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Mudville: December 3, 2021 3:21 pm PDT
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Richert of the Year

It would appear, at first blush, that Buzzie Bavasi was not all that interested in Pete Richert’s career path. After all, Bavasi, who was the long-time general manager of the Brooklyn then Los Angeles Dodgers, traded Richert to the Washington Senators following the 1964 season.

The penthouse to the outhouse move – which also sent Frank Howard, Ken McMullen and Phil Ortega to the nation’s capital – ultimately proved to be the best thing that could have happened to Richert, who went on to spend the next decade as one of the best lefties in all of baseball. While some players would have been upset at such a predicament, Richert embraced it, using the move as a springboard to ultimately serving as an integral cog in a Baltimore dynasty that would see the Orioles play in three consecutive World Series.

Richert understood then and now why Bavasi made the move – the Dodgers got Claude Osteen, who would win 15 games in 1965 and help them to a World Series crown – and continues to look at the trade in several ways. That Washington was managed by former Dodger first baseman Gil Hodges meant something to Bavasi.

“I went from top to bottom,” said Richert, 81, who had yet to move to the bullpen full time at the time of the trade. “But you have to remember, Bavasi was also the general manager of the Dodgers in Brooklyn and he loved Gil. He would do anything to help Gil. So he made a trade that included Frank Howard, Ken McMullen and Phil Ortega and all of us came out of the Dodgers organization. He was trying to help Gil put together a better team.

“And, I knew I was going to start every fourth day. Even if I gave up three or four runs, I would be starting every fourth day. If I did that with the Dodgers, [Los Angeles’ long-time manager Walt] Alston would put me in the pen. That’s how that works. Gil let you work no matter how bad you did and he allowed us to get better. So it was good for me. It let me show my abilities and win some games for a team in ninth place. That set up my situation with the Orioles and that turned into a great thing.”

“Two innings later when Duke Snider pinch-hit for me, he got booed. After it was over with, people started to come around and tell me I had set Major League records.”

A great thing, indeed. Richert would make the All-Star team in 1965 and ’66 and even got some MVP votes in both of those seasons. He won 29 games in two full seasons for Washington before a trade to Baltimore in 1967 made him a valuable piece that would help the Orioles win the 1970 World Series.

Richert, who lives in California, won 80 games over the course of a 13-year career and earned 51 career saves while posting a 3.19 ERA. He would later serve as a minor league pitching coach, spending 12 of his 14 seasons in that role with Oakland, helping a group of young pitchers avoid some of the missteps that he may have made when he came out of Sewanhaka High School on Long Island.

GO WEST YOUNG MAN

Richert admits that he wasn’t attracting a great deal of attention from scouts when he was a senior in high school. He was 5-foot-7 and says he weighed “maybe 145 pounds” and those numbers don’t exactly translate into overpowering. Still, future Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, who was a scout at the time, saw enough in Richert to pursue and sign him in the summer of ’57.

“No one thought I was big enough,” Campanis said. “Al Campanis, who was the Dodgers’ Long Island scout, said he had ‘never seen a guy as small as you throw as hard as you. If you grow up, you’re going to be fine’. So I signed with Brooklyn and I thought that’s great, my whole family lives on Long Island. But I became the last guy to sign a Brooklyn Dodgers contract. A couple of days later they announced they were moving to Los Angeles. I had never been off Long Island my whole life and now if I was going to make it to the big leagues, it would be in Los Angeles, not Brooklyn.”

The Dodgers sent Richert pretty much as far away from Long Island as they could send him in 1958 to begin his career. Richert made his professional debut for Reno of the then Class-C California League and he got off to a great start out west, picking up his first career victory in Reno’s home-opener against Salinas. He took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and eventually finished with a complete-game three-hitter in which he struck out 13. The Reno Gazette reported the following day that Richert didn’t want to talk about his performance other than to say that “we need to keep it going”.

St Louis Cardinal pitcher, Bob Gibson, left and Los Angeles Dodger pitcher, Pete Richert, right, will go against each other tonight in the last game of a three game series, St Louis, MIssouri, September 18, 1963. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Reno couldn’t keep it going, though, finishing in sixth place, 15.5 games out of first. Still, Richert was a bright spot for the Silver Sox. He went 10-13 with a 4.59 ERA and finished fourth in the league with 215 strikeouts. He also learned a great deal.

