Dave Ricketts (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Dave Ricketts

This article was written by Eric Vickrey

Dave Ricketts (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Dave Ricketts was a bespectacled catcher who looked as much like a math teacher as he did a professional athlete. Indeed, he was a schoolteacher for several years and nearly gave up baseball to teach full-time. The statistics on the back of his baseball cards may give the impression that Ricketts had little impact on the game as a sparingly used catcher. This assumption would be entirely inaccurate. Ricketts was, in fact, a two-sport star in high school and college, an accomplished minor league hitter, a World Series champion, and a beloved mentor to several generations of players.

David William Ricketts was born on July 12, 1935, in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. His family heritage was Irish, Native American, English, and African.1 His parents were Richard J. Sr. (a light-skinned African American) and Margaret E. Ricketts (née Lewis, who was of Irish descent).2 Dave was the third of four children, but his younger sister Marie died in infancy in 1938.3 He had two older surviving siblings, Alice and Richard Jr. “Dick” Ricketts, who would later pitch in 12 games for the Cardinals in 1959, his only season in the majors.

Richard Sr. attended Clark University, served in World War II, and at one time played semiprofessional baseball as a switch-hitting shortstop. After his military service, the elder Ricketts served as director of recreational activities at the Bethany Center in Pottstown, a position he held for 25 years. Known as “Mr. Dick,” Richard Sr. was strict but well-respected and was known to buy new sneakers for children in the community whose families could not afford them.4 Pottstown’s community center was later named in his honor.

Both Dave and his brother Dick, just 18 months older, demonstrated outstanding athletic abilities in their youth. “Dad brought us up to be ballplayers, and he made a switch hitter out of me,” Dave would later say.5 “Dad used to drive my brother Dick and me hard. He made us hit baseballs until it got dark,” he said in another interview.6 The boys also worked on the playing fields, digging up weeds and doing other odd jobs.7

At age 13, he made the American Legion baseball team, playing with boys several years older. Dave began wearing glasses in the seventh grade but liked catching. However, the specs would fly off when he pulled off his mask to chase pop fouls. “And I couldn’t see halfway to the mound without the glasses,” he recalled in 1969. “But then they came up with a new type of padded mask.”8

In high school, Dave played baseball and basketball and was a member of honors club, choir, and glee club.9 Both brothers were part of the Pottstown High School baseball team that won 48 consecutive games, earning them recognition at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.10 In 1951, Dave was the catcher and Dick was a pitcher and first baseman for the Pottstown American Legion team that finished 25-2 and captured the state title.11

After high school, Dave followed in his brother’s footsteps and attended Duquesne University. This choice had a happy extra benefit. A young woman named Barbara Ann Boswell had seen an article in Ebony magazine in 1953 about the Ricketts brothers. “Barbarann” told her friends that if Dave decided to go to Duquesne, she would like to meet him. They did indeed get to know each other that September. After nearly four years of dating, Dave married Barbarann on August 17, 1957.12 They would have two children, David Jr. and Marie Candace (“Candy”).

Dave continued to excel at baseball and basketball for the Dukes. In 1955, then a sophomore, he teamed with Dick on the basketball team that captured the NIT championship. As a senior, Dave, who was listed at 6-foot-2, averaged 17.9 points and five rebounds per game. That season, he also set an NCAA record by making 42 consecutive free throws.13

Ricketts went undrafted by the NBA in April 1957. After graduating from Duquesne with a degree in education that June, Ricketts signed as an amateur free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals. His signing bonus was $4,000.14 He had offers from several other clubs but chose St. Louis because they promised to start him at the top minor-league level.15 And they did, sending him to their Triple-A affiliate in Rochester, New York, for the ’57 season.

The presence of his brother was no doubt also an attraction. In Rochester, Dave was again battery mates with Dick, whom St. Louis had signed as a pitcher two years before. Dick also spent three seasons in the NBA before giving up basketball to focus on his baseball career (which continued through 1964). Shortly after Dave joined the Red Wings, player-manager Cot Deal said, “Dave definitely is an outstanding prospect. If he keeps playing the way he started out he’ll probably stay with us the rest of the season. He and Dick should make a good combination.” Dick observed, “He looks real relaxed behind that plate. I think he’ll make good.”16

Dave fulfilled Deal’s prediction (and eventually his brother’s). He appeared in 73 games, compiling a .306 batting average for Rochester in ’57. He lacked power and did not hit a home run, though he was adept at making contact, striking out just 18 times in 247 plate appearances.

