Courtesy of Richardson's wheeling and dealing, the Big Red Machine had enough new cogs to capture two World Series championships and more victories than anybody during the 1970s. After Richardson sent Rusty Staub to the Expos, the so-called Le Grande Orange around Montreal became a prominent slugger and celebrity. Richardson's trade of John Mayberry helped make the Royals relevant in their early days. Richardson also was an impetus behind the Orioles having a record four 20-game winners in their starting rotation after he dealt pitcher Mike Cuellar to Baltimore.
As somebody who covered Richardson during his years as the GM of the Giants in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I can tell you a couple of things not listed inside of those brief obituaries about this epitome of a southern gentleman. First, he couldn't care less what you or anybody else thought about his trades. Second, he was the first GM to become a television star.
Come to think of it, Richardson is the only person of his profession to achieve such fame, with an assist from Al Rosen.
Remember those old beer commercials? The ones involving sports personalities debating whether it tasted great or was less filling? There were football standouts Bubba Smith and Deacon Jones, along with John Madden, the bigger-than-life NFL coaching icon. There were the classic baseball pairings of Whitey Ford vs. Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin vs. George Steinbrenner. There were lovable oddballs such as Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Uecker and Marvelous Marv Throneberry.
Then there was Richardson, who didn't have anything close to the profile of those others. Still, the commercial he did turned into one of the most memorable of the series. In addition to Richardson going back and forth on that theme of tastes great/less filling with Rosen, then the president of the Yankees, they engaged in the trading of baseball cards.
It was funny stuff in an understated way. Then again, that was Richardson, always with a comical side, aided by his thick Georgia accent that stood out during his five years in Northern California through 1980. His down-home personality was an asset when combined with his old-school style as a baseball executive, which involved using everything from shoulder massaging to visiting the favorite watering hole of his peers to seal a deal.
Consider Richardson's multiplayer deal after the 1971 season that critics say hurt the Astros while transforming the Reds into a dynasty.
"Well, the thing about it was that we were trying to improve the whole ballclub and not just one position," Richardson told me five years ago during one of the trips he took each summer from his native Columbus to Atlanta for Braves games. We discussed how he contributed to the building of the Machine by shipping future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, perennial Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder Cesar Geronimo, eventual World Series pitching stud Jack Billingham and super reserve players Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke to the Reds for Lee May, Tommy Helms and journeyman Jimmy Stewart.
Neither May nor Helms did much worth mentioning for the Astros, who were in the Reds' division back then, and Stewart wasn't as impactful off the bench in Houston as Armbrister and Menke were in Cincinnati.
Richardson recalled shrugging at the time, and he did the same during our conversation in Atlanta.
"No. You don't worry about it [when you make any trade]. Once you pull the trigger, it's all over," Richardson said back then. "When I was with the Giants [1976-80 as GM], I traded seven ballplayers and $400,000 [to the Oakland Athletics] for Vida Blue. That was in 1978, when we were drawing 6,000 to 7,000 fans per game. Then we raised attendance with Blue to close to two million. That was a big trade."
Yes, it was -- especially since Blue went from an American League-high 19 losses in 1977 to an 18-10 record and 2.79 ERA during his first year with the Giants. Now, three decades after Blue spent six seasons over two stints pitching for the Giants, he continues as a longtime color analyst on the team's TV broadcasts.
So Richardson had his successes as GM. Mostly, he had his big moment on the TV screen, and I can't remember which side he took in his beer debate.
It didn't matter.