Book Review: The Wizard of Waxahachie

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People who read this space on any sort of semi-regular basis have probably noticed two themes in my writing for THT. First, I like to do book reviews. In fact, this is my 11th one for the site. Second, I like writing about managers. Heck, I wrote my own book on them – Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008 – which is supposed to be out by/around Christmas.

Given these interests, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that I’m reviewing a book on a manager. The Wizard of Waxahachie by Warren Corbett is about Paul Richards, one of the more original figures in baseball history. He began as a marginal major league player who rose up the ranks until serving as general manager in a professional baseball career that stretched from the 1920s until his death in the 1980s.

Though Richards spent virtually his entire adult life on the payroll of one team or another, the most significant portion of his legacy came in the middle, when he served as a major league manager for the White Sox and Orioles in the 1950s. Both franchises underwent revitalizations, contending for the first time in decades under his watch.

The book consists of 28 chapters and an epilogue, that can loosely grouped into thirds: before Richards became an MLB manager, his MLB managerial prime and afterward. The book is primarily structured as a life-and-times biography, but Corbett does pause for one chapter to provide an overall assessment of Richards’ managerial ways.

Some main points really stand out in this book. First and foremost is just how intelligent Richards was. Richards always had a reputation as one of the sharpest minds in baseball, hence the “Wizard of Waxahachie” nickname given to him by the Chicago media in the 1950s.

His smarts really shone through when it came to designing plays. Corbett notes an old baseball adage that says you can’t write up new plays like in football, but that didn’t stop Richards from creating new ones. My favorite one Corbett mentions in his book was once ordering his base runner to intentionally get hit by a batted ball in order to break up a would-be double play. Baseball had to adopt a new rule just to put a stop to that.

Richards’ smarts also shone through in less reputable ways. Reading this book, Richards struck me as more than a little bit of a con man. If he could use his smarts to figure out how to sucker someone or bend the rules, he was going to do this. For instance, he ran afoul baseball’s bonus baby rules when serving as Baltimore’s GM and manager. In his private life, he wasn’t above hustling people on the golf course. A con was just another way for Richards to revel in his brilliance.

Richards’ faith in his own considerable intelligence led him to look for bigger challenges, which helps explain his unusual major league career path. Two elements distinguish Richards’ career arch from most his peers. First, when a manager helps improve a team, he usually sticks around for a while. Richards left Chicago after four years and moved from Baltimore shortly after bringing them prominence. Second, people widely reputed as first-rate managers usually stay in the dugout, while Richards left as fast as he could.

He left Chicago for Baltimore because the Orioles made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: He would be manager and GM. Greater authority meant a bigger chance to show his smarts. He left Baltimore to become GM of the Astros (and violated baseball’s tampering laws in the process). Both teams he managed won pennants several years after he left, with many players he helped break in, but Richards never won any pennants himself. His decisions meant he became the greatest manager to never win a pennant.

Richards thought the GM position was more important. He was right in these assumptions, but it took him away from the job he best excelled at. He had some success as GM of first the Astros and then later the Braves, but no one thought he was a wizardly front office figure. Furthermore, as GM he reacted very poorly to the rise of the players union under Marvin Miller. Richards became the go-to guy for an angry quote from management. This was in direct contrast to his previous days, when he would handle affairs behind closed doors, and rarely criticize someone in public.

Corbett does a good job telling the story of Richards, as the book went along at a good clip, holding my attention the entire time. That said, I can’t point to any particular stylistic brilliance or an especially snappy way with words on his part. Perhaps the best way to describe Corbett’s approach would be to say he writes like Richards managed.

Richards famously says that baseball is a simple game and the trick to winning is to avoid making mistakes. If you do that, you win more than you will lose. Corbett succeeds in not failing when describing Richards’ life.

The book focuses on Richards and baseball, but also keeps tabs on how the rest of his life is going as well. He neither ham-handedly forces any social commentary nor disregards the world beyond the ballpark.

Perhaps most importantly, he avoids the main failing one often finds in a book like this, which is when the author gets so lost in his notes that it’s hard to find the bigger picture. There’s a common phrase – a person can’t see the forest through the trees. Too many books are entirely tree-centric. Corbett gives you the forest-level view of Richards while still leaving you with a solid impression that he is quite familiar with the various trees.

In fact, he does a very good job mining possible sources for evidence on Richards. He looked through the pertinent newspapers from the towns Richards worked as well as some appropriate national publications and archive collections. He extensively checked books and articles for information that shed light on Richards. Most notably, Corbett interviewed or exchanged correspondence with more than two dozen people, most notably Richards’ surviving daughter.