Ricketts missed the 1958 and 1959 seasons while serving in the United States Army. He went into the service in October 1957 as a second lieutenant because he’d been in the ROTC.17 He was stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He remained active in sports as a military man, playing basketball for Fort Eustis and baseball with the Langley Flyers, which represented the Air Force base about 20 miles away.18

Ricketts resumed his pro baseball career in the fall of 1959 in the Florida Instructional League, filling in at various positions and winning the league batting title.19 He then went to Puerto Rican winter ball, joining the San Juan Senadores. From 1960 to 1963, he saw action with multiple minor league affiliates, including another stint in Rochester and stops in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Atlanta, Georgia. Ricketts had respectable offensive numbers in each of these seasons with batting averages between .278 and .296. He showed a little more power as he developed, homering five times for the Atlanta Crackers in 1963.

Memories of Ricketts in 1963 come from pitcher Harry Fanok. Looking back in 2020, “The Flame Thrower” said, “Dave caught most of my games and I cannot think of one bad trait that he had. Always upbeat! When ya looked into Dave’s eyes, ya didn’t know whether to break out laughing, or what! I remember he called everyone ‘Road’ — ‘Whatcha gonna do today, Road?’

“He was a good catcher and I liked him. Don’t recall anyone having a problem with him either.”20

Another teammate with the Crackers was future Red Sox manager Joe Morgan, who also offered his reminiscences in 2020. In addition to calling Ricketts a “decent catcher, decent arm, decent all around,” Morgan added, “He had this thing he did. If he saw something on the field — a nail, a toothpick, a book of matches — he’d pick it up and put it in his pocket. Then after the game he’d put it in his locker. He had a collection…all kinds of crap in there!”21

Ricketts, then 27, finally got the call to the big leagues at the end of the 1963 season, serving as catching depth for the Cardinals during the last few games of the season. He made his major league debut on September 25 against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. In his first major league at-bat against Larry Jackson, he struck out but reached first base on a passed ball. Two innings later, he faced Jackson again and collected his first big league hit. He finished the day 2-for-4 and for the season was 2-for-8.

Ricketts again spent the entire 1964 season back in the minor leagues, this time with the Cardinals’ new top affiliate in Jacksonville, Florida. He caught 125 games that year and ended with a batting average of .254. Tim McCarver and Bob Uecker were ahead of him on the depth chart, and St. Louis typically carried only two catchers. Thus, Ricketts was slated for the minor leagues again in 1965. However, McCarver fractured a finger in spring training, so Ricketts made the Opening Day roster. Uecker was injured attempting to catch a foul ball in the season opener, thrusting Ricketts into action for the first four games of the season. However, both McCarver and Uecker made quick returns, so Ricketts spent most of the year in the minor leagues before appearing in games in August and October with the parent club. In total, he played in 11 games for the ’65 Cardinals, hitting .241 in 31 plate appearances.

Harry Fanok also remembered Ricketts from their time together in 1965. It came at the end of the Triple-A season with Jacksonville. “It was in Toledo. No more games! We were going home to Jacksonville and everybody was sort of saying goodbye, even though we still had the seven-hour plane ride back. In his jovial mode, I heard Dave tell all of us, half laughing, that if he never met up with us again, that would be a good thing. He was kidding around and we all knew it. It was just his way.”22

In 1966, Ricketts found himself in the minor leagues once again, this time in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The 30-year-old backstop found his groove offensively and enjoyed his most productive season to date. In 404 plate appearances, he batted .327 with a .358 OBP, drove in 31 runs, and struck out only 11 times. Former Cardinal great and Hall of Famer Joe Medwick, then working with the organization as a roving hitting instructor, told The Sporting News that Ricketts’s hitting and catching had improved “100 percent.”23

In the off-seasons, Ricketts used his education degree to teach mathematics and social studies in Rochester, and he also coached junior varsity basketball for five seasons at St. John Fisher College. He expressed that he had thoughts of leaving the game in 1966 to provide a more stable income for his family.24 He credited his wife with encouraging him to stick with baseball for another season.25

