One of the most influential managers in baseball history might be someone you’ve never heard of. Paul Richards never won a pennant as a big league skipper, but he won more than 900 games and posted a winning record in his career, and helped build a team from the bottom up that became the envy of all other teams in baseball.
But years before that, Richards was a solid defensive catcher for the Detroit Tigers in the mid-1940s, where he was a key part of their World Series-winning club in 1945.
Richards was a low-cost option for the Tigers during World War II. With most of the best players serving in World War II, Richards emerged from the minor leagues to sign a contract with Walter Briggs’ club at the age of 34 in 1943. Richards had spent the previous seven seasons with the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. For five of those years Richards served as player/manager of the Crackers, delighting fans like a young Ernie Harwell. With Detroit, Richards was asked to work with the Tigers’ pitching staff, making a special project of lefty Hal Newhouser. The future Hall of Famer hurler credited Richards with helping become a better pitcher, and he always claimed he enjoyed pitching to Richards more than any other receiver.
Richards split time with Bob Swift behind the plate for much of his time in a Detroit uniform. Though Richards was not a dangerous hitter (he batted .231 with only 11 homers and 52 extra-base hits in four years in Detroit), he was well respected as a catcher. In both 1944 and 1945, Richards received MVP votes even though he appeared in fewer than 100 games each season. In ’45, the Tigers won a tight pennant race in part thanks to the return of Hank Greenberg, and the 36-year old Richards found himself in the World Series. As he had been doing for three years, Richards was the de facto pitching coach for manager Steve O’Neill. But Richards also played every game in the seven-game thriller against the Chicago Cubs, starting six of them. He delivered an RBI-hit in Detroit’s Game Four victory at Wrigley Field, but he saved his best for Game Seven, also in Chicago. In the biggest game of his life, Richards produced two doubles and drove in four runs as the Tigs won the World Series, 9-3 behind Newhouser. It was the highlight of Richards’ playing career.
He played one last season for the Tigers in 1946, but by that time the veteran was anxious to get back to managing. He took a job leading the Tigers’ minor league club at Buffalo in the International League, where he won a pennant in 1949. Combined with his two pennants with Atlanta prior to the war, Richards had three pennants to his credit already and he was only 40 years old.
His first big league managerial job came with the White Sox, where he guided that team for four seasons, producing a winning record each year. Then he moved on to Baltimore, where he was hired by team owners to turn around the franchise that had recently moved from St. Louis. In addition to his managerial duties, Richards received complete control of the front office and the farm system and he set about building a championship caliber team. Within a few years, thanks to shrewd trades, an eye for talent, and his insistence on a uniform farm system that taught the same methods of play at all levels, Richards had a winning record with the O’s.
In many ways, Richards was a link in a long chain that transmitted a baseball philosophy from the early years of the 20th century eight decades forward to the 1980s. In his two years with the Giants, Richards learned under Bill Terry (“He stressed pitching and defense”), who had learned from John McGraw, the stern patriarch of New York baseball for 30 years starting in 1902. Richards, in turn took “The Giant Way” with him to Baltimore as their manager the mid-1950s, establishing “The Oriole Way” of defense and pitching first. That ideology was stamped onto every player in the Baltimore organization, and from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, the O’s were the most successful team in the game.
As a manager, Richards was best described as ornery and arrogant. He had little use for people he felt were less intelligent than himself, and often that included the umpires. He was thrown out of more games than any other manager from the time he took his first big league job until his last season with Baltimore in 1961. Sportswriter Leonard Koppett wrote that Richards “thought he was smarter than everyone else, which in itself is neither unusual nor necessarily unpleasant. But he gave you (or at least me) the impression that he thought you were too dumb to understand how smart he was.” Richards’ personality rubbed many people the wrong way, even as he was proving successful in his career. Later, managers who learned under him, like Earl Weaver, Dick Williams, and Joe Torre, disagreed on Richards’ as a man, but all agreed that he was an excellent baseball thinker.
After leaving the Orioles in good hands (the O’s went on to win pennants in 1966, 1969, 1970, and 1971 with the players Richards had scouted, signed, and developed), Richards was tasked with helping to orchestrate the expansion Houston Colt .45s/Astros. He did another bang-up job, finding players like Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn, and Larry Dierker, while also introducing the use of statistical analysis (something he helped pioneer in many ways in Baltimore). He later served as VP of player development with the Atlanta Braves in the late 1960s, where he made another genius move when he converted knuckleballer Phil Niekro from a reliever into a starting pitcher.
Three decades after he helped the Tigers win the ’45 World Series, Richards took his last managerial post, agreeing to skipper the White Sox as a favor to longtime friend Bill Veeck. But the 67-year old Richards wasn’t himself, his heart just didn’t seem to be in it – it couldn’t have been – he wasn’t ejected from one game that year.