Saturday, November 4, 2017

Al Richter, former Boston Red Sox shortstop passes away at 90

The plight of baseball players like Allen Richter was an all too common theme in the 1950s. Labeled as one of the best shortstops of his era in the minor leagues, Richter treaded water in the Boston Red Sox farm system while Johnny Pesky cemented his position as a franchise cornerstone. Bound to the Red Sox by the reserve clause and his path effectively blocked by Pesky, Richter played his best baseball away from the Major League spotlight, appearing in only six games during two separate stints in Boston.

While Richter’s major league career never fully materialized, he outlived most of his Boston counterparts, remaining active by playing tennis a few times per week into his late 80s. Sadly, Richter passed away October 29th, 2017 at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was 90.

Al Richter / Author's Collection

The Red Sox signed Richter in 1945 from Maury High School, where they placed him with their team in Roanoke. His time with the club was short lived, as he only played three games before he fulfilled his military duties in the Army Air Corps.

“I went in 1945 right after high school,” Richter told me during a 2009 phone interview from his home in Virginia Beach. “I got out in 18 months. They allowed me to be discharged a month early. I was in Germany. I did my basic training in Kessler Field in Mississippi and shortly thereafter I went to Denver for photography school. From there I went overseas in the Army occupation after the war was won. I was coaching a baseball team that we organized over in Germany.”

Richter returned to the Red Sox in 1947 and he moved briskly through their farm system, reaching AAA by 1949. He impressed with his eye at the plate, walking 100 times in 1950, while only striking out 36 times in 589 plate appearances. He took pride in the fact that he consistently put the ball in play.

“When I hit the ball, I hardly ever struck out,” he said. “If I were up 400 times, I struck out maybe 18 times and some were called out.”

Richter had his breakout season in 1951 batting .321 with Louisville while carving a niche as one of the top shortstops in the American Association. His teammates took notice of his tremendous play, including Charlie Maxwell who was another young talent that later joined Richter in Boston.

“I felt sorry for him because he hit over .300 a few years in a row in Louisville,” Maxwell said to me during a 2009 phone interview. “They would never give him the opportunity to go to Boston. Finally, he went up there and that's when they had the Coast League. … There was nobody else, outside of Don Zimmer at St. Paul, Richter was probably the best shortstop in the minors and nobody would give him a shot at the majors. … It was rare a shortstop would hit .300 in the minors but nobody gave him a shot. There weren't that many shortstops hitting .300 anywhere! “

Tearing up the American Association in 1951, Richter forced the Red Sox hand, as they called him up when rosters expanded in September. They were in the heat of a pennant race with the New York Yankees, so he had to wait until their fate was determined until he was able to make a start at shortstop.

“That was the best year for me,” he said. “I was a .260 hitter, which was okay for a shortstop, but I had a great year for Louisville, I hit .321. I was really on that year. I hit the best by far I ever had. I went up with the Red Sox at the end of the year at the end of ‘51. That’s when the Red Sox was battling with the Yankees until the last two games at Yankee Stadium to see who was going to be the champions of the American League. They kept Pesky at shortstop who was an All-Star.”

Manager Pinky Higgins placed Richter in the starting lineup during the last game of the season with many of the other Red Sox rookies. He responded by getting his first major league hit off of Eddie Lopat, a memory that was crystal clear more than 50 years later.

I was in the last game of the season that Harley Hisner pitched," he said. "That was the last [Major League] game other than the World Series for Joe DiMaggio. I got my only hit off of Eddie Lopat, a left-handed pitcher for the Yankees. … I always made contact and I hit that one up the middle of the diamond on the ground. The thing was, Phil Rizzuto was at shortstop and I thought he was coming close to it. I ran real hard down first base and I ran straight through just trying to beat out the hit. When I looked up running past first base, I discovered the ball went all the way through and it went out to center field. I should have made the turn and gone to second in case the center fielder missed it. That was the first time ever in my life I did that. That stood out in my mind and still does. I thought I had to beat it out because Rizzuto had gotten to it. I just had my head down and was racing hard to get first base.”

Richter’s lone hit capped a promising season, giving him a glimmer of hope for a return to Boston; however, those dreams were quickly dashed when they sent him to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League for the 1952 season. The Red Sox brought him back for one more appearance as a defensive replacement in 1953 and two years after that Richter was out of baseball at 28. During our 2009 interview, he explained how frustrating it was for players in his situation due to baseball's reserve clause.

“At that time when you were signed with a ballclub, they owned you for life,” he said. “It’s not like it is today. They had the reserve clause. For example, I was with the Red Sox. There was no three-year or five-year contract. When I signed with them out of high school, I belonged to them for life. I was like a slave for them. Even if they didn’t want to get rid of me, even if I did well or I didn’t do so well, if they didn’t want to get rid of me they wouldn’t let me go to any other club that wanted me.”

After his baseball career, Richter transitioned to becoming a television sports reporter in Virginia. He later moved on to careers in the real estate and food service businesses.

Richter was honored in 2012 by the Boston Red Sox when they invited him back to Fenway Park to take part in the franchise’s 100th anniversary celebration of the legendary stadium. Even though his time with the franchise was brief, he held the experience in the highest regard.

"It was just a privilege to have been around so many great players," Richter said to the Virginian Pilot in 2012, "and it will be a privilege to share a little in the history of a special place."

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