His patience would finally pay off in 1967. That year, he made the Opening Day roster as the backup catcher to McCarver and would never return to the minor leagues. He joked that he would be willing to stick around even if it meant carrying Lou Brock’s bats.26 In 16 starts at catcher, Ricketts hit .305 with 11 runs batted in. Defensively, he threw out 50 percent of attempted base stealers and did not make an error. On May 27, Dick Ricketts Sr. made the 40-mile trip from Pottstown to Philadelphia to see Dave play in the major leagues for the first time.27 Another career highlight occurred during a September 4 game versus Pittsburgh when Ricketts hit his first, and what would be his only, big-league home run (off Bob Veale). Throughout the 1967 season, the switch-hitter was utilized as a pinch-hitter frequently, going 7-for-32 in this role. Not only was Dave having success, but his team was as well. The Cardinals finished with a record of 101-60 and captured the National League pennant.

Although Ricketts was enjoying success on the diamond, tragedy struck off the field. In late August, his father was involved in a serious automobile accident. On September 8, 1967, Richard Sr. passed away due to his injuries. Said Dave of this loss, “The saddest part of it all is that we’re so close to the World Series and it would have been nice if he could have been around for it.”28

The Cardinals defeated the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series, four games to three, behind the arm of Bob Gibson. The Cardinal ace threw three complete games, all victories, and allowed just three runs in the series. Ricketts appeared as a pinch-hitter several times in the series, going hitless in three at-bats.

Following the 1967 season, Ricketts played with Licey in the Dominican winter league. A Sporting News reporter pointed out that his participation “gave Dave a chance to pick up some much-needed work —plus mucho pesos.”29 In 1968, the Cardinals obtained catcher Johnny Edwards to serve as the backup catcher, which relegated Ricketts to third-string catcher and primarily a pinch-hitting role. He also contributed to his team as a batting practice pitcher and bullpen catcher. In another Sporting News article from that summer, Ricketts referred to himself as “the highest paid vacationer in baseball.”30 His only start of the year came in late September after the team had clinched its second consecutive National League pennant. For the year, he hit just .136 in 22 at-bats. The Cardinals lost to the Detroit Tigers in the seven-game World Series. Ricketts singled in his only at-bat of the Series off Detroit ace Denny McLain.

That fall, a group of Cardinal players toured Japan for a series of exhibition games. Ricketts excelled on this trip, hitting .471.31 The next year, as Cardinals beat writer Neal Russo visited with Ricketts and his family at home, Dave joked, “I was chosen most valuable player and got a $1000 stereo as a gift. Where was Barbarann? No, she wasn’t in the stands. She was out visiting a Buddhist temple.”32

Despite his lack of playing time, Ricketts drew high praise from teammates and others within the Cardinals organization for his contributions outside the lines. There were indications that Ricketts had more to offer the game of baseball after his playing career. Vern Benson, who had managed Ricketts in the minor leagues, said “Any manager would love to take Dave with him . . . He has an excellent personality that would help him as a manager, coach, or scout.”33

In 1969, Ricketts started seven games at catcher, again being used mostly as a pinch-hitter. He saw more success, however, reaching base safely eight times in 22 at-bats, and ended the year hitting .273. Following the 1969 season, St. Louis traded Ricketts, along with Dave Giusti, to Pittsburgh for Carl Taylor and minor leaguer Frank Vanzin. Ricketts would play one season with the Pirates, the last of his career. He appeared in just 14 games, all of which were as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement.

Although his playing career ended at age 35, the extended second phase of his baseball career was just beginning. Ricketts became the Pirates bullpen coach in 1971.34 At the time, he was one of only a handful of African American coaches in baseball. He earned another World Series ring when Pittsburgh claimed the 1971 title. Pirates broadcaster Nellie King would later credit Ricketts for keeping the ethnically diverse clubhouse loose during this championship run.35 Steve Blass, a key cog of the early 1970s Pirates, said, “I have never seen a coach work harder for whatever team he is involved with than Dave Ricketts. He had a zest for life.”36 Al Oliver echoed Blass in remembering his coach’s tireless work ethic. Oliver also noted that Ricketts had pinpoint control and threw hard as a batting practice pitcher, calling him “the best I’ve ever had.”37

A fellow coach with the 1972 Pirates was former teammate Joe Morgan. In 2020, Morgan recalled, “I looked up one day and realized there were five coaches and the manager. The pension plan then allowed for four coaches. I went to the general manager, Joe Brown, and asked if I was on the plan. He said yes. I said, ‘Thank you very much’ and left.” Ricketts had met the vesting requirement at that time (four years of major-league service) — but Morgan had not. He emphasized that it was a big reason to stick around the game.38

