Umpire Greg Richardson, of Gary, smiles while chatting with a Lowell coach during a game at Boone Grove Wednesday April 3, 2013. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 15, 2013 6:19AM
“My son, when I was a child, I remember feeling bad because I had no shoes. Then, I looked across the street, and saw a man who had no feet.”
— Karen LeDelle Manes (circa 1964)
I wasn’t surprised to see “Bonanza” reruns playing on Greg Richardson’s TV when I entered his home. After all, he is a baby boomer. He’s also a big Chicago White Sox, Bears and Bulls fan who tolerates the Blackhawks.
Richardson, 54, lives in the Glen Park neighborhood of Gary. He’s an umpire who officiates girls softball games, mostly. Untraditionally, when he’s working behind home plate, Richardson signals strike one or strike two with his left arm.
You see, “Lefty” Richardson doesn’t have a right arm.
Lived in Gary all your life?
“Yeah, I grew up around 7th and Adams,” he said. “Across the street was the Boys Club. I went to Horace Mann (High School). My father passed two years ago. He worked at the ‘Big Mill’ (U.S. Steel in Gary) downtown.”
Did you play sports for Horace Mann?
“I played football and I was a swimmer. In football, I played defensive end and offensive line. I never came off the field, special teams — everything. I’d go from football directly into swimming. Swimming is a demanding sport.”
You were probably in the best shape of your life.
Greg, right off the bat, how did it happen?
“I lost my arm while serving in the Coast Guard when I was 19. It got caught up in a machine. We had just docked in Milwaukee.”
Were you in the hospital for a long time?
“No. I was in Milwaukee General (Hospital) for like three days when the (Veteran’s Administration) came in and said they wanted to transfer me to the VA hospital. Mistake. They put me on a ward with a bunch of old guys with ‘traches’ in ‘em. Hey, I’m 19 years old. I had a bunch of checks, so I went and bought me some clothes and a car and I drove home.”
“So, they were lookin’ for me. Once they found out were I was, they sent me a letter saying that I was temporarily home on leave to cover their butt. I healed really quick.”
You must’ve gone into shock when the accident occurred.
“Well, I probably did, but I was conscious. I had to run up three decks. When I got to the top, I remember losin’ it. One of the lieutenants reached over and grabbed me; they put me on a table and I came back.”
Was your arm still attached?
“No, it was down below in the machine.”
There’s not even a stub.
“All the way to the shoulder, my brother. Once I got to the emergency room, they told me they wouldn’t be able to reattach my arm. I said, ‘Oh, well.’”
Greg, I was born left-handed. You?
“No. Hey, there was nothin’ to it. You do what you gotta do. Through the grace of God, you adapt.”
Did your mind continue to think the arm was there?
“Yeah, sometimes you go to reach for something and there’s no arm to reach with. I feel bad for these veterans because this war has created so many casualties. God bless ‘em. I know what they’re going through.
“You have to have a strong mind and stay off those drugs because they’re downers, you know — opiates. It’s a trip, man. You should only medicate when you really need it. They tried to put me on those drugs and I refused to take ‘em.”
Let’s talk about umpiring. In the beginning, did someone take you under their wing?
“Sure did. Lloyd Adams, who just passed; he was my mentor. Lloyd was on staff with the (National Softball Association) for 10 years. He was state umpire; he was a high school umpire.
“We used to travel together. Lloyd was so hard on me. I finally asked him, ‘Why you so hard on me, man?’ He told me: ‘Because I want you to be the best umpire you can be.’ It’s gonna be a lonely summer without Lloyd.”
Greg, I realize the umpire has a job to do, but some umps have almost a drill sergeant mentality — not you.
“It’s not about me, you know. It’s about these kids. I have fun with it. The umpire doesn’t have to come off as being this strict and scary guy with a mask.
“Those girls know I’m gonna call that inside pitch; they know I’m gonna call that outside pitch. I will ring ‘em up. They say: ‘OK, Lefty, I’m gonna be ready to swing the bat.’”
One of the best softball players you’ve ever seen while umpiring?
“Well, I had (Whiting High School All-State, Texas A&M All-American Melissa ‘Mel’) Dumezich. That was somethin’ else, crouched behind that dish and her bringin’ that heat, and the catcher gettin’ knocked back and groanin’ with every fastball. It hurt me just watchin’ the poor kid catch it.”
Do you hate the Cubs?
“With a passion.”
One of your all-time favorite Sox players?
“The Big Hurt (Frank Thomas). But because I umpire so many games, it’s hard for me to come home and look at sports.”
The cobbler’s kids have no shoes.
Who attempts to give you more trouble, coaches or fans?
“I would say fans. You see, I did baseball for years. These softball fans are nice compared to baseball fans. I’ve heard just about everything. When I hear something new, I call timeout, walk over toward whoever made the comment, and say, ‘That’s pretty good, I haven’t heard that one before.’”
Ever miss a call?
“Umpires are people, we miss calls.”
“I’d just like to say the Lake County Athletic Officials Association is an outstanding organization that helps up-and-coming umpires to be the best they can be.
“Another thing, there’s this guy who’s in just his second or third year; he’s hearing-impaired. His name is Mitch, I forget his last name. His voice is affected because of his hearing loss, but he has devices to help him pick up some things. He’s a really great guy and he’s gonna be a very good ump. Say something about Mitch.”
Lefty, you just did it for me.
During World War II, a ballplayer from the coal mines of Pennsylvania named Pete Gray made the Major Leagues despite having lost his right arm at the age of 6. Like Greg Richardson, he was born right-handed.
Gray was a real speed burner on the base paths. While playing for the St. Louis Browns, he hit a ball deep in the gap. The fleet-footed, one-armed outfielder tried for the elusive inside-the-park-home run. There was a violent collision at the plate and the opposing catcher, a big Irishman, dropped the ball. Gray was called safe. The catcher got into Gray’s face and started to say, “If it wasn’t for your handicap, I’d... .” That’s when Gray placed the only fist he possessed between the behemoth backstop’s eyeballs. While the catcher lay there comatose, Pete Gray uttered but two words, “What handicap?” He then trotted back to the dugout with his head held high.
Richardson told me he can operate a five-speed manual transmission. Just before I arrived, he’d changed the headlight on his car.
You do what you gotta do.