This article was written by Michael See
On August 29, 1977, Gene Richards was nearing the end of what was one of the finest rookie seasons in baseball history. His 56 stolen bases during that season were an all-time rookie record. However, on this particular evening, he stood silent at first base at San Diego Stadium, next to a man who had been his boyhood idol, Lou Brock. He had grown up idolizing Brock and the St. Louis Cardinals, along with players like Bob Gibson and Curt Flood.
This was also a very special night in San Diego: It was the evening that Richards’ childhood hero would tie and break Ty Cobb’s lifetime record for stolen bases with the 892nd and 893rd stolen bases of his career. “My greatest thrill I had in baseball was being there when Lou broke that record,” recalled Richards in a 2018 interview. “I didn’t say much of anything to him during that game. I was like a kid just standing in awe of his hero, afraid to say a word.”1
In a twist of fate, here were two African-American men standing side by side, both having come from historically black colleges in the South. One was a veteran who was about to have his crowning achievement, the other a young and up-and-coming speedster who had the potential to one day challenge his idol’s records. In 1977 the future was bright for Eugene Richards Jr.
Eugene Richards Jr. was born to Eugene Richards Sr. and Mary Agnes Richards on September 29, 1953, in Monticello, South Carolina. The second of seven children, he had four brothers and two sisters. Gene and his family grew up in Blair, South Carolina. His mother was a homemaker and his father worked at a rock quarry.
Richards’ love of baseball began when he was a boy. “Everyone in town played baseball,” he said. “The high school did not have football, so baseball was it for us.” Richards attended McCrorey-Liston High School in Blair, and it soon became apparent that the talented young high-school player might be destined for great things.
Richards was recruited as a pitcher on a full scholarship to South Carolina State University. “In school, hitting was always secondary to me,” he said. “I just wanted to concentrate on throwing strikes. I liked it out there.” While he was a very good pitcher (he went 7-2 as a junior), it was his other tools that began to get the attention of scouts like the Padres’ Gus Lombardo. Richards batted .450 during his sophomore season and .414 as a junior. He had an excellent 1974 summer season in the Shenandoah Valley League, batting .366 with 32 stolen bases.
He and his talented South Carolina State teammate, Willie Aikens, had planned to return for their senior seasons in 1975, when they received word that the Bulldogs’ baseball program had been terminated to expand woman’s sports.2 “There were other avenues,” Richards said. “I had spoken with Clemson and Virginia Tech, if it was at all possible, if the program was still there. I wanted to go back to SC State.”3 Richards said he had scholarship offers from both schools. Because their program had been discontinued, both Richards and Aikens were made immediately eligible for the major-league baseball draft. Richards hoped to go high in the draft, and to his surprise, he was the first overall pick, selected by the San Diego Padres. His Bulldogs teammate Aikens went second, to the California Angels. It marked the first time that a player from a historically black college was the first overall pick in the draft. “I could barely tell you where San Diego was on a map when I was drafted,” said Richards. “But I was just so happy for my parents, that all of their good deeds had not gone to waste. This was the first time anything like this had ever happened in our area.”
Richards began his professional career with the Reno Silver Sox of the Class-A California League. If there was any doubt as to his talent, he quickly put it to rest. He batted .381 (.499 on-base percentage) with 191 hits, 148 runs scored, and a league-record 85 stolen bases, and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. The Silver Sox won the league championship. Richards was named to the Topps National Association Class-A All-Star Team4 and won the Louisville Slugger Bat Award.5 His .381 average was the highest in Organized Baseball in 1975.
Though his first year in professional baseball was a success, Richards was frustrated during the season that he was not being promoted to Double A. “My goal was to make it to the majors in three years,” he said. “I guess that made me play with a chip on my shoulder.”
Mike Port, the Padres’ director of minor-league operations at the time, said of Richards: “As a hitter, he’s a lot like Ralph Garr, but I think he’s going to have more pop than Garr. Defensively, he does not seem to go back on the ball as well as we would like because of his inexperience.”6 (Richards was mostly a pitcher in high school). Richards’ inexperience on defense was likely the reason that Padres left him in A-ball the entire season.
