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'Reckless' Richards cracks open O's coffers

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In seven years with the Orioles, Paul Richards made the largest trade in baseball history, signed Brooks Robinson, invented the oversized catcher's mitt and preached a pitching-and-defense philosophy that defined the Orioles for years after he was gone.

But many believe Richards' greatest contribution in turning around a losing team was a wild spending spree he undertook after being handed the keys to the franchise in September 1954.

Richards wasted piles of money on prospects who failed to blossom, but he also "opened the keys to the cash box, which had to happen if we were ever going to compete," said Joe Hamper, an accountant who joined the Orioles' front office in 1954 and stayed for 37 years, retiring as chief financial officer.

The franchise had been a dispirited, penny-pinching loser in St. Louis and was on its way to losing 100 games in its first season in Baltimore when Richards was hired in a dual role, replacing Jimmy Dykes as manager and Arthur Ehlers as general manager.

"We had operated very conservatively that ['54] season," Hamper said. "The mind-set was clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox had the big bucks, and we were not in that category."

The Orioles owners and club president Clarence Miles were neophytes who had pledged to spend "whatever it takes" to win, but they didn't know where or how much to invest.

Richards showed them. As the major leagues' first manager/GM since John McGraw, who ran the New York Giants from 1902 to 1932, he took liberal advantage of his unchecked authority to deal and spend.

"Overnight, we went from a conservative organization to a very aggressive and, in some respects, reckless organization," Hamper said. "It was a complete change in philosophy and a nightmare for those of us on the financial side, but the end result was the mentality that we were competitive and weren't going to back off."

Richards was a tall Texan who had batted .227 over parts of eight seasons as a backup catcher in the majors. He had then won as a minor league manager in Atlanta and Buffalo and turned the losing Chicago White Sox into contenders.

Conservative in speech and manner, he was a managerial progressive, an original thinker. Twice in Chicago, he had shifted a starting pitcher to the outfield and brought in a reliever, then returned the starter to the mound after the reliever faced one batter. In Buffalo, he had once walked a pitcher four times to keep a fleet leadoff hitter from running wild on the bases.

Nicknamed "the Wizard of Waxahachie," a reference to his hometown, Richards could teach the fundamentals of any aspect of the game, especially pitching. He revived the careers of numerous veterans by teaching them a slider he called a "slip pitch."

Soon after getting his first chance to run an organization, Richards demonstrated his progressive flair.

In November 1954, he made a trade with the Yankees involving 17 players, still the largest in baseball history. (An 18th player to be named was not documented.) The next season, Richards went through players like cards in a deck, the turnover so constant that, when asked to assess his pitching staff in July, he replied, "Do you mean the one coming or going?"

In 1956, he proposed swapping entire 25-man rosters with the Kansas City Athletics, backing off only after the A's asked to take Roger Maris and Clete Boyer out of the deal.

But in signing young players, he was really creative.

No limit on bidding

Any team could sign any player with the amateur draft still a decade away, and the bidding often involved signing bonuses. The Orioles had budgeted a paltry $100,000 in 1954 but spent more than twice as much on bonuses in 1955 after Richards arrived.

"He just came in and completely bamboozled the owners," said former Orioles GM Harry Dalton, who joined the front office as assistant scouting director in 1954.

Many of Richards' early signings were failures. Bruce Swango, a high school pitcher from rural Oklahoma, didn't own a pair of baseball spikes when he signed in 1955 and couldn't perform in front of crowds. The Orioles gave him a $36,000 bonus and released him nine weeks later.

Bob Nelson, a slugger nicknamed "the Babe Ruth of Texas," never hit a home run for the Orioles.

Jim Pyburn, a college football star at Auburn, signed a $48,000 contract, but he had a bad back and became a football coach.

Richards was relying on the advice of his private scouts, who accompanied him from job to job, rather than on the Orioles' respected scouting department headed by Jim McLaughlin, who had come with the franchise from St. Louis.

"Paul would get a call from one of his cronies saying, 'This kid, boy, you've got to sign him.' And we would instantly give him $30,000, $50,000, $70,000, whatever it took," Dalton said.

Orioles assistant GM Jack Dunn famously joked that Richards had been given an unlimited budget and exceeded it.

"The owners didn't like it," Dalton said, "but it shocked them into realizing that if you wanted to be competitive, this was what you had to do."