Unfortunately, during his tenure with Pittsburgh, tragedy struck the Ricketts family again. In 1972, Dave’s son, David Jr., died from a brain tumor at the age of ten.39

Ricketts remained with the Pirates through the 1973 season. He then returned to the St. Louis organization and served as their bullpen coach in 1974-75. After spending 1976 and 1977 managing Sarasota and Johnson City in the low minors, he rejoined the big club, again as bullpen coach, a role he held through the 1991 season. “Dave officially had the title of bullpen coach, but he was much more than that,” said Ozzie Smith. “He was always available when guys needed extra batting practice, and he was the guy who really taught me to keep my hands on top of the ball.”40

Both teammates and players whom Ricketts coached often noted his nature to joke around and tease while at the same time taking his job seriously. “He probably gets on everybody, teases them, more than anybody,” said long-time Cardinals pitcher Bob Forsch, “but there’s no fooling around in the bullpen once the game starts.”41 St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog, describing his coach’s continued countless hours throwing batting practice, called him “one of the hardest working people you’ve ever seen.”42

Ricketts’s tenure as bullpen coach with the Cardinals included three more World Series appearances, including the 1982 championship. He remained in the Cardinals organization throughout the remainder of his life as a minor league catching instructor, mentoring future Rawlings Gold Glove winners Tom Pagnozzi, Mike Matheny, and Yadier Molina.

A testament to the deep influence of Ricketts came from catcher Danny Sheaffer, whose big-league career concluded with three seasons for the Cardinals (1995-1997). In 2020, Sheaffer said, “Loyalty and selflessness are just a couple of words that describe the character of Dave Ricketts. I struggle to think of anyone that made it to the park earlier than he did on a daily basis or someone that would go out of his way to spend extra time with players that no one considered a ‘prospect’ because he genuinely loved players.

“I met him after 14 years of pro ball and learned more about catching in the last three under him that I did in the first 14 combined. One story that sticks in my mind is how after managing Peoria to the 2002 Midwest League Championship with players like Dan Haren, Chris Duncan, and Yadier Molina, I made the transition from manager to catching coordinator, the post held by Mr. Ricketts. He had made the choice to step down and retire but only if the Cardinals would name me to take his place, knowing I would do whatever it took to keep his program in place to continue to develop Molina like Mr. Ricketts had done with Tom Pagnozzi, Terry Kennedy, Tony Peña, Ted Simmons, Darrell Porter, Mike Matheny, and others.”43

Dave Ricketts passed away from kidney cancer on July 13, 2008, just a day after his 73rd birthday. His impact was very evident in comments from players he worked with. Following his passing, Molina said, “I am here because of him. He made me into a catcher. He was like my dad, there for me since I was 17. He meant so much to me.”44

Tony La Russa, who managed the Cardinals from 1996 until the time of Ricketts’s passing in 2008 and beyond, said “There have been some truly great Cardinals who have come through the organization, but I don’t know anyone greater or more beloved than Dave Ricketts.”45

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

Continued thanks to Harry Fanok and Joe M. Morgan for their contributions to the BioProject and to Danny Sheaffer for sharing his memories and stories. Thanks also to the Bethel Community Church of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, for providing information on the mother of Dave Ricketts.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

1 Cy Kritzer, “Hill Ace Ricketts Gives Bisons Big Lift with Hot Bat,” The Sporting News, July 13, 1963: 39.

2 Fletcher Johnson, Exceptional, Resource Publications (Eugene, Oregon), 2020: 71. This autobiography was written by a basketball teammate of Dick Ricketts at Duquesne. Note also that the 1940 census shows Margaret Ricketts as African American.

3 “Deaths and Funerals,” The Mercury (Pottstown, Pennsylvania), June 8, 1938: 3.

