Eternal Champion Yankee Legend Bobby Richardson
New York Yankee legend Bobby Richardson says he has led a life that only God could have orchestrated. This second baseman spent his entire career with one of the most prolific dynasties in baseball history. He went to the World Series seven times and won four of them and is still the only World Series MVP ever to be selected from the losing team. Richardson won five Gold Glove Awards and was selected to the American League All-Star team eight times. And all of those accomplishments happened by the time of his retirement at a young age of 30.
In the eleven years, from1955 to 1966, that his career spanned, Richardson had conquered the game and made relationships to last a lifetime. Respected by teammates like Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, not only are these guys all household names, but Mantle would become best friends with Richardson who would later lead his friend to Christ and officiate his funeral.
Richardson’s famous friends weren’t exclusive to America’s favorite pastime. He spoke at the White House on a couple of occasions and knew six U.S. Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and George W. Bush. He shared the stage with Johnny Cash and traveled the world with Billy Graham.
This summer marks more milestones in the blessed life of Richardson as he will celebrate his 60th wedding anniversary in June, and his 80th birthday in August. His wife Betsy is a note-worthy woman in her own right and together the devoted couple raised five children. There are many lessons that can be learned from the Richardsons when it comes to sustaining a marriage through six decades, raising kids to love the Lord and navigating professional sports with an unshakeable integrity, but the greatest legacy of all is their commitment to living their life for Christ with a fierce courage for evangelism.
Most everyone knew Richardson was a Chrstian. From the way he carried himself in the clubhouse, to sharing his testimony with teammates, to fans getting copies of how he became a Christian on “Bobby Richardson Day” at Yankee Stadium. A scripture that best depicts Richardson’s outspoken faith is Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…” This verse also happens to be what he often signs next to his autograph in copies of his memoir Impact Player.
Risen had the privilege of having lunch with this humble superstar and his delightful wife to learn more about the South Carolina native’s upbringing, astonishing career, and valiant faith.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Rancho Santa Fe, California
Risen Magazine: What was your family like growing up and when did your faith journey begin?Bobby Richardson: My home is Sumter, South Carolina, a small community right in the middle of the state. My dad was in the tombstone business and so was his father. He loved baseball and didn’t have a chance to play because he had to work, but he afforded me the opportunity of playing a lot of baseball when I was young. Although they didn’t have organized baseball, the Salvation Army sponsored some teams. I would make a bat out of a piece of wood and pick up some of those granite chips [from the tombstones] and throw them up in the air, swing and hit the chips and just envision the ballgame. My dad’s desire was to play in the major leagues and he just played sandlot around those areas. So I had that vision too.
I not only played in the area at that age, but that is when I was introduced to the Lord. I had two great Sunday school teachers in the church that I grew up in, one was a farmer, and one worked for the power company. Just wonderful men who loved the Lord and you could see it in their life. Each Sunday they would present the Gospel in clarity. The teachers initiated a visit from the pastor of the church and he came over to my home on a Sunday afternoon. He too presented the Gospel and a plan for salvation. I understood it and I was ready to receive the Lord Jesus as my personal Savior. I was twelve years old and I have two sisters and both of them were in attendance; one made a decision then, one later. Then we were all baptized.
Then I met this young girl that moved into town; she would sit on one side of the church and I would sit on the other side and I kept looking over [at her]. One day we decided to meet and we walked across – I say “we” because she had the same idea, I think – we just spoke and then went out opposite doors. [Laughter] She was playing softball and her coach introduced me to her and the funny part there is that we were at the fair and I followed her to ask her for a date and she stopped to ride the Loop-O-Plane, and I thought, “I’m not going to do that! I’ll just wait and ask her later.” I just wasn’t ready for that. [Laughter]
Mickey Mantle came up and put his arm around me and said, “Come on kid, step in here and take some swings.” It really started a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
The two of us were married and she knew Christ not only as Savior, but as the Lord of her life. It really had an impact and we dated and I was in baseball at that time. I was in New York and I got sent down to Denver and we decided to get married, so I asked the manager for a week off so I could go home to get married in the chapel in the church we grew up in. The owner of the ball club said, “No way. Wait until the end of the season. That is the silliest thing I have ever heard.” I went to my manager, and he said, “Absolutely. Take the week, take as long as you want.” So we did, we were married, and when we drove back out [to Denver] and the sad part is that when I got there – I found a real nice place to live near Mile High Stadium – and said, “Betsy this is where you are going to live, but I have to go on a 17-day road trip. So I’ll see you in 17 days.”
One year later, Robbie [oldest child] was born and we started our family. And then I did finally get to New York.