That winter, Richards went to the Arizona Instructional League to continue his work in the outfield. He was third in the league with a .375 batting average and 10 stolen bases in 17 games. Padres player personnel director Bob Fontaine came away very impressed. “Gene has a lot of things going for him,” said Fontaine, “His knowledge of the strike zone is one of his pluses. He chokes up on the bat. He’s on top of home plate and doesn’t swing at many bad pitches. He has great acceleration as a runner and we believe he’ll continue to develop. Maury Wills will be in spring training with us next year and we think he can help Gene steal even more bases.”7
Scout Al Heist had been assigned the task of polishing Richards’ outfield defense. “The biggest adjustment he has to make is playing center field after playing left field in Reno,” said Heist. “Gene is not as fast as Willie Davis was at 21, but I think he has more power at the same stage, which is surprising considering the way he chokes up on the bat.”8
Richards skipped Double A; in 1976 he was advanced to the Hawaii Islanders of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He hit well, batting .331 with a .435 OBP, led the league in hits with 173, and had 19 stolen bases helping lead the Islanders to the Pacific Coast League title (his second championship in two seasons). He said he enjoyed playing in Hawaii, but it was difficult to endure. “It was tougher than people might think,” Richards said. “Two-week road trips, flying back and forth across the water. It was very challenging.”
For 1977 the Padres rewarded Richards with a major-league contract. “They wanted me to sign a split contract, and I felt like if I were going to be in major-league spring training, that I deserved a major-league contract,” Richards said. “Buzzie Bavasi called me and said, ‘Son, just get on a plane out here and I’ll take care of everything.’” Bavasi was true to his word, and Richards made the team as the starting left fielder, accomplishing his goal of making it to the big leagues in less than three years.
Richards’ career got off to a fast start. In his debut game against the defending World Series-winning Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium on April 6, 1977, he led off the game with a single off Woodie Fryman in his first major-league at-bat. He stole his first base as well.
While his first game was a success, the rest of his first month in the big leagues did not go as well. Richards struggled to a .140 average in April and was worried that the Padres might send him back to the minors. “I have always been a second-half player,” he said. “I really thought I was going to get sent down.” But in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies on May 4, 1977, he went 2-for-5 against Jim Kaat with his first big-league home run. “From that point on,” he said, “I never looked back or worried about going to the minors anymore.”
While Richard’s season was back on track, the Padres were not. After they started the season 20-28, manager John McNamara was fired and replaced by Alvin Dark. It was a situation that would become very common for Richards over the course of his career.
All-Star George Hendrick became Richards’ mentor during his rookie season. “I owe everything to George Hendrick,” Richards said. “He taught me about the game and all the ins and outs of being a major-league baseball player.” Hendrick’s influence on Richard’s life went beyond the baseball field: During the 1977 season he introduced Richards to Yvette Shepard. They were married in 1979.
Richards’ 1977 season was one for the record books. He batted .290 for the season with a .363 OBP, 16 doubles, 11 triples, and 5 home runs. On July 26, he had six hits in an extra-inning game against the Montreal Expos. He set a modern-day major-league rookie single-season record with 56 stolen bases, breaking the record of 49 previously held by Rollie Zeider (1910) and Sonny Jackson (1966). He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting behind future Hall of Famer Andre Dawson (with whom he shares his Topps Rookie Card) and the Mets’ Steve Henderson.
The 1978 season got off to a turbulent start. Rumors were swirling that the Padres were considering trading Dave Winfield to the Yankees for Graig Nettles and Ed Figuroa (a deal that did not happen.)9 In spring training Dark added fuel to the fire by announcing that he was shifting around the entire Padres infield. Richards would be moved full time to first base. “I was not happy about that move at all,” said Richards. Dark was also moving shortstop Billy Almon to second base, Derrel Thomas to third (he had not played much third base in his career), and a rookie, Ozzie Smith, as the starting shortstop.
The team did not respond well. The Padres made a boatload of errors in the spring. Some players began to complain about what they considered to be too many rules imposed by Dark and his efforts to control all facets of the team. Richards said, “His style and the way he treated players just didn’t work anymore and the players rebelled.”
As the protests grew, on March 21, just 17 days before the start of the regular season, General Manager Bob Fontaine and owner Ray Kroc announced the firing of Dark. He was replaced on an interim basis by pitching coach Roger Craig. Craig was Richards’ third manager on the Padres and he had played only one season.
Under Craig, things became more stable for the team (and luckily for the Padres, he decided to keep Ozzie Smith at shortstop). But Craig decided to continue the shift of Richards to center field from left, a position he was not comfortable with. “When you’re talking about a young player, being yo-yoed between positions each season was very difficult,” said Richards. “I felt unappreciated, because the stats and what I was doing I felt solidified me as a left fielder.”
Through all of this turmoil, Richards improved his batting average to a career-high .308, though his stolen bases fell to 37. He helped lead the team to an 84-78 record, the Padres’ first winning season in franchise history.
