Bobby Richardson felt an arm around his shoulders.
And those words spoken nearly 60 years ago, he can still hear today.
“C’mon, kid, come in here and take some swings.”
It was Mickey Mantle befriending Richardson, a 17-year-old Yankees hopeful, during his initial four-day workout shortly after being drafted by the team.
Richardson was nervous. He had just arrived via train from his hometown of Sumter, S.C. He was embarrassed to take some cuts in front of the legendary Yankees. Mantle noticed how uncomfortable he was and eased the tension.
“I thought, ‘Wow, here’s the star player who would think of a young boy that didn’t know what he was doing and was scared to step in (to the batting cage),’” said Richardson, who will be at the Billy Graham Library on Saturday, Oct. 27, to sign his new book, Impact Player, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Something happened that day in 1953 that changed both Richardson’s and Mantle’s lives forever.
Impacting ‘The Mick’
Despite winning the 1960 World Series MVP Award after a record-setting 12 RBI (including six in one inning), Richardson was mostly a role player during his 11 seasons with the Yankees, the second-baseman never sniffing the Hall of Fame.
Mantle on the other hand was a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in 1974, arguably the greatest switch-hitter the game has ever seen.
As baseball announced Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin into its 2012 Hall of Fame class on Monday afternoon, Richardson was in Sumter, the town he grew up in and later retired to. It’s also the place that Mantle would visit years after the two retired to put on exhibitions for Richardson’s hometown.
What happened that day, when Mantle befriended Richardson in 1953, was the beginning of a lifelong relationship that proved vital for Mantle’s spiritual journey.
“Our relationship just blossomed after that,” said Richardson, who spoke last fall to the Providence United Methodist Church Men’s group in Charlotte, N.C. “He’d do things for me he wouldn’t do for anyone else.”
Didn’t matter that Richardson was four years younger than Mantle. Or that it would be two years later that Richardson, as a 19-year-old, was first called up to the big show.
Mantle saw something in Richardson, who had accepted Christ as his Savior at age 14 at Grace Baptist Church in Sumter, S.C., and was living for the Lord, a rarity around professional sports.
“Mickey and I had an unusual relationship,” Richardson said. “We didn’t go out after the games. He’d go to our group and (shortstop Tony) Kubek and I would go out together — we were the non-drinkers so to speak — but there was a closeness.”
Richardson may have been closer to Kubek — the two were dubbed the “Milkshake Twins” for their clean lifestyle — but that took nothing away from his close friendship with Mantle, which proved pivotal as the years played out.
Richardson wasn’t shy about sharing the Gospel with Mantle, his teammate for his entire 11-year career.
In many ways, Richardson was one of Mantle’s closest friends on the Yankees, even though Mantle resisted coming to Christ during his playing days and most of his life. Still, his Yankee teammates would overhear the two talk about God and other spiritual matters and would often comment on the matter.
“They would kid him in the dugout,” Richardson said. “They would ask him, ‘Hey Mickey, accepted Christ as your Savior yet?’ And he’d say, ‘No, but I’m working on it,’ or something like that.”
Richardson was a relentless witness. Faithfully praying for Mantle, he would invite him down to Sumter and to the University of South Carolina (where he coached baseball from 1970-1976, including the World Series runner-up team in ’75) to putting on batting clinics.
But Richardson always felt eternity at stake and surrounded Mantle with as much essence of the Lord as possible.
“I would either talk to him or put someone with him who was a really good witness,” Richardson said. “And the Lord just used that. And really it was Pete Maravich who God used in the end.”
Richardson suspects it was a Christian testimonial tape from basketball star Pete Maravich that convicted Mantle once and for all to give his life to the Lord.
According to Richardson, Mantle called him from the hospital after a liver transplant, saying, “I’m really hurting” and Richardson prayed with him over the phone. Shortly afterward, Richardson visited Mantle, who was also suffering from liver cancer, and as soon as Richardson stepped into his Dallas hospital room, Mantle couldn’t wait to tell him the good news: He had accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior. Mantle even quoted John 3:16 to Richardson, who made sure Mantle understood the decision.
Mantle, 64, died shortly after on Aug. 13, 1995, and Richardson gave the eulogy at his funeral, which included a clear Gospel presentation.
“But if Mick could hold a press conference from where he is today, I know that he would introduce you to his true hero,” said Richardson, according to the transcript of his funeral. “The one who died in his place to give him not just a longer physical life but everlasting life, his Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Richardson, who is no stranger to the spotlight having played in seven World Series, has had many opportunities to share his faith as a player and in retirement.
He’s been involved in five different Billy Graham Crusades, giving his testimony at four of them, including twice in Japan and the 1965 Crusades in Honolulu and at Houston’s Astrodome with President Lyndon Johnson.
“Unbelievable,” Richardson said of his Crusade experiences. “Unbelievable. In all of those Crusades, the Lord really blessed Billy’s ministry and He’s continued to do so over the years.”
He witnessed firsthand from the stage at Madison Square Garden, where former Dodgers and Yankees owner Larry MacPhail gave his life to the Lord.
“We invited him to come up (to the Crusade) but it was filled to capacity and they turned him away,” Richardson said. “Grady Wilson (one of BGEA’s founders) was sitting on the stage and he heard about it and went out and got him and sat him onstage and he responded to the invitation that night and gave his heart to Christ.”
As a player, Richardson fondly remembers the Lord at work through Mr. Graham through the 16-week New York Crusade in 1957, culminating with 100,000 people packing Yankees Stadium on July 20.
“It was during the season,” he said. “We’d go on the road for 17 days and come back in and it would still be going on, night after night after night.”
A Lasting Legacy
Richardson may have been well known for the grand slam in the 1960 World Series, which led to him being named World Series MVP despite the Yankees losing the Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the only time this has ever happened.
He may also be known for catching the final out of the 1962 World Series, off the bat of Willy McCovey, which, had it gotten past Richardson, would have scored the tying and winning runs of Game 7.
But Richardson’s legacy will tell you his greatest accomplishments have nothing to do with baseball.
“The biggest thing that’s been a reward in my life is to see all my kids walking with the Lord,” he said.
Two of Richardson’s sons, Robbie and Ron, are pastors. His daughter, Christie Kendall, is a missionary in Kenya, while his son Rich and daughter Jeannie Kay are also involved in their churches.
Richardson is 76 now, but you wouldn’t know it hearing him speak to a crowd of Christians and/or Yankee fans at a Charlotte Methodist church last fall. With all 16 tables packed and all eyes on Richardson, he barely took a breath, telling story after story about Mantle, Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel, effortlessly weaving in the Gospel message.
The secret to his youthfulness?
“Fifteen grandchildren,” he said, not skipping a beat. “Trying to keep up with them.”
Oftentimes, that means playing sports at the Richardson home in Sumter, which sports both a football field and baseball diamond in the backyard.
Quite a hit, especially when the family gets together around the holidays.
“The grandkids are always asking, ‘Can we have some games in the backyard for Thanksgiving?’”
Nothing would make Richardson happier. After all, he quit the game of baseball in the prime of his career in 1965 at age 30 — something unthinkable in today’s game — to spend more time with his family.
More than 45 years later, it’s something he’s never regretted.
“I was playing in old-timers games at age 31,” Richardson said. “That’s the best decision I made, to retire from baseball at 30 years old.”