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This week in Texas History: Brains not brawn key to major league success

By Bartee Halie

A well-traveled catcher from the Lome Star State smacked a three-run double to put the Detroit Tigers ahead of the Chicago Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series on Oct. 10, 1945.

Paul Rapier Richards was born in 1908 at Waxahachie, a baseball hotbed in those days where several big-league clubs came to the area for spring training.  The town with the name that has twisted so many Yankee tongues was home away from home for the Detroit Tigers, while the New York Giants practiced down the road at Marlin.

The teacher’s son played on a great high school baseball team.  Richards and five other future major leaguers won 65 games in a row and three straight state championships.

The third baseman, shortstop and occasional pitcher signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1926.  For two months, the small-town teen rubbed shoulders with his heroes without once stepping onto the diamond before being shipped to a farm team in Maryland.

But the Dodgers forgot to protect the tall Texan in the minor-league draft, and he was scooped up by the St. Louis Browns.  After a second season in Maryland, Richards found himself in Muskogee, Oklahoma on opening day 1928.  

Mainly an infielder, Richards did pitch an inning or two from time to time.  His manager may have sent the ambidextrous youth, who could throw the ball with either hand, to the mound more for amusement than anything else.

By 1930 Richards was in Macon, Georgia and again a Brooklyn property. He volunteered to catch to keep from sinking even lower in the farm system and convinced the Dodgers he had the intelligence to handle the demanding duties behind the plate.

Richards proved to be a fast learner and earned a promotion to the Dodger club in Hartford, Connecticut.  He batted .301 and drove in 74 runs in 1931, an impressive performance that earned him a place on the Brooklyn roster the next spring.

But three games into the 1932 season, the Dodgers up and traded Richards to their cross-town rival.  The Giants put him on a train for Minneapolis, where he hit .361 and was voted all-star catcher in the American Association.

After knocking around the minors for seven years, Richards finally got his big break when the Giants brought him up as a reserve catcher in 1933.  But he perished at the plate, batting an awful .195 in 51 games, and the National League champions left the weak-hitting substitute at home for the World Series. 

Major league pitching continued to mystify Richards in 1934, as his anemic average dropped 35 points to a woeful .160.  Their patience exhausted, the Giants unloaded him to the Philadelphia Athletics in June 1935.

Richards batted a respectable .245 in 177 games over a season and a half but raised Connie Mack’s hackles by suggesting the A’s ancient owner needed to tighten the reins. The relic eventually had enough of his lip and exiled the critic to the Atlanta Crackers.

Staying in Atlanta for seven years, the final five as player-manager, Richards put into practice his own ideas about how to run a  ball club.  The result was a consistently competitive team and two Southern Association pennants.       

World War II gave many over-the-hill veterans like Richards a major league encore.  He played three seasons with the Detroit Tigers, batting a career-best .256 in 1944 and catching the 1945 World Series.    

With his playing days behind him, Richards managed full-time for the Tigers at Buffalo and later at Seattle in the Pacific Coast League.  He earned a reputation as an astute student of the game and incomparable judge of talent that inevitably led him back to the big leagues.

In 1950, the Chicago White Sox hired Richards to breathe new life into a club that had never really recovered from the infamous World Series scandal 30 years earlier.  He immediately turned the hapless White Sox into contenders with a fourth-place finish in the American League in 1951 followed by three straight thirds behind the Yankees and Indians.     

On the strength of his success in the Windy City, Richards was offered an even greater challenge.  The St. Louis Browns had moved to Baltimore and renamed themselves the Orioles but remained the biggest bunch of sad sacks in baseball.

As general manager and field general, Richards implemented a long-range plan that ultimately produced pennants for the Orioles.  By the time he left in 1961, Baltimore’s farm system was the best in baseball.

Richards could not pass up the chance to build a brand-new franchise in Texas from the ground up.  He was the first GM of the Houston Colt .45’s, rechristened the Astros after construction of the Dome, and nursed the expansion team through the growing pains of the early 1960’s before a falling out with owner Judge Roy Hofheinz.

But there was always another job waiting for a baseball man with Richards’ brains.  For six years he ruled the front-office roost as general manager of the Atlanta Braves and returned to Chicago in 1976 for a dugout curtain call.

Paul Richards life ended where it began.  During a round of golf on a Waxahachie course in 1986, his heart gave out after 77 years.   

Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at  HYPERLINK “mailto:barteehaile@gmail.com” barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 and invites you to visit his web site barteehaile.com.

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