1979 would be an important and challenging year in the life of Gene Richards. First, he married his wife Yvette on Oct, 20, 1979. Second, he somehow found the time to return to school to South Carolina State University and finish his college degree.
The 1979 season though proved to be an even bigger challenge under Roger Craig. Craig had curbed Richards’ basestealing. “Roger really would not let me do a lot of things free anymore,” Richards said. “If I wanted to steal, he had to give me the steal sign. That was an important part of my game and the team’s game. I was the igniter, and we lost that.” After their breakthrough 1978 season, the Padres finished 68-93 in 1979. Richards had his worst season to date, batting .279 with a career-low 24 stolen bases.
The 1980 season brought another new manager (Richards’ fourth in four seasons). This time, it was Jerry Coleman, who had been brought down from the Padres broadcast booth to lead the team. Richards was very happy with the change. “Jerry was great,” said Richards. “He let me play, and I had one of my best seasons.” Richards had career highs in many categories, including games (158), at-bats (642), and hits (193). He batted .301 with 61 stolen bases. The Padres became the first NL team to boast three players with 50 or more stolen bases (Richards, Ozzie Smith, and Jerry Mumphrey). He was exclusively a left fielder and led the league in outfield assists with 19 and in double plays turned by an outfielder (4). He set a team record by stealing 18 bases in a row.
The team played a little better as a whole, improving by five games, but not enough for Coleman to stay in the job; he went back to the broadcast booth. Richards would not only have another new manager in 1981, but he’d have to play it without his power-hitting teammate Dave Winfield and also faced the possibility of a looming players strike.
Winfield left in free agency, signing with the New York Yankees in 1981, leaving Richards as the dean of the Padres outfield. “Everyone knew Dave was going to leave so it was really no surprise,” said Richards. “The problem was that he was really our only power source.” New general manager Jack McKeon tried to replace Winfield’s bat by acquiring Ruppert Jones (from the Yankees), but the vast confines of San Diego Stadium proved a challenge and the leading home-run hitter for the Padres in 1981 was Joe Lefebvre with eight. For Richards personally, Winfield’s departure was offset by the arrival of his son, Eugene III, on February 3, 1981, same day the he signed a three-year, $1.1 million contract extension.10
Former slugger Frank Howard was Richards’ fifth manager. “I really wish (the Padres) had given Frank more of an opportunity because I really liked playing for him,” said Richards. “He worked three times harder than any other manager I ever had.”
The Padres finished in sixth place in both strike-shortened halves of the 1981 season. Richards played in all 110 games, batting .288 and leading the league in triples (12) and outfield assists (14). As the season came to a close, GM McKeon continued his purge of the roster that had started the year before, and there were rumors that the Padres were looking to trade Richards to the Yankees for Ron Davis,11 or that he would be included in the trade that sent Ozzie Smith to the Cardinals for Garry Templeton.12 Richards though, was still with the Padres in 1982.
Howard did not survive the 1981 season so Richards had another new manager in 1982. This time, it was former World Series champion Dick Williams. Richards was excited by this; he had always wanted to Padres to bring in someone with Williams’s experience and pedigree to try to take the team to the next level. That is what eventually happened, but it would be without Richards.
On April 9, 1982, the Padres were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in the third game of the season. Burt Hooton was on the mound for the Dodgers and Richards led off the game with a hit. Hooton attempted a pickoff and as Richards dove back safely, he felt a sharp pain in his knee. In Richards’ words “It was a pain unlike anything I had ever felt before. My knee, instead of going the right way … went the wrong way.” He did not realize it at the time, but he had suffered a partially torn ACL. The team had Richards back in the lineup just four days later, when he perhaps should have been having knee surgery, “I probably should have been out for the season, said Richards, “but I played through the pain.”
For the rest of April, Richards continued to play on his damaged knee (he batted .293 and got at least one hit in 13 out of the 14 games he played, including a 10-game hit streak) before the pain became too much to bear. On May 1 he went on the disabled list for the first time in his career, and had knee surgery. Asked what was the biggest regret of his career, Richards’ comment was telling: “I wish I had listened to my mother.” She had implored him to take a break from baseball, to rest himself. He did not listen. He was sure he could battle through the pain and get back into the lineup. “If I could go back and do it over, this would be the one thing I would do different. … It’s a mother’s intuition,” said Richards. “They just know.”
Richards came back a little less than a month after his surgery and pushed hard. He batted .326 in June but faded to .261 and .250 in July and August, before rebounding to .313 in September/October. He batted .286 and stole 30 bases but he was caught a career-high 20 times. Said Richards, “My best tool, my speed, was gone.”
