Grave Story: Nolen Richardson (1903-1951)

Here lies Nolen Richardson, a third baseman/shortstop who was known for his fielding ability — his hitting ability, not so much. He played for the Detroit Tigers (1929, 1931-32), New York Yankees (1935) and Cincinnati Reds (1938-39). He also served, all too briefly, as the head coach of the University of Georgia Bulldogs baseball team in 1951.

Clifford Nolen Richardson was born in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Richardson Family (William and Alma and three children) had moved to Georgia by at least 1910, where they lived in the Sixth Ward. William Richardson was the manager of a social club, according to the 1910 census.

Richardson was the captain of all three sports he played at Atlanta’s Tech High School (baseball, basketball and football) and carried his athletic excellence over to the University of Georgia in Athens. Georgia traveled up to Massachusetts to play Harvard’s baseball team in 1924, and Richardson was a standout for the Bulldogs, both at the plate (4 hits in the 2-game series split) and at shortstop.

The Richardson Family gravesite at Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Ga. The small stone at the lower left reads “C.N.R.” and marks the final resting place of Nolen Richardson.

By his senior year of 1926, Richardson was the captain of the basketball team and a starting forward, as well as captain of the baseball squad and one of the best young shortstops in the South. He closed out his college baseball career by crushing two home runs against the University of Kentucky on May 29, 1926.

The Tigers signed him in July of 1926 and sent him up to the big-league squad so that manager Ty Cobb could get a good look at his fellow Georgia resident. Cobb was said to be pleased with his ability but sent Richardson to Evansville of the Three-I League so he could get a little more training. He hit .294 for the Evansville Hubs in 92 games, but the training he needed was in the field. The Tigers had decided to take the excellent shortstop and convert him into a third baseman.

Source: Fort Worth Record Telegram, August 10, 1928.

Richardson played for the Fort Worth Panthers of the Texas League in 1927 and 1928 and hit pretty well while adjusting to the new position. He batted .313 in 1927 and .271 in ’28 and demonstrated he was a doubles hitter more than a power hitter. His work at third base was shaky, with fielding percentages in the .930s each season. He was supposed to have joined the Tigers in August of 1928 as a utility infielder, but Fort Worth wanted him to stay until the team had completed a series against Houston. By the time the series was over, Detroit had changed its mind, and Richardson had to finish off the rest of the season in the minors.

Richardson impressed enough to make the Tigers’ Opening Day roster in 1929. Due to the poor performance of Heinie Schuble at shortstop, Richardson was put into the Opening Day lineup at a position he hadn’t played in three seasons. He went 0-for-2 with 2 walks in his MLB debut on April 16, 1929 in Cleveland. He also committed his first error. He picked up his first major-league hit the next day with a single off Indians reliever George Grant – and committed his second error. After starting the first week’s worth of games and hitting .211, he barely played until he was sold to Toronto in June. He also had an .839 fielding percentage in 58 innings at shortstop. Once he got to Toronto, he went back to third base, fielded like a champ and hit .283.

And if I can editorialize for a moment, what exactly were the Tigers thinking? The Tigers had a pretty good third baseman in Marty McManus, but they had a string of average shortstops. Of the four shortstops who played more than 10 games at the position in 1929, Bill Akers was the only one to hit higher than .250. So when Detroit got a good young shortstop, they spent years turning him into a third baseman and put him back at shortstop as soon as he reaches the majors.  Admittedly, I’m applying a modern thought process to events that happened 90 years ago, and maybe the Detroit brain trust had great ideas that just didn’t pan out. Still, the Tigers seem guilty of signing a player with a good pedigree and then failing to have any kind of development plan for him.

Richardson spent all of 1930 and most of 1931 in Toronto. He hit .319 in 1930 and led the league in fielding at third base, and when the Tigers gave him another try in August of 1931, he seized the opportunity. He batted .325 in August and ended the season with a .270/.299/.358 slash line. He struck out just 3 times in 158 plate appearances.

Ruchardson was given the chance to start at third regularly in 1932. The batting average dropped quite a bit to .219, but he was a fantastic fielder at third base. He committed only two errors in 65 games for a .986 fielding percentage. That would have led the AL in fielding, but he didn’t appear in enough innings to qualify for the leaderboard. In the games where he didn’t start, he was often used by manager Bucky Harris as a late-inning defensive replacement.

“It seems that every time I went in to play the eighth or ninth, I would get a lot of hot chances to handle at third and believe me, that’s quite a responsibility when you realize that one bobble or one wild throw might cost your team the game,” he said.

Source: The Atlanta Constotution, December 29, 1934.

In the end, Richardson’s hitting was just too light for Detroit to keep him around, and he was released outright to Toronto in February of 1933.

