History is something that the Padres organization has never been extremely good at. Many think that the history of the team is not that great and is somewhat shallow. To extinguish that idea, the San Diego Padres, at the beginning of July, to the fanfare of a large blue ribbon and a large scissor clad Randy Jones, opened the San Diego Padres Hall of Fame Museum at the North West entrance to Petco Park on Tony Gwynn Drive.
As you enter the museum, the bouquet of various colors from Padres nostalgia hits your senses as you browse through banners, T.V.’s, artifacts, and plaques honoring the great players of the Padres past. All the typical and memorable guys are represented from Ted Williams all the way through our other Mr. Padre, Trevor Hoffman.
As you reach the end of the velvet roped tour, you come across a statistical leader board that displays, in the true Padre coloration of Yellow and Brown, all of the Offense and Pitching statistical leaders from the past. You see all the great names on that board, but one thing that jumps out to the viewer, if they are truly inspecting, is the fact that on the offensive statistical side, with the exception of Mr. Padre himself, Gene Richards is the most represented.
Of the six subsections displayed (Batting Average, Hits, Home Runs, Runs Batted In, Runs Scored, and Stolen Bases) only Gwynn and Richards are present on four or more. (Gwynn is on all six). Richards made it on to the average, hits, runs scored, and of course, stolen bases. It’s not the only thing that Gwynn and Richards share. Richards also has the designation as being the only other Padre player to have ever donned the number 19 on his uniform, which he did in 1978. It is the purpose of the Padres Hall of Fame Museum to bring light on the shining moments of the Padres past. In ode to that idea let’s shine the spotlight on Gene Richards.
After a very successful college career at South Carolina State, Eugene Richards was drafted number one overall in the 1975 draft, January edition. (1) (Up until 1986 there were two amateur drafts every year. The June draft was the original which included those coming out of college and high school students. The January draft, which Richards was number one in 1975, was useful for college and junior college players that had to finish their seasons before signing a contract and high school students who were able to graduate in winter.)
(2) Richards quickly distinguished himself in the minor leagues and foreshadowed his inclusion on the Padre Statistical Leader Boards at Petco by, in familiar fashion, leading the Single-A California lead in, Batting Average, Hits, Runs Scored, and, of course, Stolen Bases. (sound familiar?) He also was that leagues’ MVP. He then skipped Double-A and went straight to the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders who made their home at Aloha Stadium in Pearl City, Hawaii. There in the Pacific Coast League he led all players with 173 hits and batted .331. All this was enough to make the Pads’ Squad in 1977.
As Richards made his debut for the Padres, April 6, 1977, one thing was certain, he could run. His speed and ability to get on base is what became the foundation for Richards’ greatness and his ascension to, in this author’s opinion, the best leadoff hitter in Padres history. Gene Richards faced Woodie Fryman of the Reds in his first professional at-bat. He proclaimed his presence by knocking a single in the first inning, as the leadoff hitter, and then stealing second base.
(3) Throughout his first major league season, Richards continued to burn up the base paths. By the end of the season he had stealthily grabbed 56 stolen bases. This was enough to set the modern-day rookie stolen base record surpassing Rollie Zeider from 1910 and Sonny Jackson in 1966 who both had 49. Ultimately, these marks were surpassed by the legendary Vince Coleman who almost doubled their amounts in his rookie year. In 1985, for the St. Louis Cardinals, Vince, as a rookie, swiped an astounding 110 bags locking him in to one of those records that probably will not be broken. Ultimately, in ’77, Richards had a great rookie season finishing, additionally to the stolen bases, with a batting average of .301 and 11 triples. One highlight was a game on July 26, 1977, where Richards went 6 for 7. This is a Padres record that he shares with Tony Gwynn, Adrian Gonzalez, and Joe Lefebvre.(4) With anticipation, the Padres had a disruptive, exciting lead-off hitter for the future.
Richards played seven of his eight season in San Diego. (In 1984, his final season, he played for the San Francisco Giants.) Bill Center, the long time, fundamental voice in San Diego sports, calls Gene Richards the best leftfielder that San Diego has had, edging out Greg Vaughn and his monster 50 home run season.(5) I agree with this sentiment but will take it a step further. Throughout these years, Gene Richards makes a strong claim, by his on field performance, as the greatest leadoff hitter the Padres have had as well.