RM: As a baseball player, you married your wife, Betsy, early in your career, and you mentioned starting you family, having five kids overall. How did that help you avoid the common temptations or challenges as a professional athlete?
BR: Challenges is a good word. [Financially speaking] of the travel in baseball, number one, we would have to have three homes. My home is in South Carolina, my salary was $5,000 a year, when you equate that down to how many games you play it was $35 a game my first year in 1955.
RM: Wow! It has changed a little bit. [Laughter].
BR: When I was 14 years old I got cut from my high school team my freshman year because I was late from playing basketball. But I made the Legion team and we won state, and regional, and playing in section play, Sumter was playing Richmond, Virginia in South Carolina, and before the last game that would send the team to the American Legion World Series, they took us to see a film. The name of the film was The Pride of the Yankees, it’s the story of Lou Gehrig, and Gary Cooper played him in the film-it’s a classic. Babe Ruth plays himself in the film. I remember seeing it and thinking, “What a great organization. I’d like to be a part of that.”
It just so happens the next year, the New York Yankees had a farm club that had Spring Training in my hometown. Mayo Smith was the manager, he came out and watched me play high school ball – I did make the team, I was 15 years old then – He came up to me after the game and said, “When you graduate high school, I’ll make sure you have the chance to sign with the Yankees.”
They kept in touch and sure enough at 17, the day I graduated from high school, I was offered to sign with 12 of the 16 teams. If you got over a $4,000 bonus then you had to go up and spend two years on the parent roster [major pro team], which would be a waste of time for a 17 year old. I never thought about anything but signing with the Yankees. I didn’t think it might be harder to make their team.
I signed and then was given a trip to New York to work out with the Yankees. I remember putting on that uniform as a 17-year-old, walking out on that field, and Frank Crosetti, our coach, had told me to field some ground balls and then come take some swings with the regulars. Then I’d sit in the stands after a shower and watch the game. I was to do that for three days. Well I remember fielding the ground balls and then I stood around the [batting] cage and I wasn’t about to step in front of Hank Bauer or Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle came up and put his arm around me and said, “Come on kid, step in here and take some swings.” It really started a friendship that lasted a lifetime. The Lord gave us a great relationship over the years and he finally came through for the Lord in a wonderful way.
RM: So from that first day on the field, to being Yankee teammates, to officiating at his funeral, give us a glimpse of your relationship with Mickey Mantle.
BR: I was just working out the first time we met and then I was sent to the minor leagues, so the next time I saw Mickey Mantle I was playing Class A ball in Binghamton, New York – which was a Yankee farm club – and the Yankees came to play us in an exhibition game. Mantle hit a homerun that day. Casey Stengel came over to me and said, “I’m having an instructional school prior to Spring Training and we want you to come be a part of that.” I did go and then I was mixing around with the Yankee regulars at that time and got to know them a little more.
Then I got sent to Denver [to play] and [Yankee infielder] Gil McDougald got hit by a line drive and the Yankees called me up [to the major team] at 19 years old. So when I came back, the very first person to greet me was Mickey Mantle. My first day out, we were sitting in the dugout with our uniforms on and he said, “Now I’m going to play like I’m showing you Yankee stadium. In two seconds you are going to see about 10 reporters over here and your picture will be headlines tomorrow in all the newspapers.” Sure enough, they were there and the next day I was in the New York Times. [Laughter] He did that for me.
I was only up 15 days and then sent back down. When I came up the next time, Mickey was just the friendliest. I quickly became a part of the team and everybody knew I was a Christian. It was kind of fun in the sense that they knew it, but they just lived their lives; we had a great rapport. For instance, the Yankees were the last team to fly[to games] and I remember on one occasion I had permission to fly back home and on two occasions the Yankee team had plane trouble, one time the landing gear wouldn’t go down and they looked around and said, “Richardson’s not on here, we’re in trouble!” [Laughter]. It was that kind of relationship.
But to make a long story short, my whole career was with Mickey. My twelve years in New York he was there and we got to be close in this sense – I didn’t go out with him after ball games, he’d go out with Whitey [Ford] and they would be drinking a little bit. I roomed my whole career with Tony Kubek, who knew the Lord, and we’d go out together and eat.
We were known as the milkshake twins. We’d always clinch the pennant ten days before the season was over and [the organization] would hire detectives to follow the players. They tried to follow Mantle and Ford, but they would get in a cab and get out the other door and they couldn’t follow them. So they followed Kubek and me and we would go to the YMCA, get some popcorn and started playing ping-pong. So we were known as the milkshake twins and it stuck with us all those years.
RM: You also officiated Mickey Mantle’s funeral and were instrumental in leading him to Christ. Many Christians have a non-believing friend they are praying for, what encouragement can you share as to not giving up, yet still doing it in a loving way?