Richardson stayed with Toronto for two seasons, hitting in the low .260s and playing pretty soundly at shortstop. In between the 1933 and ’34 seasons, the Maple Leafs became a farm team for the Cincinnati Reds. Reds president Larry McPhail traded Richardson to Newark in December of 1934. Newark was glad to have him, as he hit .282 in 1935 with a career-high 6 home runs. In fact, the team didn’t want to give him up, even when the 32-year-old infielder suddenly became a hot commodity again.

Newark was a farm team of the New York Yankees, who were in the thick of the AL pennant race. The Yank’s infield was thrown into disarray when shortstop Frankie Crosetti was lost for the season with a bad knee, and their attempt to replace him with Blondy Ryan was an utter failure. The Yankees needed a capable veteran who could provide sure-handed defense… like Richardson. However, the Yankees didn’t have the right to just bring him to the majors without making a deal with the Bears, and the Bears refused to surrender him.

Negotiations dragged on to the middle of September when the Yankees finally landed Richardson and a couple other minor-leaguers for a host of players and cash. One of the other players acquired from Newark – though he had been playing for the San Francisco Seals – was Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio wouldn’t join the team in 1936, but his arrival (understandably) dwarfed news of the Yankees’ newest shortstop.

The Yankees never got to see Richardson at his best, as he was worn down after a long season with Newark. He made an error in his first defensive chance and committed 4 fumbles at shortstop in the 12 games he had with the Yankees. He also hit an uninspiring .219, with a double and triple among his 10 hits.

New York returned Richardson to Newark in 1936, and he spent two more seasons as an excellent shortstop and, at times, a pretty capable hitter. He did get to play on the 1937 Newark Bears, considered one of the best minor-league teams of all time. Shortstop Richardson and second baseman Joe Gordon were the only two starters who didn’t hit over .300, but they did set the International League record for double plays. Gordon would go on to have a Hall of Fame career in the majors and credit Richardson’s mentorship.

The Yankees sold Richardson’s contract to the Baltimore Orioles of the International League at the end of the 1937 season. He was 35 years old (though the papers reported him to be 33), but his fielding skills were still sharp, and he was universally liked by everyone in baseball, so he had little trouble finding work. He made it through half the season with the Orioles before he was acquired by the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for cash and infielder Justin Stein. He mostly sat on the bench for his first month with the team. Then Reds manager Bill McKechnie put him in the starting lineup when shortstop Billy Myers was injured, and Richardson put together the hottest stretch of his major-league career.

In his second start for the Reds, on August 31 against Brooklyn, Richardson had 2 hits and drove in 2 runs with a sacrifice fly and an RBI double. That moved his batting average up over .300, and it pretty much stayed there until the end of the season. He showed no power, but he piled up singles and ended the season with a .290/.311/.330 slash line in 35 games. He had 10 RBIs (8 within the last week of the season), and 4 of his 29 hits were doubles.

Source: The Indianapolis News, May 13, 1940.

Richardson was re-signed for 1939, but the only game he played for the Reds was on Opening Day, April 17. It was under the worst of circumstances. Starting shortstop Myers was hit on the head by the thrown ball while running the bases and was knocked unconscious. Four of his teammates had to carry him off the field. Richardson filled in for him and went 0-for-3. Myers was back in the lineup the very next game, and Richardson stayed on the bench until he was sent to Indianapolis on May 5. In parts of 6 seasons, he played in a total of 168 games, with a .247/.282/.309 slash line and a .591 OPS. He had 117 hits, including 19 doubles and 5 triples. He had a .969 fielding percentage at third base and .941 at shortstop.

Richardson retired from baseball on June 11, 1940, after hitting .219 in 54 games for the Indianapolis Indians. Richardson had been working at Rich’s department store in Atlanta in the offseasons and decided at the age of 37 to give up baseball in favor of a full-time position in retail. In 13 seasons in the minors, he batted .277 with 1,734 hits, including 23 home runs.

Richardson and his family moved back to Athens, Ga., in 1947, where he ran a men’s clothing store near the University of Georgia campus. He sold his shop a few years later when he was named the head coach of the University of Georgia baseball team on March 27, 1951. Not only was the former Bulldog coming back to coach his old team, but his son, Nolen Jr. was also a star athlete on the school’s golf team. Unfortunately, his time as coach was short lived. He accomplished a 12-13 record with the team, but in August he underwent an operation at Athens General Hospital. He was hospitalized for several days, and the results were apparently much more serious than expected – Richardson had cancer. He died on September 25, 1951, at the age of 48.

“The whole squad is heartbroken,” said Bulldogs baseball team captain Jim Umbricht told the Atlanta Constitution. “He was a wonderful man. He taught us so much on and off the field.”

“Georgia has lost its most learned coach in more than half a century,” added Georgia athletic director Wallace Butts. “Nolen was a sportsman and a gentleman. Not since Hughie Jennings was at Georgia in 1895 has Georgia had such a fine baseball coach.”

Richardson is buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, which is right next to the University of Georgia campus.

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