True Champions for Christ

In 1974, I was working as a young sports writer for the Anderson Independent and was given the assignment to do a full-page feature on Bobby Richardson, head coach of the University of South Carolina's baseball team. It was my first big story, and I enjoyed interviewing the former New York Yankee second baseman. 

The Gamecocks were preparing for their first-ever NCAA baseball tournament appearance. Richardson had built a mediocre program into a national contender in four years. His strong and public commitment to Christ distinguished him from most other coaches. During Richardson's tenure at Carolina, Ed Young, then pastor of Columbia's First Baptist Church, was chaplain of the baseball team.

My wife and I recently spent a day with Bobby and Betsy Richardson. They continue to live busy lives. The phone rings every few minutes, more than 50 pieces of mail come every week with requests for autographs, etc., and they are continually asked to speak or appear at various functions. It is amazing. He retired from the Yankees at age 31 and will turn 81 in August. To say they are still active would be an understatement.

We began our day with Betsy leading us in prayer. Bobby and I attended a men's monthly luncheon in Sumter, where a speaker shared the Word of God and various prayer requests were received. People in his hometown call him Coach, but Betsy continues to call him Robert. She pointed out that, over the years, "Robert treated everyone the same. He would give time to anybody and has always been a giving person." Her husband, in turn, spoke in glowing terms of Betsy's role as a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. "Most of all," he said, "she is a faithful witness to our Lord."

He won the last of his five Gold Glove awards in 1965. It wasn't until 2010 that a Yankees second baseman won that award again.

He has personally led many people to faith in Christ, including many of his Yankee teammates. He has spoken at the funeral services of many teammates, including Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Steve Hamilton (who named his son after Richardson and accepted Christ in their home), Enos Slaughter, Bill Schrown, Clete Boyer, manager Ralph Houk, Bob Turley, and others. He also spoke at the funeral services of former Gamecock standouts Hank Small and Gary Hancock.

He had a relatively brief but exceptional professional career in Major League Baseball and used that platform to be a bold witness for Christ. He said, "I always tried to live my life in a way that I hoped would cause my teammates to be drawn to my Savior." However, he said he "shuddered" that some of his teammates may have gotten the wrong impression. He and shortstop Tony Kubek were roommates on the road and were nicknamed the "milkshake twins" because of their clean living. Mickey Mantle once told Betsy he could not live as good as Bobby. Richardson says he wanted his teammates to know that "the source of my strength was Jesus, not a religion or self-discipline."

Bobby and Betsy do not hold themselves up as a perfect couple, and they freely share about their struggles. However, they have remained faithful to God and each other for over 60 years.

Richardson concluded his book, "Impact Player," with these words: "When accounts of my life are written, I hope two things will be said of me. First, that I played baseball in a way that made my team better. Second, and more important, that I lived my life in a way that drew others to my Savior."

I began my article about Bobby Richardson in 1974 with these words: "In short, he is a winner." Forty-two years later, I would not change that assessment but simply add that he is "a man of proven consistency and loyal faithfulness." He has fought the good fight of faith, and his race is not finished yet. Bobby and Betsy are both true champions for Christ.

James Rudy Gray is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors.

He serves as the editor of The Baptist Courier,

 the official newspaper of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

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