“I was an 18-year-old kid making $250 a month going to Reno, Nevada; what a way to grow up,” Richert said. “It was quite an eye-opening event. It became great fun, though. The people in the casinos knew who we were and that we weren’t making money so they would give us free lunches. They treated us really well.

“And the fans there, if you did something spectacular, they would pass the hat. If you pitched eight shutout innings, you might get $50, $75. That was a big help for us. I got it a couple of times. It was fun to watch them pass the hat. People would be yelling and screaming. There would be two guys running around and the hats got heavy because most people paid with silver dollars. There were a lot of silver dollars in Reno at that time. I didn’t gamble, though. I couldn’t afford to lose so I couldn’t afford to play.”

Richert also came away with a better understanding of what it was to be a professional ballplayer. He went from playing two games a week in high school to every day in the Cal League. He said he was “real tired” at the end of the year and that he didn’t want to do anything for a week and a half upon returning to Long Island.

While he dealt with very long bus rides and working on his own – lower levels didn’t have pitching coaches back then – he came away with a positive feeling about the direction in which his career would be heading.

“I came out with the feeling that I can do this,” he said. “I just have to grow a little more and get bigger and stronger. I also had to learn a few more things about throwing strikes but it pointed me in a decent direction.”

The direction toward which he was pointed was Green Bay, where he spent 1959 as a member of the Class-B Three-I League [Illinois-Indiana-Iowa] champion Blue Jays. Richert played for legendary manager Stan Wasiak, who holds the record for most victories and most games managed in minor league history. Richert went 10-8 with a 3.29 ERA and finished third on the circuit with 173 strikeouts.

His finest moment came in the playoffs when he put together a masterful outing in the third game of the best-of-five finals against Des Moines. He scattered three hits and struck out 18, fanning the side in the first, second and fifth to put his club in a position to win the crown in four games.

“I set the league record [for strikeouts] and that was because of the grind,” Richert said. “I grew up and I had gotten stronger. Mentally it gets tougher but I was better prepared for it in my second year. Every year I took something from the year before.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - CIRCA 1963: Pete Richert #45, Sandy Koufax #32, Ron Perranoski #16 and Johnny Podres of the Los Angeles Dodgers circa 1963 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Barney Stein/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

THE HIGHS AND LOWS

Richert, buoyed by his big finish in Green Bay, dominated the Double-A Southern Association in 1960, putting forth a spectacular effort that drew attention across the minor-league landscape. He went 19-9 with a 2.76 ERA and set a Southern Association record with 251 strikeouts. He led the circuit in victories, complete games [18] and shutouts [six].

He was named league Rookie of the Year and was the only player other than winner Stan Palys to receive votes for Southern Association MVP. He was named to the National Association’s [NA] Double-A All-Star Team and was also tabbed as the player who made the most progress toward becoming a Major League by the NA.

Rube Walker, who would go on to coach Richert in Washington and then later serve as one of the architects of the great New York Mets pitching staff in 1969, was the player-manager in Atlanta and the influence he had on Richert was profound.

“I was supposed to go to A ball that year but Rube told Buzzie that he wanted me at Double-A and I went with Rube,” Richert said. “Rube started to catch me and teach me little things. It really helped having Rube there. The first game I pitched I walked five or six guys and when we came back to Atlanta and I was pitching, Rube told me he wanted me to throw my first warmup pitch over his head into the back screen. The other team knew I had walked those guys in my first start and Rube wanted them to think how wild is this kid?

“We went with it from there. Rube helped an awful lot working with me on the strike zone. He gave me the base of being a big-league pitcher in a lot of ways. Rube caught me one day in the middle of August and Bavasi was in the stands. I struck out 12 or 13 and pitched a two-hit shutout. After the game Rube was in his office and he threw his phone against the wall. No one knew what was going on. Rube told me three days later that he had called Buzzie and said this kid is ready and Buzzie said he wasn’t taking him to the big leagues. Rube said screw you and threw the phone against the wall. He backed me really well and said what does this kid have to do?”

What Richert did was go to Spokane of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1961. He struggled for much of the season after suffering a shoulder injury in spring training. Once he began rehabbing, though, he got some help from a Dodger legend.

“We had a Triple-A club with a lot of old-time guys, like Don Newcombe and Don Bessent,” Richert said. “When I started to throw my rehab, Newcombe [a former MVP and Cy Young winner] became my catcher. He put a hat in the middle of home plate and every ball I threw had to be over that hat. I wasn’t throwing any breaking balls, just fastballs because I was trying to get my arm strength back.

