Willie Randolph Biography
Went to Mets Game on Date, Left Yankees for Dodgers, Persisted After Unsuccessful Interviews
Major league baseball manager, player
A star second baseman with the powerhouse New York Yankees baseball teams of the 1970s and 1980s, Willie Randolph became New York's first African-American pro baseball manager when he was named to that post by the New York Mets in 2004. Randolph rose to prominence as a player and manager the hard way: he earned it. As a player he was a quiet, determined presence who clawed his way up to the major leagues from street baseball games in Brooklyn. His hiring by the Mets marked the end of a long, patient effort to ascend to a managerial position from among the ranks of coaches.
William Larry Randolph Jr. was born in Holly Hill, South Carolina, on July 6, 1954, but grew up in the rough-and-tumble Brownsville area in the New York borough of Brooklyn—also home to future boxing champion Mike Tyson. "Any kid coming out of that neighborhood has a toughness most kids don't, brings an energy most kids don't, and has a drive most people don't," Randolph's friend Mel Vitter told Lee Jenkins of the New York Times. "Willie was never blessed with huge physical ability. He was never the strongest or the fastest. He made himself with his attitude." From the time he first put on a Jackie Robinson model baseball glove, Randolph showed a drive to excel at sports.
Went to Mets Game on Date
At Samuel J. Tilden High School, baseball coach Herb Abramowitz recalled to T.J. Quinn of the New York Daily News, Randolph volunteered for extra work after regular practice was over. "I'd lay a mat on the floor of the gym and he practiced how to dive for a ball," Abramowitz said. "Did you ever hear of a player practicing diving for a ball? We practiced that for hours." An important milestone in the teenaged Randolph's personal life also had to do with baseball: he saved up his entire allowance to take his future wife, Gretchen, on a date to see the New York Mets play the Chicago Cubs at Shea Stadium.
Some baseball scouts avoided traveling to Brownsville to see Randolph play. Nevertheless, just before he turned 18 in 1972, Randolph was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played for four minor-league teams over the next four years before ascending to the Pirates squad and playing 30 games at the end of the 1975 season. He got into two playoff games with the Pirates that year, but after the end of the season he was traded to the Yankees. He began to flourish almost immediately, batting .267 and drawing 58 walks for an on-base percentage of .355 in his first season with the team. Randolph appeared in the 1976 All-Star Game, an honor he received again in 1977, 1980, 1981, 1987, and 1989.
Randolph's fortunes paralleled those of the Yankees in the late 1970s; as he hit his stride as a player, he became a key member of the World Series-winning Yankees teams in 1977 and 1978. Randolph played at a consistently high level over 13 seasons with the Yankees, always pushing a .300 batting average (and exceeding it in 1987 with a .305 mark). He stole more than 30 bases four times, rarely struck out, and in 1980 drew a team-high 119 walks. By 1986 his salary topped $1,000,000.
Left Yankees for Dodgers
Never graced with an outgoing personality, Randolph nevertheless was a key motivator and linchpin of the Yankees squad. "He was quiet. Very quiet," former Yankee catcher Fran Healy told Quinn. "You could see there was more there, though. This was when all sorts of crazy stuff was going on there—with Reggie [Jackson], with Thurman Munson. But Willie, with all the turmoil in those years, he was the professional." Randolph became a free agent in 1986 and signed on for two more years with the Yankees before departing for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1989.
The last several years of Randolph's career were unusually successful ones. He moved to the Oakland Athletics in 1990, making World Series appearances for the fourth time, and then had the best year of his career in 1991, batting .327 over 124 games for the Milwaukee Brewers at age 37. Randolph returned home to close out his career in 1992 with the Mets. His lifetime batting average over 18 years was .276.
With four children to raise, Randolph and his wife settled into life in New York as Randolph took a job as a third-base coach with the Yankees. As the Yankees recaptured their former glory, winning three championships in four years at one point, Randolph tutored Derek Jeter and other star players. As a player himself he had worked under the legendary scrapper Billy Martin and other top managers, and now he absorbed lessons in the managerial art from Yankees skipper Joe Torre. Back at Tilden High School, Randolph revived a moribund baseball program with a donation of uniforms and bats. In 1993, Randolph added the title of assistant general manager to his Yankees resume.
Persisted After Unsuccessful Interviews
Randolph had his eye on bigger things than coaching, however. "From Day One as a coach I've been saying I want to go to the next level," he told John Harper of the New York Daily News. He had numerous interviews over more than a decade as a Yankees coach—up to a dozen according to some counts. In 2000 there were reports that he had been offered the manager's job with the Cincinnati Reds but turned it down due to the low salary offer of $300,000 annually. Randolph later denied those reports, and he openly began to muse about leaving organized baseball to teach the game to children.
A lingering reluctance among baseball team owners likely played a role in Randolph's repeated rejections, but Randolph himself pointed out that he needed to learn a more aggressive style. "They [the network of baseball decision makers] know of me, they don't really know me," he told William C. Rhoden of the New York Times. "In this business you have to get into the mix. I needed to be exposed to people, to let them know me." Randolph began preparing more intensively for interviews, stressing the wisdom he had picked up from a series of baseball's greatest managers.
Finally Mets general manager Omar Minaya, himself a newcomer to the team, announced Randolph's hiring as manager on November 4, 2004. "I think my wife had to pull me off the ceiling, I was so excited," Randolph told Jet. "It's a lot of emotion running through your body, the fact that you finally get your opportunity, you're doing it in your hometown, for the team you rooted for as a kid."
Randolph laid down strict rules for his new team, governing everything from hair length to behavior in practice. The first games of the 2005 season were every new manager's nightmare: the Mets lost five in a row. But Randolph showed no nervousness, telling reporters that he had slept well throughout the ordeal. By May of 2005 the Mets had a winning record and were contending for first place in their division, before slumping to eight games back of division-leading Atlanta by August. The long-delayed managerial career of Willie Randolph was off to a good start.
Daily News (New York), February 26, 2002, November 4, 2004; November 5, 2004, p. 90.
Jet, November 22, 2004, p. 51.
New York Times, July 7, 2001, p. D1; November 3, 2004, p. D1; November 4, 2004, p. D1; April 2, 2005, p. D1.
Newsday (New York), April 21, 2005, p. A89.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 25, 2000.
Sporting News, March 11, 2005, p. 10.
"Willie Randolph," Baseball Library, www.baseballlibrary.com/baseballlibrary/ballplayers/R/Randolph_Willie.stm (August 11, 2005).
"Willie Randolph," Baseball Reference, www.baseball-reference.com/r/randowi01.shtml (May 5, 2005).
"Willie Randolph," New York Mets, http://newyork.mets.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/team/coach_staff_bio.jsp?c_id=nym&coachorstaffid=120927 (August 11, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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