A most valuable player
How one man’s faithful witness continues to bear fruit in Major League Baseball
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A late August lunchtime crowd filled the tables at Guignard Diner in Sumter, S.C., as hometown hero and former Major League Baseball player Bobby Richardson made a slow circuit around the room. Patrons paused mid-bite as Richardson, now a spry 88, greeted them with twinkling eyes, a kind word, and a smile.
The diner’s owner, Micky Brewer, was one of Richardson’s baseball players at Coastal Carolina, the second of three universities where Richardson coached after his playing career ended in 1966. The diner’s walls are filled with photos honoring Richardson’s glory days, when he batted leadoff and played second base for the New York Yankees.
More pictures, awards, and memorabilia fill his stylish home, but his legacy has little to do with base hits or fielding prowess. Richardson left a mark on the game because of his faith.
Not many outspoken Christians filled the clubhouses back then. “When I first started out, there were just two or three,” he said.
But everyone knew where Richardson stood. When the Yankees were on the road, he arranged to take willing teammates to church. On one weekend trip midway through his career, he got a phone call from Watson Spoelstra, a sportswriter with The Detroit News.
“Hey, Rich,” Spoelstra said, “would you like to attend church with me? We’ll be back in plenty of time for batting practice. I’ll come back to the park and pick you up.”
“Count on it,” Richardson replied. “I’ll get some teammates to come with me.” Catcher Elston Howard and shortstop Tony Kubek were among the invitees, along with a superstar Mickey Mantle.
Mantle rarely committed to Sunday mornings the first time he was asked. He would sometimes say, “Yeah, OK, but if I’m not there when you’re ready, go ahead without me. You know I’ll be out late the night before.”
But he did go to church that day. Ordinarily, Mantle attracted so much attention that it was hard to leave after the service and return in time to prepare for an afternoon game. This time, the players planned to slip out the back before the benediction. Still, several church members followed them out. Before the men could climb into their taxi, the pastor ran out and shouted, “I want my picture taken with Mickey!”
The players were late getting back. When team broadcaster Red Barber, who was also a lay minister, heard what happened, he had a suggestion.
“Wouldn’t it be good if we could have a devotion right here in the clubhouse?” he asked Richardson.
The team soon gave Barber permission to lead Sunday services for the players. That was the start of Baseball Chapel, an organization that provides evangelical, non-denominational chaplains to baseball teams at all levels. The ministry eventually became a model for Christian outreach in other sports.
While Barber was holding Sunday services for the Yankees, two other teams were doing the same, and Richardson wanted every baseball franchise to have access to qualified teaching and ministry. The meetings needed to be near the locker rooms, where players could assemble without the usual distractions.
Before the 1970 All-Star Game in Cincinnati, Richardson helped organize a league-wide chapel service that served as a trial run. The commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, attended, and so did Mantle, who retired as a player in ’68.
At a later meeting with Spoelstra and Richardson, the commissioner provided close to $20,000 in seed money from Major League Baseball to help get the organization started. Participating players raised the funds to keep it going, digging into pockets that weren’t nearly as deep as they are today.
“It wasn’t [like in] later years when they started making millions,” Richardson said.
Baseball Chapel officially started in 1973. Every major league team had access to trained chaplains within two years, and every minor league team was involved by ’78. Over time, the group added weekday prayer services and Bible studies. The international organization now ministers to players’ families and the umpires as well. It also provides specialized ministry to the sport’s Spanish-speaking players.
Richardson’s 10-year run as president of Baseball Chapel began in 1983, when he took over from Spoelstra. One of his duties was to see that no one used speaking invitations to seek autographs or photo opportunities. He wanted men who gave the players a clear message and weren’t there to pad their résumés or make contacts.
Today, the organization begins discipling players at the very beginning of their careers, a process that continues as they advance.
“You move up with Baseball Chapel, so there are a lot more Christians in baseball now,” said Richardson, who also served on the board of directors for another international ministry, Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “[FCA] is one of the organizations that can still get in any high school. Most of the time it’s before school [starts in the morning], but the door’s wide open.”
RICHARDSON BEGAN his baseball career playing for the Yankees’ Class-B team in Norfolk, Va., in 1953. After spending 11 games with the Yankees in ’55, he started the following season with the Triple-A Denver Bears. That same year he married his wife, Betsy. After the ceremony in Sumter, the couple made a three-day drive to Colorado. That’s when Betsy, who’d never been away from home for long periods, realized what she’d gotten herself into.
“Betsy, I hate to say this, but this is where we’re going to live,” Richardson told her. “It’s not a real nice apartment, but [it’s] near the stadium. There is a little restaurant close by. I’m going on a 17-day road trip, so I’ll see you in 17 days.”
As he came up with the Yankees, the Richardson household grew. But even with four children to tend to, Betsy never missed a home game.
Although his faith was rare in the majors at that time, Richardson had no trouble fitting in with his teammates.
He and Mantle shared a strong bond despite their different paths and pursuits. Richardson abstained from strong drink and preferred the early hours and a good night’s rest. The famous slugger loved the nightlife, and heavy alcohol consumption hastened his death.
On one occasion, right fielder Hank Bauer, a husky ex-Marine and decorated World War II veteran, called out to Bobby’s eldest son, Robby, in the clubhouse.
“Hey there, little Rich! Come over here and drink this beer, and you won’t be little like your dad,” Richardson recalled Bauer saying.
“Hank, I don’t appreciate that,” Richardson told him. Bauer apologized—repeatedly. He still remembered 50 years later and apologized again.
Richardson’s straight-laced ways sometimes earned him good-natured teasing. The Yankees were used to late-season celebrations in those years, and when the champagne flowed, his teammates kept Coca-Cola bottles on hand to shake and spray on their leadoff man.
“I had a great rapport with my teammates,” Richardson said.
Partly in response to Richardson’s ministry, Mantle professed faith in Jesus Christ before he died from liver failure in 1995. Richardson spoke at the funeral, which was broadcast on national television. Officials with the Yankees organization also asked him to say a prayer of dedication at Yankee Stadium after its renovation in the mid-1970s. He’s pretty sure something like that wouldn’t happen in 2023.
RICHARDSON’S LAST SEASON with the Yankees followed eight All-Star Game appearances, five Gold Glove Awards, and three World Series rings in 12 years. He was voted Most Valuable Player of the 1960 World Series even though the Yankees lost. He’s still the only player from the losing side to earn that honor. Richardson hung up his bat and glove at 31. His fifth child was born two years later.
Richardson went on to coach for seven years at the University of South Carolina, where he led the Gamecocks to the 1975 College World Series.
As we talked, Richardson kept coming back to his family and his faith. He and Betsy have been married 67 years. Their five children have given them 18 grandchildren and 18 greats, and they, too, have left a legacy of faith. Two sons are pastors, and their daughters served as foreign missionaries.
“In my family, the Lord has used a lot of folks, so I’m grateful that we’ve had all these years together,” he said. “That’s my Christian heritage.”
That heritage is on display in front of the Bobby Richardson Sports Complex near Richardson’s home in Sumter. One side of a 700-pound baseball monument is inscribed with the main part of two verses from 1 Corinthians 15: “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried and rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”
The reverse side has a replica of his signature and a short list of his achievements. But it does not mention the famous team he played for. That’s because of the Scripture on the other side. Richardson said that “woke lawyers” advising the storied franchise told him, “You’re not allowed to do that.”
Forced to choose between his team and his Lord, Richardson didn’t think twice.
“Everybody knows I played for the Yankees,” he said.
—Michael Hughes is a sports journalist and WJI graduate who lives in Asheville, N.C.
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