In A New York (Yankees) State of Mind
Despite his apprehension, he wasn’t about to turn down the offer. “I got the one job I didn’t apply for,” he says. “Never did I think the New York Yankees would come knocking.” But they had, and on Oct. 13, 2008, Richards arrived for his first day of work more than an hour early. “Being early didn’t bother me. I was walking around Yankee Stadium. I was having a fine time,” he says.
Over the next six months, he spent more time at the stadium than he did in his new Riverdale apartment, located, he’s proud to note, a quarter mile from where Lou Gehrig lived. “I had six months to do a two-year job,” Richards says. “The only things in the museum were empty cases. They just said, ‘There you go, pal. Do it.’ There was no exhibit material, no appraiser, no designer, no anything,” he says, laughing.
Richards embraced the challenge, just as he had his move to the Bronx. Before long, he was contacting private collectors to negotiate borrowing rights, writing text for the displays and editing facts on his late-night subway rides home from work. Evenings became part of his normal work day and weekends part of his routine work week. On many occasions, his diet consisted of TV dinners, Mountain Dew and Otis Spunkmeyer frozen cookie dough. Things didn’t slow down once the baseball season was in full swing either. Twice he worked almost three weeks straight.
“I never thought the job would be easy, and I haven’t been disappointed,” Richards says. “It’s a labor of love. … Nobody has a better story than the Yankees. It’s not just the home runs and World Series titles. It’s the way the fans embrace the story.”
THE STORY IS DEFINITELY RICHARDS’ SPECIALTY. He is, above all else, a storyteller—an entertainer who peppers his tales with deft impersonations of his subjects. He tells the stories behind the facts and statistics. “History is more than dates and numbers, war and politics. It’s the stories people relate to,” he says.
“For instance, it doesn’t mean much to the average person that Babe Ruth had a career .690 slugging percentage. But if I tell you that before a game, he supposedly ate a dozen hot dogs, a bicarbonate soda, which he called his milk, and an apple, then stumbled back into the dugout during the game saying, ‘I shouldn’t have eaten that apple,’ people will remember that.”
Richards brings stories like this to life for visitors each time he steps into the museum. Every artifact and piece of memorabilia in the museum has a back story, and it’s his job to unearth it. He can point to a tattered ball cap in the World Series display case and tell you it was worn in the early 1940s by Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto, who went on to a 40-year career as a Yankees broadcaster.
He can call attention to a bat in the area showcasing Babe Ruth and tell you the legend used it to belt a home run into the right-field bleachers on April 18, 1923, opening day at the Yankees’ first stadium, “The House That Ruth Built.”
He’ll tell you how this was the first home run in the stadium, how you can feel a flat spot in the bat where “The Great Bambino” made contact with the ball, and how, before the game, Ruth said he’d “give a year off my life to hit a home run” in the stadium’s first game. He’ll then point out that Ruth lived to be only 53.
There’s a story in every inch of the museum, from Joe DiMaggio’s 1937 World Series watch and Mickey Mantle’s Louisville Slugger to the centerpiece of the museum—the Ball Wall with its 709 signed baseballs displayed in a glass enclosure, flanked by statues of Don Larsen and Yogi Berra, that curves to the trajectory of Larsen’s final strike to Berra’s mitt in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series, making him the only pitcher to pitch a perfect game in World Series history.
The Yankees’ story has, in part, become Richards’ story. He is engrossed in the history of the 27-time World Series champions. It’s ironic, considering his belated affinity for the sport. Richards says he “couldn’t have cared less” about baseball until he was 16, and his family went to a Baltimore Orioles game. The Orioles quickly became his favorite team, and while at Susquehanna, an orange-brimmed Baltimore Orioles cap became his trademark. But even then, the Yankees and their history fascinated him.