It’s a sign of how thorough his contacts were that Corbett landed not one but two prominent individuals to write introductory pieces in the front of the book. Brooks Robinson, who Richards broke in with the Orioles, wrote a forward, and Tony LaRussa provided an introduction. I never knew there was any link between Richards and LaRussa, but both LaRussa in the introduction and Corbett in the main narrative make clear the aging wizard was a key influence on the young LaRussa when he shifted from playing to managing.

One side note worth mentioning not because it is especially important, but because some readers at THT would find especially interesting: though Corbett isn’t and doesn’t claim to be any sort of sabermetric expert, he clearly familiarized himself with some important concepts that relate to Richards. He’ll discuss OPS, mention the needed success rate in stolen bases, was one of the first managers to use pitch counts in handling some of his pitchers, and lists Clay Davenport and Craig Wright among those he contacted for this book.

He also favorably notes Richards created a way to gauge offensive performance: batting average plus walks, a primordial version of the now widely hailed OBP.

There is much to recommend about the book, and looking back there is only one part I really disagreed with: when Corbett defends Richards handling of a handful of young starting pitchers with Baltimore in the early 1960s, Milt Pappas, Steve Barber, Jack Fisher, Chuck Estrada, and Jerry Walker.

The franchise simultaneously developed numerous young arms that critics contend Richards badly abused. Corbett even quotes Rob Neyer, who charged that Richards was the reason “why only [Milt] Pappas won as many a hundred games” from the Baltimore bunch.

Corbett countercharges that actually two pitchers won 100 games (Barber being the other), and that a third (Fisher) would’ve if he hadn’t spent so much time with the woeful New York Mets. Corbett admits Richards badly misused Walker in one marathon extra-inning game, but says on the whole Baltimore’s pitchers did as well as they should have, even citing Gary Huckabay’s term TINSTAAPP: There is no such thing as a pitching prospect. They didn’t all live up to their hype, but that’s the nature of the position.

All the above is technically true, but I had a problem with how Corbett structured the argument. While winning 100 games is a good achievement, I don’t see why that’s the only way to judge a pitcher.

Take a look at Jack Fisher for a second. He was a damn fine pitcher at age 21, and one of the worst starters in baseball at age 23. For the rest of his career he was a journeyman in his good moments and cannon fodder elsewhere. Athletes aren’t supposed to peak at age 21. Almost everyone on the staff peaked very young, though. That several made it near or just over 100 wins doesn’t mean they lived up to their potential.

A pretty good argument could be made it wasn’t Richards’ fault – Barber’s problems came later, and Corbett has a point with the TINSTAAPP comment – but Corbett argues a bit beyond that.

Still, this is just a minor issue in the grand scheme of things – and even here Corbett merely makes an argument I question rather than one that is flatly wrongheaded. Overall, I thought it was a first-rate job.

Personal qualifiers

That said, before leaving I should note a few things that some might see them as potential conflicts of interest on my part: 1) Warren Corbett wrote an article on Paul Richards for the upcoming THT Annual (pre-order now! – in stores soon); 2) I’ve had some contact with Corbett over the last year, and 3) fellow THT-er Steve Treder is thanked in the acknowledgements for his proofreading.

Though these things should be noted, none really affect this review. Going one by one . . . While he wrote an article for the THT book, I feel no obligation to cut him any slack. First, my own credibility matters more to me than that of THT. Second, I think THT has developed enough of a reputation that I’m not concerned how people think of one article.

My contact with him was fairly minor. He initiated an e-mail exchange as I was finishing up my book (and after, I assume, he’d already submitted his manuscript), and when I sent him what I had on Richards, he made a nice contribution or two (most notably saying Richards didn’t like pitchers starting on short rest). The only obligation I felt to him was to put him in my book’s acknowledgements, not give him any undue praise. Oh, and I met him at SABR. That wasn’t anything more than seeing his name tag and saying “Hi.”

As for Treder’s proofreading . .. hey, who cares? That’s something so minor I wouldn’t even mention it except it fits in with the rest of the stuff.

I don’t think any of this matters and know it didn’t affect my writing, but thought I’d at least acknowledge that for anyone.

References & Resources
Obviously, The Wizard of Waxahachie came in handy for writing this review.

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Comments

  1. Nick Wilson said...

    In the 50’s, the town of Baltimore revered Paul Richards. He could out mangae better teams than the Orioles had, or were building at that time. For example, he used light hitting Willie MIranda (he if he could have hit .275 would have been an MVP) in the early innings, but if the O’s fell behind, he would pinch it for him. Even batted him 9th (ala LaRusso today—-notice the LaRusso reference to Richards). He seemd t undersand, if that is the word, pitchers, as he was a former catcher in MLB.

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