4 Michael T. Snyder. “The Humble Beginnings of the Ricketts Center,” The Mercury, October 6, 2019.

5 Richard Ricketts Sr. Obituary, The Sporting News, September 23, 1967: 38.

6 Neal Russo. “Dandy Pinch-Hitter Ricketts Puts Icing on Cardinals’ Cake,” The Sporting News, May 27, 1967: 6.

7 Neal Russo, “Ripper Ricketts, Hitter for a Pinch,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 8, 1969: 2D.

8 Russo, “Ripper Ricketts, Hitter for a Pinch.”

9 Michael Hays. “Dave Ricketts Remembered for his Dedication,” The Mercury, July 14, 2008.

10 Dave Kurtz. “Blast from the Past: Pottstown’s Last Championship Team Joins Area Diamond Legend on Bobby Shantz Day,” Pioneer Athletic Conference website, 5/2/17. (http://www.pac-10sports.com/article/content/blast-past-pottstowns-last-championship-team-joins-area-diamond-legend-bobby-shantz-). Accessed April 19, 2020.

11 Don Seely. “Boys of Summer: Sixty Years Ago, Pottstown Won State Legion Title,” The Mercury, July 25, 2011.

12 Letter from Barbara Boswell Ricketts to Ebony in the August 1992 issue. Research has not yet pinpointed the 1953 issue that featured the story on the brothers.

13 Russo, The Sporting News, May 27, 1967: 6. The current Division I record is 73, set in the 2000-01 season.

14 Bob Broeg. “Ricketts Back to Needle Birds to Flag as Good-Luck Charm,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 18, 1974: 4C.

15 “Dave Ricketts Signed by Cardinals’ Farm,” The News-Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), June 12, 1957: 37.

16 “Ricketts and Ricketts Battery at Rochester,” Pittsburgh Press, June 18, 1957: 29.

17 “Inside Stuff,” The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), July 7, 1957: 7.

18 “Fort Myer Nine at Lee for Weekend Series,” The Progress-Index (Petersburg, Virginia), May 16, 1958: 16.

19 Fred Lieb, “Bond’s Bludgeon Blasts Indians to Runner-Up Berth,” The Sporting News, December 23, 1959: 25.

20 E-mail from Harry Fanok to Rory Costello, May 25, 2020.

21 Telephone interview, Joe Morgan with Rory Costello, May 27, 2020.

22 Fanok e-mail. Box scores do not show any appearances for Ricketts with Jacksonville after his August stint with the big club. His name is not visible in any transactions columns either.

23 Russo, The Sporting News, May 27, 1967: 6.

24 Ibid.

25 Broeg.

26 Russo, The Sporting News, May 27, 1967: 6.

27 Neal Russo. “Milkshake a Day Keeps Plate Hex Away, Lou Finds,” The Sporting News, June 10, 1967: 7.

28 Richard Ricketts Sr. Obituary, The Sporting News, September 23, 1967: 38.

29 Neal Russo. “Off Season Snoozers? Not Cards; They’re Men of Action,” The Sporting News, February 17, 1968: 22.

30 Neal Russo. “Card Deck Full of Jokers — And They Are Wild,” The Sporting News, August 17, 1968: 34.

31 Neal Russo. “Cards Nix Shorter Fences; They’ll Stick with Speed,” The Sporting News, December 14, 1968: 30

32 Russo, “Ripper Ricketts, Hitter for a Pinch.”

33 Neal Russo. “Ripper Ricketts — A Redbird Jewel,” The Sporting News, September 6, 1967: 31.

34 He’d actually been dropped as a player and made a coach on August 31, 1970. Under the rules, he could not be activated as a coach until May 15, 1971. Charley Feeney, “Pitt-burgers,” The Sporting News, February 6, 1971: 43.

35 Daniel Malloy. “Obituary: Dave Ricketts, Former Catcher, Coach for Pirates, Cardinals,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 15, 2008.

36 Derrick Goold. “Cards Mourn Loss of Ricketts,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 14, 2008.

37 Malloy, “Obituary: Dave Ricketts.”

38 Morgan telephone interview.

39 Broeg.

40 Ozzie Smith and Rob Rains, Ozzie Smith: Road to Cooperstown (Sports Publishing, LLC, 2002), 29.

41 Tom Wheatley. “Unsung Hero: Cardinals Coach Ricketts Always Ready to Lend a Helping Batting-Practice Hand,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 9, 1988: 3C.

42 Wheatley.

43 Direct communication with the author via social media. As it developed, Sheaffer took over as manager of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds in June 2003.

44 Goold.

45 Goold.

Full Name

David William Ricketts

Born

July 12, 1935 at Pottstown, PA (USA)

Died

July 13, 2008 at St. Louis, MO (USA)

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