Dick Ricketts (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Dick Ricketts

This article was written by Eric Vickrey

Dick Ricketts (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Decades before Michael Jordan stepped away from the National Basketball Association to play minor league baseball, another former first-round draft pick made a similar decision. Dick Ricketts was a two-sport athlete in high school and college, excelling at baseball and basketball. Taken number one overall in the 1955 NBA draft, Ricketts spent three seasons in professional basketball before giving up hoops to focus on his career as a pitcher. He made it to the majors for 12 games in 1959 and eventually won 100 games over the course of his baseball career, although only one of these victories came at the big-league level.

Richard James “Dick” Ricketts Jr. was born on December 4, 1933, in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. His family heritage was Irish, Native American, English, and African.1 Richard J. Ricketts Sr. was a light-skinned African American; Margaret “Maggie” Ricketts (née Lewis) was of Irish descent.2 They had four children, the last of whom (a girl named Marie) died in infancy in 1938.3 Dick was the middle surviving child between older sister Alice and younger brother David. Dave Ricketts played 130 games in the majors as a catcher from 1963 through 1970, serving long after that as a coach.

Pottstown, 40 miles from Philadelphia, sits on the Schulykill River. It had a population of around 20,000 in the early ’30s. Richard Sr., a WWII veteran, served as the recreation director at the town’s community center. He was strict, well-respected, and was a mentor to many in the community. Known in Pottstown as “Mr. Dick,” the elder Ricketts played basketball and baseball, including with the Bacharach Giants of the Negro Leagues. Both sons would follow in his footsteps.

Both Dick and Dave Ricketts played and excelled at basketball and baseball in Pottstown. By his senior year in high school, Dick had grown to a height of 6-foot-7. He said he got his height from both sides of his family, calling his Irish and English grandfathers “both giant men.”4

On the baseball diamond, Dick was a pitcher and first baseman. In the summer of 1951, he led the Pottstown American Legion team with an 11-1 record on the mound and a .458 batting average en route to the state championship.5 In the best-of-three series to clinch the title, Dick struck out 21, setting a state record.6 He received offers from major league teams, including a $40,000 bid from Cleveland, but on his parents’ advice, he chose to further his education.7

Ricketts enrolled at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he played both baseball and basketball and majored in education. The tall righty continued to pitch and play first base for the Dukes. Though he threw right-handed, he batted left. His coach, Doc Skender, called him “the greatest player I ever coached.”8 In describing his skills as a first baseman, Skender said, “He’s so big he makes a beautiful target on the bag. He’s fast, a fine fielder, and a good hitter.”9 Younger brother Dave joined him at Duquesne in 1953, also playing both baseball and basketball.

As a four-year starter for the Duquesne basketball team, Ricketts averaged double figures in points and rebounds each season. He was a three-time All-American. In 1953-54, Dick’s junior year, the team won 24 consecutive games, finished with a record of 26-3, and lost in the NIT finals. In the 1954-55 season, Duquesne finished with a 22-4 record and captured the NIT title. That season, he averaged 20.1 points and 17.3 rebounds per game. The forward graduated as the school’s all-time leader in scoring with 1,963 points and rebounds with 1,359, both marks that still stand.

Ricketts’s plan was to play at least two years of professional baseball and basketball, though baseball was his preferred sport.10 In the 1955 NBA draft, Ricketts was taken number one overall by the St. Louis Hawks. The Phillies and Yankees reportedly had interest, but it was the St. Louis Cardinals who signed Ricketts to an amateur contract that June.11 On June 4, 1955, Ricketts married Margaret Mount, his college sweetheart. That summer, he was assigned to the Cardinals’ Class A team in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as a pitcher. He started 14 games for Allentown that season, posting a record of 10-4 with a 3.52 ERA. He also did well at the plate, hitting .349 in 43 at-bats.

In November 1955, he began his basketball career for the Hawks, a team that featured future Hall of Fame forward Bob Pettit. Ricketts averaged 8.4 points in 29 games before being traded to the Rochester Royals in January 1956. In Rochester, Ricketts teamed up with two other talented rookies, Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman. Stokes had been drafted second overall right behind Ricketts.

In 1956, Ricketts again spent the baseball and basketball seasons in Allentown and Rochester, respectively. For Allentown, he compiled a 9-8 record and 4.14 ERA. Control was an issue, as he walked 102 in 161 innings. As a forward/center for the 1956-57 Rochester Royals, Ricketts averaged 11.2 PPG. After that season, the Royals relocated to Cincinnati, but Ricketts again found himself in Rochester in 1957 as a member of the Cardinals’ Triple A affiliate.

