The Wizard of Waxahachie: Paul Richards and the End of Baseball as We Know It
By Warren Corbett
Southern Methodist University Press, 2009
List Price: $24.95
Paul Richards bridged a baseball generation gap, working for managers like Wilbert Robinson and Connie Mack as a young player and passing the torch to current skipper Tony La Russa in his twilight years. His resume included stints as player, manager, general manager, scout and special assistant. He helped several Hall of Famers get their careers under way, including Brooks Robinson, Joe Morgan and Nellie Fox. So why don’t you know more about him?
As one of the blurbs on the dust jacket of Warren Corbett’s The Wizard of Waxahachie notes, “Richards is in danger of being forgotten.” Most fans under 40 aren’t familiar with his work. An informal poll of my contemporaries found his name didn’t ring a bell for nearly half of them. These were serious baseball fans. Fans who know all about pitch counts and on-base percentage, yet had no idea Paul Richards was the first manager to track either of those modern-day staples.
Richards was an innovator, ahead of his time in so many ways. Yet by the end of his career he had become something of a dinosaur. A stubborn man who forged his own path, he drilled his clubs repeatedly on fundamentals, frequently calling them back to the field after a game to address costly gaffes. He made room on his rosters for African-American players in the 1950s if he felt they could help him win, though several of them accused him of being racist. By the late 1960s and 70s, his old-school attitude clashed with the rising strength of the union. Unwilling, or unable to change his mindset, he was soon unwanted by the game that had put food on his table since he was 17.
For decades previously, the good-field, no-hit backstop was in high demand, even after washing out of the big leagues in 1935 at age 26. He latched on with the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association, and two years later was the team’s player/manager. His ability to coax the talent from his pitchers helped him return to the majors as a catcher for the Tigers in 1943, at the height of the war. Again he showed a smooth hand with his staff, helping Hal Newhouser move from a loser to the most dominant pitcher of the war era. He played 335 more games over the next four years, hanging around as a backup for one season after the stars returned. By 1947 there was no room left on the roster for a .227 career hitter.
He signed with Buffalo in the International League, again in a player/manager capacity. When he led the team to a 90-64 record in 1949, rumors began swirling that the White Sox were eying him as a replacement for manager Jack Onslow. But Onslow kept his job and Richards moved west to lead the Seattle Rainiers. Here in the stat sheets that he updated after each week’s series, he penciled in his own statistic: “B.A. with bases on balls.” We know it today as on-base percentage, though it would be years before anyone would track it as an official stat.
The following year he got his first chance at the helm of a major league club, taking over a White Sox team that had been a second-division regular since the days of the Black Sox scandal. Here he recognized the talents of budding stars Fox and Minnie Minoso. His teams lacked power, but led the league in stolen bases and rode strong pitching to four winning records in four years. He laid the foundation for the Go-Go Sox of the late ’50s before departing for Baltimore in 1955 to take over as manager and GM of the former St. Louis Browns.
Again Richards built up a strong base before leaving, this time to construct the expansion team in Houston. As GM, he collected numerous talented players for the Colt .45s (later Astros). The team went 261-385 in its first four seasons, winning 67 more games than their expansion brothers in New York. A conflict with team ownership led to his firing in December 1965 and a subsequent public battle for the remaining salary on his five-year deal. Over the next few years the Astros traded away Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Dave Giusti and Mike Cuellar, all players signed and/or developed during Richards’ tenure.
Richards’ prickly personality contributed to his frequent moves, keeping him from ever riding the wave all the way to the top. Corbett paints a balanced picture of Richards, citing both players who credited him for boosting their careers, like Robinson and Newhouser, as well as those who couldn’t stand him, like Clete Boyer and Joe Torre. He counters Richards’ managerial shrewdness with some of his nonsensical dogma, such as ordering struggling players to have teeth or tonsils removed.
Corbett had at his disposal a deep pool of resources, including Richards’ 1955 book on managing, titled Modern Baseball Strategy, an unfinished Richards manuscript, two recorded oral histories, and decades’ worth of quotes in newspaper stories and The Sporting News. Every reference is meticulously footnoted. With help from Richards’ daughter and surviving friends in Waxahachie, Corbett has augmented the anecdotes and stats, fleshing out Richards’ life so we can follow him from childhood to his death at 77 on a golf course, the one place he loved above all others, even baseball diamonds.
Had Richards managed longer, perhaps he would be better known today. In 12 seasons, including an ill-fated last gasp with the White Sox under Bill Veeck in 1976, he amassed a 923-901 record. He never reached the postseason as a manager. The only all-time list where you’ll find his name is ejections. He was run 80 times, placing him sixth in big league history. He was said by the umpires of his day to have the foulest mouth in the game, yet he wouldn’t tolerate cursing around his family and once ejected a friend from his home for using salty language. This complex nature of his character is captured well throughout Corbett’s book, making The Wizard of Waxahachie a great introduction to a baseball lifer you ought to know more about.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.