Teams that signed a player for a bonus exceeding $4,000 had to keep the player on their major league roster for two years. The cagey Richards signed college star Tom Borland to a large bonus, then had second thoughts and pitched Borland under a different name in the minors, trying to get around the rule. Baseball commissioner Ford Frick found out and fined Richards $2,000.

"Frick wanted to throw Paul out of baseball, but Clarence Miles stepped in," Hamper said.

When the Cincinnati Reds complained that Brooks Robinson had received more than $4,000 in 1955, Robinson, 18, had to appear in Frick's office and state otherwise. Frick accepted Robinson's denial.

The Tigers also complained about the Orioles' signing of Milt Pappas, a Detroit high school star.

"It seemed like everything Paul did created problems," Hamper said. "He was a very bright guy, but he didn't do things the way they were supposed to be done. He just couldn't do that, even if it was the easy way."

His habit of ignoring McLaughlin's scouts led to a rift, but the tension didn't prevent the Orioles' outlook from brightening when Richards' subsequent signings proved more successful, including future stars such as Pappas and Jerry Walker.

But the owners were still upset about Richards' excessive spending, which involved more than just signing bonuses. According to Hamper, Richards charged the rental of a limousine to the club when he attended the 1955 NFL championship game in Los Angeles.

"That just shocked me; we had never had anyone do anything like that before," Hamper said. "There was a lot going on, players coming and going, funds set aside that were difficult to account for. The owners would talk to each other and say, 'We can't let him do this.' But they never talked to Richards about it. He intimidated them.

"The baseball people worshipped him, and he created an aura that made [the owners] fearful of confronting him."

In 1956, the owners hired an executive vice president with the subtle intent to not only help Richards with the paperwork he disliked but to curb spending.

The executive vice president was gone within two years.

Nicholson last straw

The owners finally ran out of patience when Richards gave $115,000 to a prospect named Dave Nicholson. Lee MacPhail, a genial veteran executive who had worked as the Yankees' minor league director and assistant GM, was hired as the Orioles' GM after the 1958 season. Richards remained manager.

"I think ownership felt Paul was wasting a little money. What they really wanted was someone to say no to him on budget things," MacPhail said in a 1999 interview.

The organization began to operate normally with MacPhail in charge, Hamper said.

Richards continued to have a profound effect. To make sure his "way" of playing was taught throughout the system, he brought the Orioles' many minor league managers, including Earl Weaver, to the major league spring training camp. His way matured into a philosophy Weaver espoused for years as the Oriole Way.

As a manager, Richards led the Orioles to their first .500 season in 1957, manipulating veterans such as catcher Gus Triandos, shortstop Willy Miranda, relief pitcher George Zuverink and third baseman George Kell, a future Hall of Famer who mentored Brooks Robinson.

Taciturn and unpredictable in the dugout, Richards intimidated the players but earned their respect.

"It looked like he had a headache about half the time because he was thinking so much about moves," said Fred Marsh, an infielder in 1955-56. "He was a very good manager, but he was tough on you. I was supposed to be a good bunter, and he sent me up one time to sacrifice and I popped up. When I got back to the bench, all he said was, 'I thought you could bunt.'"

Richards and MacPhail decided to go with younger players in 1959, and the Orioles' "Kiddie Corps" contended for the American League pennant in 1960 on the arms of Pappas and fellow pitchers Chuck Estrada, Jack Fisher and Steve Barber. The Orioles were in first place with 22 games to go before being swept by the Yankees in a New York showdown.

That year, as Triandos struggled to catch Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleballs, Richards designed a large "pizza plate" of a glove for the catcher. Opponents objected. Richards responded by making it smaller, but the idea of the oversized catcher's mitt had been born.

Off the field, Richards' continuing feud with McLaughlin divided the organization and forced MacPhail to make a choice. McLaughlin was fired in 1960, replaced by Dalton.

Then, near the end of the 1961 season, Richards also departed to run Houston's expansion team.

He left the Orioles with a winning team and a well-stocked minor league system, quite an accomplishment given where he had started in 1954. Before leaving, he told reporters he hoped to be remembered when the Orioles won their first pennant.

They won the World Series five years later.

Richards never won a pennant in Chicago, Baltimore or Houston, but he helped lay a winning foundation in all three places. He died in 1986 at age 77.

"In all my years in baseball, I never knew anyone who knew more about the game," Brooks Robinson said.

But Hamper and Dalton say Richards should be lauded as much for his "reckless" spending as his teaching.

"Before he got here, the organizational mentality was not of championship caliber," Hamper said. "We could have just gone along like that and never done anything and never gotten any better. Richards got us going."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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