Leadoff hitters fill various roles that are important to the traditional line up of a baseball team. Among other jobs, their responsibilities include, first and foremost, getting on base. After that, they should be disruptive and have the ability to advance so the meat of the order, the 3’s and 4’s, have the opportunity to knock them in. Gene excelled in this manner and had the ability to be the spark at times as well, hitting triples and in-the-park home runs. Following his rookie year in ’77, he continued to excel with these strengths helping lead the Padres to their first ever winning season in 1978 and beyond. (In fact, the other San Diego team, the Chargers, also had a winning season in ‘78, a rare occurrence which went missing until 1992.) Richards, during this season, hit .308, scored 90 times, and stole 37 bases. Additionally, and Excitingly, he sped 270 feet 12 times for triples in ‘78. He also did this in 1981, which led the league and has only been surpassed on the Padres by Tony Gwynn who had 13 in 1987. Ultimately, he was to have 63 triples trailing only Gwynn’s 85. The next closest player is Dave Winfield who lagged far behind with 39. Gene Richards also has hit the ever thrilling in-the-park home run twice, the same number as Gwynn.
Throughout his career Richards continued to achieve similar statistics every season. Remarkably, in 1981 he achieved his career high 61 stolen bases, which again set a Padres record. That record was subsequently set by Alan Wiggins with 66 in ‘83 and then 70 in 1984. Another record that the vivacious Richards set was hits in a single season. In 1980, he achieved the Padres milestone of 193 hits. We all know that record was to be quashed. Mr. Padre surpassed that mark 7 different times. Steve Finley surpassed it with 195 hits in the 1996 season as well. Finally, in 1980, his teammates bestowed on him the MVP award, a testament to his clubhouse presence as well as his presence in the lineup and on the field.
When comparing the various leadoff hitters of the Padres past and making the claim of Richards as the pinnacle, it becomes important to narrow the field down and list Richard’s challengers. Going through the years and looking at games played while batting in the line-up’s 1 hole, many players have fulfilled the responsibility for an extended period of time. Obviously, the fact that Rickey Henderson came through town deserves mention because, fundamentally, Henderson is considered the best lead-off hitter there was. He had all the tools and could add a rarely found power gauge to the mix. But his time with the Padres does not get him consideration for the best of the ball club. Also noticeable is the fact that Tony Gwynn filled the role numerous times but not enough to join the comparison. Players that are included in the conversation and have spent a decent amount of time in the role include Bip Roberts, Steve Finley, Quilvio Veras, Alan Wiggins, and Enzo Hernandez. Looking at who started in the role on opening days, Richards takes that lead having been put in the slot for 1977, ’78, ’79, ’81, ’82, and ’83 only being spelled by Ozzie Smith in 1980. The only one close to challenging that is Bip Roberts who opened as leadoff in 1986, ’90, ’91, ’94, and ’95. Q Veras did from 1997 to 1999. Furthermore, when you look at total games played while in the role, Richards clearly had the edge.(6) Bip Roberts is the closest to challenge Richards overall at the position. He hit around the same batting average while playing for the Padres, sometimes creeping a little higher, and was able to steal a decent number of bases. But, the exciting factor was definitely Richards. Adding to the fact that he helped spur the Padres to their first winning season, set multiple records, is mentioned on multiple offensive categories lists with the Padre greats and was MVP in 1980 cements his spot on top of the list as the Padres historical number 1 Lead-off hitter.
Finally, let’s consider Richards place and consideration for the Padres Hall of Fame. Again, this is something the author thinks, especially since he fulfills the role of top lead-off hitter and best left fielder, that strong consideration should be made. If you were to compare Richards career as a Padre to that of now Hall of Famer Gary Templeton you will find that short of Gary’s tenure of service (no Rickey, I Don’t Mean Ten Year)(7) and his prowess at Defense, Richards stats are more noticeable and exciting. Speaking of Defense, it has often been said that defense was Gene Richards’ liability. I would like to point out that he led the league in assists in 1980 with 21 and 1981 with 14. Gene Richards is another one of the integral Padres players in their earlier history, like Nate Colbert and power hitting, that defined portions of their history and deserve full mention in regard to the Padres’ story. Maybe if he would have stayed on one more season and rode with the rest of the club into the 1984 World Series, his status would have been a little more exalted. With the building of the Padres Hall of Fame Museum at Petco Park and the focus on defining roles of the Padres past maybe, at some point soon, Gene Richards will become a little more part of the “written” story, taking consideration to the actual history.
After his baseball career, Richards created a long ongoing role for himself in the coaching world. He was the Coordinator of bunting, base running/stealing and outfield for the L.A. Dodgers for 4 years. Was “roving hitting”, base-running/stealing and outfield coordinator with the California Angels for 10 years, A Major League scout for the Seattle Mariners, and managed the New York Mets A-Ball affiliate, Hagerstown Suns. He currently lives in Reno, Nevada, where he played in the minors, teaching and instructing various levels.(8)
6. Krabbenhoft, Herman, “Leadoff Batters of Major League Baseball: Complete Statistics, 1900-2005” p 204-205