Christian faith marks Yankee great's career, home life

by Rudy Gray/Baptist Courier, posted Monday, August 01, 2016 (one year ago)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Please see article about Bobby Richardson's friendship with Mickey Mantle. Richardson shares about his former Yankee teammate's "final inning."

Bobby and Betsy Richardson
Photo by Baptist Courier
GREENVILLE, S.C. (BP) -- Bobby Richardson played baseball for the New York Yankees during the golden years of the dynasty. He retired from baseball at age 31 and shortly thereafter became the first full-time baseball coach at the University of South Carolina, establishing a winning tradition that continues to the present. But the key to his outstanding career, his marriage of 60 years and his witness for Christ has been his Christian faith.

Bobby met his wife Betsy at Grace Baptist Church in Sumter, S.C. She sat on one side of the church with her mother, and he sat on the opposite side with the youth group. They noticed each other, and each thought the other was attractive.

On the day Bobby graduated from high school, he signed a professional baseball contract with the Yankees, even though he was offered contracts from 12 major league teams and scholarships from two large universities. As a boy, he dreamed of playing for the Yankees after he saw "The Pride of the Yankees," a movie that told the inspiring story of Lou Gehrig. Years later, in 1962, Bobby won the Lou Gehrig Award, which honors the player who best exemplifies Gehrig's character both on and off the field.

Bobby Richardson baseball card
Photo submitted
After a brief trip to New York, Bobby was playing minor league ball in Denver, Colo. He and Betsy continued to write to each other and, in their words, "got to know each other better." They wanted to get married, so he asked manager Ralph Houk for permission to come to South Carolina and marry Betsy. Houk agreed, and Mr. and Mrs. Richardson returned to Denver a week later. Betsy was almost 16, and he was 20. They celebrated their 60th anniversary in June, but their journey has not been without struggles.

After returning to Denver and moving Betsy into their apartment, Bobby left the next day for a 17-day road trip with the team. The new bride was left alone in an unfamiliar city. She said, "It just about killed me when he left. I loved him so much. While he was gone, I felt real fear for the first time, and I did not sleep that first night." Break-ins had been reported in the area where they lived, and she noticed a large man walking up and down the street in front of their apartment. She says she overcame her fear by "reading the Bible and trusting the Lord."

"I was so naive," she said. "I didn't know how to cook many things, but I had a recipe for apple crunch that I thought he liked." After serving it six days in a row, Bobby invited her to sit on his lap. She added, "He had a hard time getting out what he wanted to say, but he finally said, 'I hate that apple desert.'"  He admitted he liked it for a while, but after six consecutive days, he had "had enough."

Adjusting to being the wife of a professional baseball player was difficult for Betsy, and she struggled with depression. She knew she would have to share her husband with the public because of his life in baseball, but she had not anticipated the feelings she would encounter. "We had lots of struggles related to his profession. We are opposite temperaments, so it is a miracle we have stayed together," she laughed.

While she battled depression, he had some anger issues that were expressed as sarcasm. Bobby acknowledged it, and Betsy added, "Sometimes he would be sarcastic and I would get mad at him, but I could not stay mad at him very long."

Bobby Richardson baseball card
Photo submitted
Bobby retired from baseball in the prime of his career at age 31. By this time, the couple had four children, and their schedule was challenging. During the year, the family lived in Florida (for spring training), New Jersey and Sumter.

Bobby wasn't able to spend as much time with his children as he wanted, and Betsy often filled the role of both parents. "People saw our children play sports and assumed they benefitted from having a major leaguer to work with them at home," Bobby said. "They would be stunned to know how many times it was actually their mother throwing a ball with them in the yard or shooting baskets with them because their father was not at home."

Why did he retire at 31? "I wanted to take the kids to school, help them with homework and watch or help coach their teams," he noted. 

He and shortstop Tony Kubek both decided they would retire at the end of the 1965 season. Richardson was asked to play one more year and accept a special position for four more years at $15,000 a year. Houk, who was then the manager of the Yankees, told him he would not have to do anything.

Bobby Richardson with a plaque honoring him for winning the 1962 Lou Gehrig Award. Framed above him are Yankee greats Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
Photo by Baptist Courier
On Sept. 17, 1966, he became the 10th Yankee to be given a special day at Yankee Stadium. The team did not do well that year, and toward the end of the season attendance had fallen to around 10,000 people a game. On "Bobby Richardson Day," 20,000 fans showed up, George Beverly Shea sang "How Great Thou Art," and Richardson addressed the stadium crowd. He said, "How lucky it has been for me to have been a Yankee. To God be the glory." Later, his mother-in-law good-naturedly reminded him that "we are not lucky, we are blessed."

In 1970, Richardson became the first full-time baseball coach for the University of South Carolina. The Yankees have been identified by their pinstripe uniforms for years. Richardson said, "One of the first things I did was put pinstripes on the uniforms." In 1974, the team made its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. In 1975, the Gamecocks went to the College World Series, losing to Texas in the championship game.

Richardson says his assignment was to "put Gamecock baseball on the map." He brought a mediocre program into national prominence and established a winning tradition that continues to the present, including 30 regional and 11 College World Series appearances, four national runners-up and two national championships. He is warmly regarded as the Father of Gamecock Baseball.