“He had me doing that continually all the time and it helped me become better. It gave me a lot of command of my pitches. I had pretty good control and Newk was a lot of that happening for me. He helped me come along.”

Newcombe helped Richert so much that he made the Dodgers out of spring training in 1962. He made his Major League debut on April 12 and what Richert did in that performance was record-setting as well as one of the greatest entrances in the game’s history. Richert recorded six consecutive strikeouts to begin his career, including becoming the first player to record a four-strikeout inning in his debut.

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 28: Pitchers Jim Palmer #22, Pete Richert #24, Eddie Watt #39, Dick Hall #29 and Mike Cuellar #35 of the Baltimore Orioles listen to teammate Frank Robinson #20 (not pictured) holding their Kangaroo Court in the locker room after an MLB game against the Seattle Pilots on August 28, 1969 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. The Kangaroo Court would vote, with a thumbs up or down, on fining players for missing signs, uniform mishaps or other infractions. (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)

Richert came into the game against the Reds in relief of Stan Williams with two outs in the second inning. He proceeded to strike out Vada Pinson to end the threat. He moved to the third inning and struck out future Hall-of-Famer and future teammate Frank Robinson swinging. Gordy Coleman then fanned swinging but reached first base safely on a passed ball by Johnny Roseboro. Wally Post and Johnny Edwards then went down swinging to put Richert into the record book. Tommy Harper struck out looking to begin the fourth inning to give him the record of striking out the first six batters he faced. Opposing pitcher Joey Jay then hit a grounder to second to end the streak.

He didn’t allow a hit in 3 1/3 innings and even picked up his first win after the Dodgers rallied all while setting the record for retiring the most consecutive batters faced to begin a career.

“I knew what I was doing, that I was striking out hitters,” Richert said. “I was just trying to do as best I could and get past those hitters. Two innings later when Duke Snider pinch-hit for me, he got booed. After it was over with, people started to come around and tell me I had set Major League records. I didn’t realize that until they told me but once I realized it, I was pretty happy about it.”

The excitement surrounding Richert’s debut was short-lived, though. He appeared in six more games – all in relief – over the course of the next month and when his ERA ballooned to 5.14, he was sent to Omaha of the Triple-A American Association. The Dodgers had one of the best starting rotations in baseball led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale so ousting someone from that group was virtually impossible.

If that weren’t enough with which to contend, Richert hurt his arm in Omaha and appeared in only nine games. He eventually healed and was called back to the L.A., where he was given a chance to start. He appeared in 12 more games, 11 of which were starts, and went 4-3 with 3.43 ERA. The highlight was a Sept. 6 complete-game four hitter against Pittsburgh on Sept. 8. He struck out eight and allowed only one run to push his season ERA below 4.00, where it would remain.

The final line on Richert in ’62 was 5-4 with a 3.87 ERA. He would ride the Spokane shuttle throughout 1963 and 1964, going 7-6 in 28 appearances [18 starts] with the parent club. His relationship with Alston seemed to mirror that of Howard – Alston gave them little margin for error – and that contributed to his getting traded following the 1964 season.

“In 1963 I was up and down [to Spokane] and in ’64 I was up and down and I just could never do enough for Alston to hold me,” Richert said. “I went to the Dominican that winter with Danny Ozark [who had managed him in the minors and was a Dodgers coach] and we talked. He told me that my curve had never been great, let’s work on your slider. We made the slider my second pitch and I pitched well that winter. Danny called Buzzie and told him that I could help the club every fourth day as a starter and a week later I was traded.”

Left alone by Hodges, Richert thrived in Washington. He went 15-12 with a 2.60 ERA in 1965 to earn a place on the All-Star team and even earn a few MVP votes. He followed that up with a 14-win season in 1966, pitching a career-high 245 2/3 innings. Richert also struck out seven consecutive Tigers on April 24, which tied a since-broken American League record. It resulted in another All-Star appearance and a few more MVP votes.

“It was good pitching for Gil,” Richert said. “He caught me right at the beginning and said I was going to pitch every fourth day. He told me he would support me every way he could and I if had a bad year, I’d still be one of the top two or three guys. He told me it was a tough club to pitch for because the defense wasn’t great and they weren’t going to score many runs. He told me don’t feel bad if you get beat 3-2. He just let me go out and do it and that let it happen.”