BR: It started when Roger Maris had a battle with cancer at 51 years of age. His wife called and asked if I would represent the Yankees and speak at his funeral in Fargo, North Dakota. I was able to lead him to the Lord before he died, and his wife and son. Mickey sat down by me after the funeral. He was a pallbearer and had been drinking a bit and he said, “I want you to have my funeral.” He wasn’t going to church at the time.
I remember I had a friend that was a pastor in Minneapolis. Tony Kubek and I were scheduled to go to his church and then fly back in to try and make batting practice so we said to Mickey, “Mickey, we’re going to church tomorrow, would you like to come with us?” He said, “I sure would.” He was all dressed and ready and I said, “Mickey because you are here we are going to have to leave a little bit early. When the pastor gets to that point where there are three minutes left, we are going to have to walk out so you can beat the crowd.” Well as soon as we started to walk out the pastor cut it off and came running out. He said, “I want pictures for my son with Mickey.” So we were late coming back and I remember Red Barber was broadcasting and he said, “Why don’t we start having devotions right here in the clubhouse? I’m a lay leader with the Methodist church and I’ll be glad to lead them.” So that was kind of the start of baseball chapel. And now every team has baseball chapel.
Mickey heard the Gospel a lot, from a lot of different people. God was working in different ways. But every time after Roger’s funeral when I saw Mickey he said, “Don’t forget, you are to have my funeral.” Then there was a poignant interview on television where Bob Costas interviewed Mickey and he said, “I’ve been through Betty Ford [Drug and Alcohol Abuse Treatment Center] and I don’t drink anymore.” It took so much courage for him to stand in front of a national audience and say that. He said, “I’m no hero, I haven’t been a good husband, or father…” but he went on to say, “I still have a void.” People were praying all over because this was during the final years right before he died.
Mickey had a liver transplant and was really feeling horrible and they [doctors] had checked him for cancer, but it was [appeared as only] a little dot and they didn’t catch it. So when they gave him the medication to keep his body from rejecting the liver it wasn’t good. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but it was during that time that Mickey called Betsy and me about five in the morning in our hotel room in Dallas and Betsy answered the phone and Mickey said, “Betsy, I’m really hurting. I want Bobby to pray for me.” We did pray and I used this verse, Philippians 4:5-7, “Delight yourself in God, yes, find your joy in him at all times. Have a reputation for gentleness, and never forget the nearness of your Lord. Don’t worry over anything whatever; tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer, and the peace of God which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus.”
Betsy went out and spent the next two days with Merlyn [Mickey’s wife] while Mickey and I talked and as I left he said, “Now don’t forget you are to have my funeral.” Some two to three weeks later the call came and he had taken a turn for the worse and the family wanted Betsy and me to be there with him. Immediately, we were on a plane flying to Dallas. One more time I wanted to be bold in my witness, because I wanted him to spend eternity with me. When the plane landed I dropped Betsy off at the home and when I got to Baylor Medical Center where he was, he had a smile on his face and a couple of teammates had just left and he said, “I can’t wait to tell you this, I want you to know I’m a Christian, I’ve accepted Christ as my Savior.”
I remember crying a little bit and saying, “Mickey let me go over it with you just to make sure you understand it.” I went over God’s plan of salvation: that He loves us, sent His Son the Lord Jesus to shed His precious blood, and promised in His Word that if we would repent and receive Him as Savior, we might have everlasting life. He said, “That’s just what I’ve done.” Well, I couldn’t wait to get back to the home where we were staying and share that with Betsy. We then went back to the hospital together and when Mickey saw Betsy he said, “Let me get comfortable.” And with IV’s in both arms, he reclined his bed and she knelt down next to him and shared her testimony of how she had come to know Christ and then she asked Mickey the question, “If our Holy God was here today and He were to ask you the question, ‘Why should I let you into Heaven?’ What would you say?” And he paused for a little bit, but then answered the question by quoting John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” And he told the doctors he was ready and he had a real peace.
And then I had the humbling experience of having his service. We had to make all the arrangements including finding the church.
RM: That is so powerful. Moving back to your career now, you went to the World Series seven times and won four of them. You were even named a World Series MVP! It doesn’t get any bigger than that in baseball, yet you ended your career much earlier than you could have. What went into that decision?
