By Marty Appel
Sport Magazine used to run small notices about joining fan clubs, and there it was in 1961, the address to join the Bobby Richardson Fan Club, operating out of New Jersey.
Perfect. I was in.
Bobby was my guy.
I had been a Yankees fan since 1955, and of course, Mickey Mantle was the hero of the day, baseball’s first television star. But by 1959, my loyalty shifted from Mick to Bobby.
It was nothing against Mantle. It was more like my wanted “my own guy,” since everyone was a Mantle fan. And Richardson filled the role. His handsome Topps baseball card in 1958 had stood out with its red background and I too was playing second base and wearing number 1 in the Police Athletic League in Queens. The newspapers always called him “Little Bobby Richardson,” and yes, I had to confess, I too was a bit height-challenged in fifth grade. So if you were going to pick on Bobby, you had to get past me first.
I also felt badly for him, because Casey Stengel did not show him much respect. Casey preferred the hard drinkers (as he had been), not the milkshake drinkers like Bobby and Tony Kubek. Sometimes he would embarrass him by batting him 9th in the lineup behind Don Larsen (a decent hitting pitcher), or he would pinch hit for him in the third inning.
And so when Bobby hit .301 in 1959, he not only showed up Casey’s notions about his hitting skills, but pretty much cemented his place on my wall where I’d hang Sport Magazine photos. (One year Bobby was a “Sport Special” and they ran his full-page color photo backwards, with the NY on his right side).
Before I joined the fan club, I wrote him a fan letter, and to my delight, I got home from school to see a black and white postcard of Bobby on the dining room table, signed, “Really appreciated your letter, Sincerely, Bobby Richardson.” Oh wow!
After I joined the fan club, in addition to a membership card and a newsletter, I would receive little four-page religious tracts with the mailing.
“What’s this?” I wondered.
Well, they were messages about accepting Jesus as savior, and my parents were wondering what their son was doing when he was supposed to be doing Hebrew School homework. I’m not sure I had an explanation.
What Bobby was doing of course, was spreading the word through his position as a professional baseball player, feeling it was his calling to take advantage of that platform. And I decided, “okay, that’s fine,” and didn’t let it get in the way of my admiration. In fact, there was something about it quite admirable.
Bobby was ahead of his time. There was not yet a “Born Again Christian” movement, there was no Fellowship of Christian Athletes, there was no Baseball Chapel. It was pretty much him (and Al Worthington) doing God’s work in baseball. And I wasn’t put off by it at all.
In 1962, the fan club held a contest asking members “in which game would Bobby get his 100th hit of the season?” Well by 1962, I was a little Sabrmatician, and of course I said, “the 81st game,” and of course I won. (He would get 209 hits that season, and trust me; I am not pausing to double-check this on Baseball-Reference) My prize was an autographed baseball from Bobby and an in-person meeting at Yankee Stadium.
I still remember the meeting; for it was the first time I was ever that close to a real Yankee. The flannel uniform, the dark cap (which sometimes photographed black, not navy), and the presence of my hero, greeting me at the railing by the first base box seats, were priceless memories.
We fast forward. I’ve now gone through high school and college, Bobby has retired to South Carolina, and I’m hired by the Yankees PR Department to answer Mickey Mantle’s fan mail. It’s the summer of 1968, and I’m on the Yankees payroll.
So I write to Bobby – on Yankees stationery – and say, “guess what?” And thus begins what could have been a very awkward transition. We were once hero-child “friends,” and now we are going to become adult friends. It is not always an easy dynamic.
But Bobby made it so. We were able to strike up a more genuine friendship, and as the years went on (I became the team’s PR Director in 1973), I became his principal conduit to all things Yankee. I’d send him his Old Timers Day invitation, and I’d keep him posted on news of interest. I had long ago sent him the four volumes of scrapbooks I had kept during my youth.
I made sure his place in Yankee history was often recalled. Not only did he twice hit .300, but he was a 7-time All-Star, won the 1960 World Series MVP (the only losing player to this day), set Series records for RBIs and hits, and caught the dramatic final out in 1962 off Willie McCovey to secure the Yanks’ last world championship until 1977.
In 1992, I had him once again sign my fan club baseball, 30 years after I had first won it. Each year, to this day, we talk on the phone the day after the World Series to salute another year of his single-game and series RBI records still standing (6, and 12 respectively). It’s been 53 years and no one has touched them. We share a laugh and an amazement over that, and this year we talked about it being a good thing they started to walk David Ortiz or else.
At 78, Bobby remains vital and genuine. I guess clean living did work. Take that, Casey. We still meet in person when time allows; he’s still inviting me to his home in Sumter, SC (which I’ll make one day), and we talk when an old teammate passes on and Bobby just wants to talk about him. (He was at Mickey Mantle’s bedside at the end and spoke at his funeral – a tribute to both of them).
So here’s to converting childhood fan club memories to an adult friendship that hopefully goes on for a long, long time.