Richert’s start to the 1967 was shaky [2-6, 4.64 ERA in 11 games], enough so that he was traded to Baltimore in May. He remained a starter for the rest of the year but would move to the bullpen full time in 1968. His overall body of work against the Orioles had caught the attention of Baltimore manager Hank Bauer. Richert had gone 6-3 with a 2.10 ERA in 10 starts against the O’s while with Washington.

“That trade set up the rest of my career,” Richert said. “I had beaten the Orioles five or six times and Bauer was always yelling at me. I started with the Orioles but I didn’t pitch that well in ’67. They had starters and in 1968 Hank had Dave McNally and Tom Phoebus and Wally Bunker starting. He said for two innings I throw harder than anyone. He said if I came out of the pen it would be a great help so I went to the bullpen in 1968. From that point on I had an amazing three or four years.”

Baseball: Los Angeles Dodgers Pete Richert (45) in action, pitching vs San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium. Los Angeles, CA 8/31/1963 CREDIT: Neil Leifer (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

CONTRIBUTING TO A DYNASTY

One of the reasons that Richert and the rest of the O’s would have an amazing next three or four years is, in part, due to the fact that Bauer was replaced midway through ’68 by Earl Weaver, who had an immediate plan for Richert.

“Weaver was so much better as a player’s manager than Alston, it’s hard to describe,” Richert said. “He had a place and a situation for everyone. We’re flying into Boston and we haven’t even gotten there yet and he tells me ‘If Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski] is hitting in the eight or the ninth and it’s a two-run game, be ready because you got him’. Earl would go to every guy on the bench and tell them if this guy comes in you’re going to go in and hit off them and he had that for everyone. In the eighth inning you’d have 20 guys in the dugout who were laughing or smiling but they’d see their guy was getting ready and boom. Earl was great. He did things like that all the time.

“He had what a lot of people didn’t know about. He had two ladies from the front office sitting behind home plate and they would show him what every hitter did off every pitcher and what every pitcher did off every hitter. He brings me in one time to face [right-handed hitting] Hawk Harrelson. I asked him, don’t you want Eddie Watt? He says no, he’s 0-for-11 against you, just take care of him. He told Curt Motton on the first of September in 1971 that from now on in BP you’re taking hitting off a guy that throws left-handed. Sure enough, in the first game of the playoffs Curt Motton comes up and pinch-hits in the seventh inning and gets a[n RBI] double [off lefty Vida Blue]. Earl was great.”

Richert went 7-4 with a 2.20 ERA in 44 games in 1969. He also picked up 12 saves, which had become an official statistic that season. He is best-remembered, however, for what happened in Game Four of the World Series against The Miracle Mets. Richert relieved Dick Hall with runners on first and second and no out in the bottom of the 10th when J.C. Martin bunted. Richert fielded the bunt but his throw hit Martin, who had been running inside the baseline. The ball bounded away and the winning run scored, setting up the Mets’ series clincher in Game Five.

“We were hurt [by what happened] in ’69,” Richert said. “The Mets made great plays and their guys got the big hits. You can’t do anything about that. JC Martin was in the infield, not the baseline, without a doubt. You had a home plate umpire, a first base umpire and a right field umpire, all looking down the line when it happened and no one called it. I have no idea why.

“The only thing they said was that they thought his next step was on the bag. But if you look at it, his next step wasn’t on the bag. He would have had to cross his legs. They had to have an answer but it’s where he is running [at the time] not where his next step is.”

The next step for Martin and the Orioles was to put ’69 behind them. He said that Frank Robinson kicked off Spring Training in 1970 by reminding Baltimore that it was still the best team in baseball and that they should put the previous season out of their heads.

Richert certainly heeded Robinson’s advice to put forth his season as a reliever. He went 7-2 with a 1.98 ERA while collecting 13 saves in 54 2/3 innings. It was a brilliant effort that Richert added to in the World Series, earning the save in Game One. Baltimore would have its championship, cruising past Cincinnati in five games.

“I couldn’t have pitched any better than I did in 1970,” Richert said. It just all came together about as great as it could. At two points I went 8 2/3 hitless innings out of the pen. [General Manager] Harry Dalton said if I would have gotten one more out that I would have gotten a $500 bonus. It was a fabulous year; a lot of good things happened.”