Dick Ricketts (TRADING CARD DB)Dick got off to an excellent start for the ’57 Rochester Red Wings. During the first month of the season, he won four of his first five decisions. He was primarily a fastball pitcher and was working on a breaking ball. His height was a factor in his success. An opposing hitter was quoted as saying that facing Ricketts was “like standing under a roof and having a pitcher throw at you from up there.”12 Another opposing hitter was quoted as saying, “Ricketts cannot miss going to the majors once he can get some slow stuff over the plate to keep hitters off stride.”13

Younger brother Dave Ricketts was signed by the Cardinals in June 1957 after graduating from Duquesne, and the two were battery mates once again. On June 12, with newly arrived Dave behind the plate, Dick lost a no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth inning and two strikes on the batter.14 He still won the game, bringing his record to 5-1. He finished the year with 12 wins against 9 losses, a 3.99 ERA, and improved control with 79 walks in 187 innings. It was notable that as early as mid-June, he’d said, “If I can become a major-leaguer, I’ll give up basketball.”15

The 1957-58 Cincinnati Royals included three future Hall of Famers: Stokes, Twyman, and Clyde Lovellette. Ricketts, in his third NBA season, averaged 7.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. The season ended with a tragic brain injury to Stokes which left him paralyzed. Following this season, Ricketts decided to quit basketball and focus on baseball. At that point, he and his wife Margaret had started a family, and he also disliked the winter travel required in the NBA.16 The decision involved a sizable pay cut; he had been making five figures for the Royals. The Royals offered him a raise to continue his basketball career, but he declined.17 “I wanted to prove to myself that I could or couldn’t play big league baseball,” said Ricketts.18

In 1958, he again spent the entire season with Rochester. He started 32 games, logged 221 innings, and finished with a record of 15-13. In a talented rotation that included Bob Gibson, Ricketts was considered among the Cardinals’ most promising arms. General manager Bing Devine said, “He’s working on a breaking ball to go along with his fast one, which is major league. We consider him a top prospect.”19

Ricketts joined the Cardinals’ big-league camp for the first time in 1959. He didn’t make the team out of spring training, though he pitched well. “He looked good this spring. We told him that if someone falters he may be the first one back,” said St. Louis manager Solly Hemus at the time.20 It did not take long for this to be the case. On June 9, the last-place Cardinals called Ricketts up from Rochester and plugged him into the starting rotation. He made his debut in St. Louis on June 14 against Frank Robinson and the Cincinnati Reds. Ricketts pitched well, giving up three runs in 7.1 innings while both striking out and walking six. Even so, he took a 3-2 loss. The Cardinals failed to score in his next two starts, and so despite a 3.72 ERA, he had an 0-3 record.

His luck changed on June 28 when he again faced the Reds, this time in Cincinnati. The Cardinal bats exploded and gave Ricketts a 9-0 cushion. Ricketts took a shutout into the seventh inning before allowing five earned runs. The Cards hung on for an 11-8 win, and Ricketts earned his only big league win. This game also featured his only career hit in the majors.

Ricketts remained in the Cardinals rotation through the end of July, starting nine times while also appearing out of the bullpen three times. His ERA climbed to 5.82, and with a record of just 1-6, he was sent back to Rochester. This was the last time Ricketts appeared in a big-league uniform. He spent the rest of that season with the Red Wings and had a respectable ERA of 3.48.

After he spent the entire 1960 season with Rochester, where he posted a 9-13 record and 4.31 ERA, the Cardinals traded him along with four other players to Philadelphia for Don Landrum. He was assigned to Triple-A Buffalo. In 1961, Ricketts won 10 games against 12 losses and had an ERA of 3.76. His record did not necessarily reflect how well he pitched that summer. “He lost some rough games that year, but I never heard him complain or criticize,” said manager Kerby Farrell.21 Buffalo won the International League championship over Rochester. In 1962, Ricketts was primarily used out of the bullpen, appearing in 52 games with a sharp 2.85 ERA. In the off-seasons, Ricketts lived in Rochester, worked for the City Recreation Department holding basketball clinics for elementary children, and taught special education.22 He never played winter ball, for family reasons and because he believed his arm needed rest.23

Buffalo became an affiliate of the New York Mets in 1963, and Ricketts stayed put. He was back to a starting role in the Mets organization and continued to have success, rolling to an 11-1 record by mid-July. This included a pair of one-hitters, one of which would have been a no-hitter if not for a bad hop.24 The Mets, a dreadful second-year expansion club, had a few good starters but wound up with the league’s worst ERA. They could have used pitching help. Yet Ricketts, relying more on breaking pitches and experience at this point in his career, was not necessarily itching to get out of Triple A. “I’m not the least bit excited about going back to the big leagues. I mean that. My entire attitude is different,” Ricketts had said.25 Pitching in Buffalo, he was able to commute from Rochester and help his wife raise their four children: sons Michael, Richard III, and Gregory, along with daughter Sharon.26 “These four kids need all the help I can give them. So, I’m not fretting about not getting another shot,” Ricketts added.27

Though Ricketts was content pitching in Buffalo, his terrific start to 1963 was attracting attention from teams around the major leagues. On July 16, no fewer than eight scouts were in attendance to watch him take on Rochester.28 Alas, in the eighth inning, Ricketts took a line drive to his pitching hand, fracturing his thumb and ending his season. He pitched one more year for Buffalo but didn’t quite regain the same form he’d displayed the year before. He left baseball after the 1964 season at the age of 30.

