Ten on the Richter Scale

In 1989 I published an opinion piece on Pete Rose in the Oregonian. It caught the attention of Ed Richter who called me and invited me to his house for dinner. I learned that he was a baseball writer who grew up in Brooklyn and eventually settled in Portland. He was a high-school dropout, yet he had published six books, including three on baseball, long out of print. As we chatted about writing before we sat down to eat, I asked what he was doing now (meaning was he writing anything). “Sitting here talking to you,” he replied.

That was the first clue I got about his irascible ways. His gruff candor turned a lot of people off, but I liked him from the start, despite his heavy smoking (two packs a day), and of course it didn’t hurt that we were baseball guys. And I loved brash, smart Jews from the east coast. We hit it off, talking baseball, going out to dinner, and taking in Portland Beaver games at the downtown ballpark (now the home of a Major League Soccer team).

Ed had a sharp humor and was fearless in showing it. Once, on the way to a Mariner game in Seattle, we stopped at a rest stop for coffee. Four or five young men were standing nearby, talking basketball. Ed, in his gravelly voice, intoned, “Gentlemen, it’s baseball season—time to put your thyroid freaks aside until winter.” They looked over at us; I was as shocked as they were. One of them said, “Baseball’s ok, man, we were just . . . ” Ed held up his arm. “Baseball’s not on trial here,” he said. You are.” After a second’s silence, they all laughed.

He announced one day that he was quitting cigarettes after thirty years—cold turkey. And he did it, often calling me and begging me to go for a drive with him or go out to lunch. He just needed company to get through rough spells. We went on like this for another couple years—ballgames at the park or at his place. We even watched TV games in the winter that Ed had recorded during the season. Every Christmas I would get a card saying OFF SEASON’S GREETINGS.

Then we had a falling out. His girlfriend broke up with him, and he was so angry and bitter that he demanded that no one remain friends with her. Soon his anger turned to women in general. By the end of 1993 we ceased contacting each other. There were no more OFF SEASON’S GREETINGS. Two years passed.

One day in late 1995 I opened my mail box and found my copy of Elysian Fields Quarterly. Thumbing through it, I came across reviews of fifteen books on pitching by Peter Bjarkman. Bjarkman is a renowned baseball-book maven and author. They call him Dr. Baseball. To my utter astonishment, I found a glowing review of Ed Richter’s The Making of a Big League Pitcher, out of print for 30 years.

I called Ed. When I said, “Ed, this is Chris,” his response was pure Richter: “Why the hell haven’t you called me lately?” I told him to sit down, that I had something to read to him. After setting up the context, I read the review, concluding with this: “Richter combines a penchant for mechanical details with the literary sophistication of a John Thorn.” (Thorn is the Official Baseball Historian of the Hall of Fame). “In the end Richter’s book gets this commentator’s vote for the best ever done on the subject.” “For my money, it may be one of the half dozen best baseball books ever penned.”

Ed’s response: “It’s about f**king time! Let’s meet for lunch”. We met for lunch and I gave him the EFQ. We caught up. Ed’s anger over the break-up had dissipated. He was happy about the review. Ed had married a woman named Christine since I last saw him; he seemed content. Outside the restaurant, we talked some more and agreed to resume our friendship. As we parted, he lit up a cigarette. “You’re smoking again!” I said. “You’re really quite observant,” he said. “I figure I might as well go out smoking. I got the word last week that the Reaper found me. I got about six months—lung cancer.”

Ed expressed his desire to stay alive until Spring Training; he made it. Then he wanted to make it to Opening Day; he made it. Then it was the All-Star Game; he made it. Once a stout man, he was now thin and pale. The last time he was able to leave his house we met for a beer. As we sat talking, he raised his glass and said, “Here’s to my health.”

Eight months had passed since I called him about the book review. Ed got thinner and thinner; he no longer went out. All he wanted now was to make it to the World Series. By late September of 1996 he was bed-ridden at home under hospice care. He took on a skeletal look, his face white and shrunken. I visited and sat with him on occasion while Christine went shopping. She had shown me how to squirt morphine into his mouth. One evening in early October, as we watched the Division Series, I said, “Ed, I don’t want to get all sentimental, but I’m going to miss you.” His response was pure Richter, and it put his metaphysics in a nutshell: “You’re lucky. I won’t miss you at all.”

On the afternoon of October 26, 1996, I sat with Ed. He no longer moved much; he slept a lot. The World Series was winding down, but Ed was unaware that he made it to the Fall Classic. He opened his eyes and looked at me; I don’t know if he recognized me. I squirted some morphine into his mouth. He looked at me again. I held his hand. He still had a grip. Christine arrived, and I went home to watch the sixth game.

At midnight the phone rang; it was Christine. She told me that Ed had died two hours earlier—about the time the Yankees finished off the Braves, ending the 1996 World Series.

Each time Spring Training arrives; each time Opening Day arrives; each time the All Star game is played; and every time the World Series comes around, I think of Ed Richter. I’m reminded that it was baseball and the written word that brought us together, and after we fell out, it was baseball and the written word that brought us back together.

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