Richert’s 1971 was solid but not nearly as spectacular as he was in ’70. He was 3-5 with a 3.47 ERA and four saves. Baltimore did make it back to the World Series for a third consecutive year but was bested by Pittsburgh in seven games as Roberto Clemente put on a show to win MVP. The O’s wouldn’t make it back to the Fall Classic for another eight years and it would be more than a decade before they would win another World Series.

“You talk about great dynasties,” Richert said. “We played in three straight World Series but that group does not get mentioned in the top echelon. One thing if you look back and see, the playoffs were a best-of-five and we went 9-0 those three years to get to the Series. No one else has ever done that.”

Dodgers pitchers (from left) Don Drysdale, Pete Richert, Stan Williams, Sandy Koufax and Johnny Podres pose together at the Polo Grounds in New York on Aug. 25, 1962. (Associated Press)

HEADED BACK TO L.A.

Richert was traded back to Los Angeles with Frank Robinson in December of 1971. He had two effective seasons for the Dodgers upon reuniting with Alston, who seemed to have more of an appreciation for Richert than he did a decade prior. Richert went 5-6 with 13 saves and a 2.71 ERA over 103 innings in the two seasons as Los Angeles finished second in the West to Cincinnati on both occasions.

“I had really set myself up in Baltimore,” Richert said. “I bought a house, I worked for the club in the off-season and I was friends with the owner. So I was kind of surprised to go back to Los Angeles. But it turned out I understood why. Al Campanis was the GM and he was the scout that signed me. He was happy to have me back; he loved me.

“And my relationship was easier the second time with Walt. I pitched at times I was supposed to pitch and I proved I could come in and get left-handed hitters out. And that allowed me to be a quiet leader in the bullpen.”

However, that didn’t prevent Los Angeles from sending him to St. Louis before the 1974 season. Though he pitched to a 2.38 ERA, Richert was used sparingly by the Cards, appearing in only 13 games and pitching 11 1/3 innings. He was clearly not in their plans and was purchased by the Phillies near the end of June.

“I went to St. Louis and I wasn’t throwing real well,” Richert said. “You could tell. I have no problem with them because of that and they put me on waivers. Danny Ozark was in Philly [by that time] and he took me off waivers.

“I was still not throwing as good and he told me I had to be cagier, drop down to lefties and throw some side arm. I did that and I pitched pretty well. But then of course I had that deal in Pittsburgh.”

That deal in Pittsburgh would come on Sept. 2 after Richert had pitched in the second game of a doubleheader. He didn’t know it at the time but that would be the last outing of his career. He learned after that game that he had a blood clot in his shoulder and that surgery would be needed to correct the problem.

He went to go see the Dodgers team physician upon returning home to Los Angeles and was told that the clot had “probably been coming on for a year”. Ultimately a vein was moved from his neck to his shoulder to correct the issue, but the stress of pitching was something that the vein couldn’t tolerate, so Richert retired.

“All of a sudden I wasn’t throwing well and I knew I didn’t hurt myself,” Richert said. “There wasn’t anything there. I didn’t pitch well for the Cards and I made no bones about it. And I appreciate Danny giving me another opportunity. I spent a month in the hospital and it ended my career.

“From the get go when the doctors talked to me I knew I wasn’t going to pitch again. They said the clot was too long and too large. I knew it was over. I was told in ’75 that there was no chance of me pitching again. The connection at both ends of the vein were too fragile and they wouldn’t handle the shock of trying to throw.”

Richert said he “went through a lot” when he retired, selling cars and working in real estate before ending up in Palm Springs, where he worked for the Winston Tire Company. He had a friend who was also the part owner of a minor league team [California’s affiliate in the Class-A Cal League] and he asked Richert to be the assistant general manager. Richert accepted and began to see some of his friends from his playing days.

“I saw Merv Rettenmund and a couple of other guys and Merv said to me ‘I’m going to call my boss because you have a lot of knowledge’,” Richert said. “He said I should interview for a minor league pitching coach job with Oakland. They hired me and I spent 14 years in the minors as a pitching coach, 12 of them with Oakland.

“One of the things I worked on with them, especially at the A-Ball level was making the adjustment to playing every day. Also, these came in at the top of their leagues as stars and all of a sudden they are getting beat up a little so my biggest thing was to help them learn how to get through failure. You might fail tonight but the next time it will be better.”

Richert’s successes far outweighed his failures. He was an integral figure for two franchises that were among the best of their generation, leaving his mark on the game in a variety of ways.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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