel -- with a 5% ownership stake -- in the Chicago White Sox. The post morphed into becoming manager in 1976 and then bounced into being a roving minor league instructor/scout and then farm director. His final job was scout, instructor and troubleshooter for the Texas Rangers.

Corbett writes that the extraordinary work of Richards has yet to touch home plate: "(He) was one of seventeen managers, executives, and umpires on the 2003 Veterans Committee ballot for the (National Baseball) Hall of Fame (and Museum). No one was elected. In 2007 he received ten votes from the committee of eighty-one Hall of Fame members and writers and broadcasters who had been honored by the hall. (Joe Morgan said he voted for Richards.) After the voting structure was changed, Richards was dropped from the 2008 ballot.

"Richards's career began under Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson, who was born during the Civil War. Among the last men Richards mentored was Tony La Russa (White Sox), one of the most successful managers since the late 1970s. La Russa told me that Richards lectured him on the need to win the respect of his players and taught him to respect 'the beauty of the competition.'"

AHP Rating: 4 Balls

Four Balls: An exceptional book that truly earns a walk straight to the local book store to get a copy.
Three Balls: This book stands out from its peers and is highly recommended.
Two Balls: A book worth reading/owning and is usually above average.
One Ball: This book has something to say but is nothing special.