After his playing career, Ricketts went to work at Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester. He worked in personnel; his original duties were as a recruiter.29 He rose to become manager of industrial relations, also working for Kodak in Oak Brook, Illinois.30 A full-page ad in a 1981 issue of Black Enterprise magazine noted that he was responsible for the administration of company benefits, wages and salaries, training, relocations, employment, affirmative action programs, and personnel matters for 1,300 Kodak people located in 15 states.

Ricketts died of leukemia in Rochester on March 6, 1988, at the age of 54. Although he’d been diagnosed with the disease three years previously, he told only four people about it: his wife, brother, sister, and priest. His wife, Margaret, remarked, “He wanted to be seen as a person who was involved in the business of living rather than in the business of dying.”31

Colleagues said he guided the apparatus division through a painful period of cost-cutting and layoffs, and was working to create an atmosphere of participation by all employees. Margaret Ricketts added that her husband was driven by something other than his color or corporate rank. “He would have had a sense of responsibility to Eastman Kodak if he had been the janitor.”32

To this day, Dick Ricketts is just one of 12 men to play in both the NBA and MLB.33

 

Acknowledgments

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

Thanks to the Bethel Community Church of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, for providing information on the mother of Dick Ricketts.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com and Basketball-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 Kritzer, “Hill Ace Ricketts Gives Bisons Big Lift with Hot Bat.”

5 Jack Henry, “Here’s Twist: Duke’s Dick Ricketts Spurns Baseball Bonus for Education,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, December 23, 1951: 19.

6 Joe Much, “Rickie Halts Clarence on One-Hitter, 16-2; Reidenouer Follows Suit 6-0,” The Mercury, August 27, 1951: 11.

7 “Dick Ricketts,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, January 3, 1952: 20.

8 Jack Sell. “Dick Ricketts’ Two-Year Plan Includes Two Pro Sports,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 24, 1955: 18.

9 Sell.

10 Sell.

11 Sell.

12 Al Weber, “Cage Star Ricketts of Rochester Filling Basket with Victories,” The Sporting News, June 5, 1957: 33.

13 Weber.

14 “Ricketts’ No-Hit Bid Ends with Two Out in 9th Frame,” The Sporting News, July 3, 1957: 36.

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

16 Richard J. (Dick) Ricketts Obituary, The Sporting News, March 21, 1988: 41.

17 Jack Herman, “6-6 Ricketts Passed Up Big Pay as Hoop Star for Chance on Hill,” The Sporting News, March 11, 1959: 13.

18 Herman.

19 Al Weber, “Cards’ Big Four of Future Polishing Up at Rochester,” The Sporting News, July 16, 1958: 33.

20 “Bruised Musial Back at First, Bill White Sent to Left Field,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 13, 1959: 53.

21 Kritzer, “Hill Ace Ricketts Gives Bisons Big Lift with Hot Bat.”

22 Paul Pickney, “Ricketts Spurns Bison Pact: City Recreation Aide Pitchin’ for More $$,” Democrat and Chronicle, (Rochester, New York) March 4, 1962: 45

23 Kritzer, “Hill Ace Ricketts Gives Bisons Big Lift with Hot Bat.”

24 George Beahon, “Ricketts Relaxes…And Wonders,” Democrat and Chronicle, July 10, 1963: 29.

25 Beahon.

26 “Dick Ricketts, A Basketball Legend, Dies, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 7, 1988: 10.

27 Beahon, “Ricketts Relaxes…And Wonders.”

28 Beahon, “Ricketts Relaxes…And Wonders,”

29 George Beahon, “The Brothers Ricketts,” Democrat and Chronicle, September 19, 1967: 11.

30 “Dick Ricketts, 54, Dies, Was Dual Pro Sport Star,” Jet, March 28, 1988: 48.

31 Mary Lynne Vellinga, “Richard Ricketts, Kodak executive, is dead at age 54,” Democrat and Chronicle, March 8, 1988: 1, 8.

32 Vellinga, “Richard Ricketts, Kodak executive, is dead at age 54.”

33 For discussion of who is on this list, see the biography of Chuck Connors by Charlie Bevis on the SABR BioProject.

Full Name

Richard James Ricketts

Born

December 4, 1933 at Pottstown, PA (USA)

Died

March 6, 1988 at Rochester, NY (USA)

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