While Richards worked to rehabilitate his knee over the winter, when he reported to spring training in 1983, Dick Williams had other plans for his outfield. Alan Wiggins, a part-time player in 1982, was now manning left field, along with Ruppert Jones in center and second-year man Tony Gwynn in right. Veteran outfielder Sixto Lezcano had also been brought in and needed at-bats and young Kevin McReynolds was also tearing up the minors and was on the cusp of joining the team. This left Richards to be a part-time player, and while his speed had been seriously affected by the knee injury, he still felt that he could be a productive full-time player. “I knew 1983 would be my final season with the Padres,” Richards said. “You could see the changing of the guard.” Things only got worse for Richards when in late July, his mother died. There was some consolation for Richards: On September 30, 1983, he and his wife welcomed their daughter, Mary Angela “Angel” Gevette Richards, into the world.13
Despite all of the challenges and changes during the 1983 season, Richards still played well in a part-time role, batting .275 with 14 stolen bases, but with free agency looming, the 29-year-old outfielder looked forward to a future with a new team.
During the offseason, Richards thought that many teams seemed to be interested in acquiring his services, but throughout the winter, his phone remained quiet. In fact, it was not until midway through 1984 spring training that the San Francisco Giants offered Richards a one-year contract. But the Giants already had their starting outfield in place (Chili Davis, Jack Clark, and Jeff Leonard), and also Dan Gladden and Dusty Baker, so once again he’d be a bench player.
The highlight of Richards’ season occurred on April 22 against the Cincinnati Reds at Candlestick Park. Richards went 4-for-5, including his 1,000th major-league hit, in a 9-5 victory.14 It was one of the very few bright spots of the 1984 season for Richards.
About halfway through the season, Richards realized 1984 would be his final year. “I just had to look at it realistically. Those were the cards I had been dealt,” he said. “I did not want to go out like that. I was not a good pinch-hitter. I never could adapt to the routine of coming off the bench and my knee was not better. I knew my time was done.” After the season he retired as a player.
Right after retirement, Richards and his wife got into the real-estate business in South Carolina, and he opened a retail location that sold aquarium fish, a lifelong love of his. But baseball was not done with Eugene Richards yet.
Another of his childhood idols, Curt Flood, was starting the Senior Professional Baseball League in Florida. Richards could not resist the opportunity and agreed to play. He was drafted by the Winter Haven Solar Sox, playing with retired major leaguers like Cecil Cooper, Al Bumbry, Bernie Carbo, Fergie Jenkins, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and Jim Bibby. “I really wanted to have another shot at winning a championship in baseball, and this gave me another chance,” said Richards.
Richards played in the league for one season, 1989, batting .326 and stealing 11 bases. The Solar Sox made the playoffs, but fell short of a championship. But it allowed Richards to finish his playing career on a much brighter note.
The following year, his old general manager from the Padres, Buzzie Bavasi offered Richards the job of Double-A hitting coach in the Anaheim Angels organization. He served in the role from 1992 to 2001, tutoring developing players like Tim Salmon, Garrett Anderson, Troy Glaus, and Chone Figgins.
In 2002, after an organizational change, Richards moved to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a similar capacity, where he served as a hitting coach for players like Matt Kemp, James Loney, David Ross, Russell Martin, and Shane Victorino.
He wrapped up his career in professional baseball in 2005 by managing the Hagerstown Suns, the New York Mets’ affiliate in the Class-A South Atlantic League, where he helped mentor a young Carlos Gomez.
As of 2018, it has been 35 years since Richard‘s San Diego Padres‘ career ended. Yet, he remains among the Padres’ career leaders in a number of categories, among them:
Total WAR: 5th.
Batting Average: 5th.
Games Played: 5th.
Stolen Bases: 2nd.
Runs Created: 7th.
Had he not suffered his knee injury, Richards’ may have even ranked higher on the lists above.
Since 2006, Gene and his wife, Yvette, have spent their time between Reno and Las Vegas. As of 2018 they had been married nearly 40 years. In Reno, Richards was teaching baseball to youngsters with his company, Gene’s Road to the Big Leagues.
His star may have faded too quickly, but Eugene “Gene” Richards Jr. stands amongst the all-time great players in San Diego Padres History.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted baseball-reference.com, baseball-almanac.com, and retrosheet.org, as well as the following:
This biography appears in San Diego Padres: The First Half Century (SABR, 2019), edited by Tom Larwin and Bill Nowlin. To order your free e-book or get 50% off the paperback edition, click here.