When he left the Yankees and became the coach at Carolina, general manager Lee MacPhail told him, "When you get settled, give us a call, and we will bring the Yankees to play your ball club." In 1974, Richardson called in the favor. There was one problem: The Yankees and Mets were traveling north together from spring training. Both agreed to come. The Gamecocks played the Yankees for three innings and the Mets for three innings, and the Mets and Yankees played a full nine-inning game. Yogi Berra was the manager of the Mets. Richardson said, "We had somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people in attendance. That helped boost our program more than anything." 

Richardson left USC following the 1976 season and coached for two years at Coastal Carolina and five seasons at Liberty University. He has spoken at five Billy Graham crusades and continues to share God's Word in churches and other venues throughout this country. He is a member of the South Carolina Hall of Fame.

Betsy and Bobby have five children, all of them in some type of ministry, including two sons who are pastors. They have 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, with two more due by the end of the year.

Richardson will turn 81 in August and offered this insight: "Betsy and I want to finish strong."

Please see additional story on Bobby Richardson below

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Bobby & Mickey: A life-changing friendship

By Rudy Gray/Baptist Courier

The tract "His Final Inning" tells of Mickey Mantle's profession of faith in Christ.
 
GREENVILLE, S.C. (BP) -- One of Bobby Richardson's good friends during his playing days with the New York Yankees was the legendary Mickey Mantle.

Mantle was an extremely popular player and regarded by many baseball observers as the best switch-hitter ever to play the game. He accumulated numerous awards during his 18-year career, highlighted by his greatest year as a professional in 1956. That year he won the Triple Crown, Male Athlete of the Year, American League Most Valuable Player, and Player of the Year. He played in 12 World Series and won the American League Most Valuable Player award in 1957 and 1962. The runner-up for the 1962 MVP was Richardson. Mantle said Richardson should have received the award.

During the years when Mantle and Richardson played, the Yankees were loaded with talent. It was the golden age of baseball, and the Yankees dominated. Larry King once said, "Mickey Mantle is baseball."

But Mantle struggled throughout his career with a condition called osteomyelitis (bone infection) as the result of an injury in high school. He also injured his right knee in the 1951 World Series. After that, he wrapped his leg for every game and played with chronic pain. He was recognized and respected as a power hitter (hitting a home run reportedly measured at 565 feet), but also became known for his speed and drag bunts. He was a Gold Glove award recipient for his play in centerfield. However, following his knee injury, his speed was diminished.

Mantle had a reputation for being a hard-drinking party man. Along the way, he became an alcoholic. Richardson, on the other hand, was seen as a clean-living homebody and a dedicated Christian. It was an unusual friendship, but one that allowed Richardson to plant the seeds of the Gospel many times over the years in Mantle's life. "I believe God had a purpose for our relationship," he said.

After both players retired, they stayed in contact, with Mantle doing public appearances and batting clinics for Richardson's college teams. Richardson said Mantle retired "as one of the greatest players to ever play the game."

Mantle owned a restaurant in New York, and Richardson would speak there on occasion. Once, his son Robby spoke there in the 1980s. Mantle commented to him, "You sound just like your dad -- always talking about that decision I need to make." During his career, he talked often about trusting Christ as Savior, referring to it as "the decision."

Mantle's alcoholism worsened following his retirement, and he entered the Betty Ford Center for treatment in 1994. Sportscaster Bob Costas interviewed him that year, just two weeks after his son Billy passed away at 36. Mantle told Costas that he had not been a good role model and that there was something missing in his life.

One year later, Mantle was diagnosed with liver cancer. After receiving a liver transplant, he was hopeful, but the cancer returned. His life began to deteriorate rapidly. While in the hospital at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas, he endured a great deal of pain. Bobby Richardson was in Dallas for a speaking engagement at that time. During that week, Richardson received a phone call at 6:00 a.m. from Mantle, asking him to pray for him. Richardson prayed with him over the phone and shared with him Philippians 4:4-7 in the Phillips translation. Later in the morning, he visited his friend at the hospital. As Richardson left the room to return to South Carolina, Mantle said to him, "Now don't forget, you have my funeral."

Richardson said, "I believe what drew Mickey to me was that I had the relationship with Christ that he was searching for, even if he didn't realize it. He often attended our baseball chapel services."

A few weeks later, Mantle's wife Merlyn called the Richardsons. Mickey's life was fading quickly. They flew to Dallas. When Bobby and Betsy walked into the room, Mantle said, "I can't wait to tell you this. I have accepted Christ as my Savior." Bobby was elated, but wanted to be sure, so he went through the plan of salvation with Mantle again. Betsy later asked him, "Mickey, if you were to stand before a holy God today and He asked you, 'Why should I let you into my heaven?' what would you say?" Mantle replied, "We are talking about God, right?" Betsy acknowledged they were. He then quoted John 3:16. 

Mantle, the Yankee great, passed away Aug. 13, 1995, on a Sunday morning at age 63. Bobby was in charge of the service and preached the funeral message. Bob Costas spoke also, but it was Richardson who presented the Gospel. The service was televised worldwide.

Richardson has been distributing a special tract to hundreds of people over the years. It is titled "Mickey Mantle: His Final Inning" and tells the story of his friend's profession of faith in Christ and how others can also believe and be saved.

Both Mantle and Richardson thought about quitting baseball when they were playing in the minor leagues. Neither did, and in the providence of God, they became friends -- one living and sharing the life-changing message of the Gospel, the other finally embracing that message.

Rudy Gray is editor of the Baptist Courier (www.baptistcourier.com), newsjournal of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
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