BR: I wanted to retire early. I was 30 years old. I had made the All-Star Team seven times, we had won nine out of the first ten years and I felt like my priority now was my young boys that were growing up without me. So Tony Kubek and I both decided that we would retire from baseball. We went to the Yankees [administration] and somehow one reporter found out about it and Sports Illustrated asked to do a special story where they would put us both on the cover and say, Yankee infield retiring at 29. They came over and took the picture. But to make a long story short, Ralph Houk came up to us and said, “I don’t want you both retiring. We are just bringing Bobby Murcer up next year and we want one of you two to play and break him in as an infielder.” So it was all set that Tony would do it and I would retire. But as it turned out, Tony got called into the [Army] Reserve program and playing touch football, he got a pinched nerve and Mayo Clinic said he had to retire. Ralph called and said, “Tony can’t play. We have a gentlemen’s agreement that one of you will play, will you play one more year?” I said, “I’d be glad to.”
The ironic thing is that when I decided to play, [the Yankees] gave me a five-year contract, one to play and four to decide what I wanted to do. Bobby Murcer got drafted [military] and came back with only two weeks left in the season, but the Yankees were just so gracious all through the years. I was the tenth Yankee to have a day at Yankee Stadium… Bobby Richardson Day… that is hard to believe when there were players like Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and so forth.
My career is just unbelievable how it is all interwoven with so many contacts. Because of my relationship with the team when they gave me that five-year contract, I had to call them up three years later because I wanted to be the baseball coach at University of South Carolina. I had been invited to do that and I had turned them [the college] down twice, but the third time I decided I wanted to try it. I told them I needed to call the Yankees to get a release because I was still under contract with them.
I called and they said, “If you want to you can still be our Major League coach, you can be our broadcaster, you can be our Triple-A manager.” And I said, “No, the reason I am getting out is the traveling.” The response was, “Well, give us a call and we’ll bring the Yankees down to play your ball club.” I said, “Okay!” Three years later we lost out to Miami by one run. I called Lee MacPail, General Manager of the Yankees, and I said, “Lee I’m ready for you.” He kind of hesitated and said, “We’re traveling North with the Mets, would it be alright if the Yankees and the Mets came and played your ball club?” And Yogi Berra was managing the Mets. So they came down and we played three games against the Yankees and three against the Mets, and they played each other and it put our team on the map. The next year we finished second in the nation in the College World Series and we were 51-4 going into the last two games of the College World Series.
RM: You played on the most-celebrated Yankee team in baseball history with the likes of Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, and Whitey Ford and you were never shy about sharing your faith. When did you realize the importance of your influence with your teammates, and with fans?
BR: When seven of them asked me to do their funerals. [Laughter.] No they didn’t ask, well some of them did. But really, I had a great rapport. I think the one thing I remember was my son Robby was in the clubhouse one day and Hank Bauer, a big right-fielder, Marine and tough guy, he grabbed Robby and said, “Come over here. Drink this beer so you can be big like me, you don’t want to be little like your Dad.” And I just very politely said, “No Hank, I don’t want him doing that.” And he came up and apologized and said, “I didn’t mean anything by it, I was just fooling around. I deeply apologize.” I just felt like I had a rapport with all the players. They voted me to be the player rep, which is like the team captain now.
I was the tenth Yankee to have a day at Yankee Stadium… Bobby Richardson Day… that is hard to believe when there were players like Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and so forth.
RM: Your influence went further than the locker room and all the way to the Washington, D.C. In 1970, you got an invitation from President Nixon to preach at the White House. How did this come about and what did speak on?
BR: Rex Kern, an All-American football player from Ohio was going to do the prayer and I was going to speak or something like that and Jim Jeffrey, who was President of FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes], was there and we were all invited up by President Nixon. It went so well that President Nixon invited me to speak at a White House worship service. He was actually having worship service. He brought in Johnny Cash and we went [to D.C.]for that. He sent a plane down and he said, “This plane will seat… [I don’t how many], bring some friends.” So we took most of our family up and some of our friends. I remember what I spoke on, the subject was, To Win And Yet Lose. It was a time when we were going through some things in our life and it was how you win in the eyes of the world, but if you are not doing things unto God [then you lose]. And we didn’t know Watergate was going on at the time.
RM: A couple years ago you wrote your memoir, no doubt it allowed you to reflect on your life, of all the incredible opportunities you’ve had, people you know, places you’ve been, and accolades you’ve gotten. What stands out to you most as a highlight?
BR: I think the biggest thing to me is that five times I’ve been on national television with Billy Graham – Madison Square Garden in New York, the Astrodome in Houston with President [Lyndon B.] Johnson in attendance, as I gave my testimony, in Hawaii, and then twice in Japan. So on five occasions I was with Billy Graham just sharing a short testimony and it was all because of baseball. Billy’s desire was to be a great baseball player, but he turned out to be a great evangelist. But he loved baseball. It’s a highlight because when you see the invitation [to accept God] given by Billy and you see all the people come out of the stands, and from the upper deck, all filing down to stand and receive the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, it is a thrill and just really something.