ADAMS: Baseball manager in Central League quietly passed 2,800 career wins last week
Baseball revels in its numbers.
Sacred digits — such as Cy Young’s win total (511), Nolan Ryan’s career strikeouts (5,714) and Cal Ripken’s consecutive games played streak (2,632) — are celebrated in the history books of the great American pastime.
How about 2,800?
In the middle of a terrible 1957 season, Bill Rickenbach made an agreement to take over managing the Mechanicsburg twilight league team for the rest of the year. The next season, the third baseman, Harry Fry, would take over the team.
Fry “couldn’t be found.” It’s been all Rickenbach ever since, for most of the last 63 years, the winner of a semi-pro baseball record 2,801 games. He got his 2,800th quietly — the way he liked it, with no fanfare — Tuesday night with a 7-6 win over Jefferson in a Central League contest. His 2,801st came Thursday, a 5-3 comeback win over Manchester to clinch a berth in the Central League playoffs.
There was no pregame celebration. No ceremony or acknowledgement from the crowd or public address announcer. Just a ballgame and a little chewing tobacco.
“I asked him, I said, ‘Does that get you jacked up or anything, the 2,800? Or are you looking at the 3,000?’” said Teed Wertz, who has played for “Pops” 13 years. “He said, ‘No, no, it doesn’t bother me. As long as I can keep staying around baseball, I’m good.’
“And then he said, ‘But to tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘if we played real baseball and we still had 50, 60 games a summer, I’d probably be somewhere around 3,500.’ I lost it. He was serious.”
Untouchable record: Each successive win puts the 88-year-old’s record further out of reach. The sport loves to discuss the impossibilities of its untouchable records. “Pops” owns one that is equally likely to stand the test of time, hundreds of wins beyond the next closest managers, most of whom died over the years while Rickenbach continues donning the No. 15 and manning the third-base coach’s box.
And as twilight baseball leagues continue to dim in stature and number, the prospect of another Rickenbach coming along, one willing and lucky enough to stick around more than six decades — and likely more, as teams no longer play as many games each season — seems increasingly preposterous.
“It means that I’m getting old — not getting, I’m already there,” Rickenbach said on a warm summer night for baseball Thursday before the first pitch. “But it’s a good way to go out.”
Hall of Famer: Rickenbach never imagined this successful, but especially long, career. He’s a member of the Capital Area Chapter Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, the Semi-Pro Baseball Hall of Fame and the field his Cardinals play on is named in part after him and former Mechanicsburg high school coach Don Shirley.
He doesn’t remember how he fell in love with baseball, but that passion runs deep and will never fade.
He grew up riding his bike with some friends to games at a park in Camp Hill where military teams would play during World War II. He played at Camp Hill High School, graduating in 1949. He played twilight ball for years and reminds people he’s the only player to be named a league All-Star at all nine positions, Tyke Wagner said. He even grabbed a bat and glove in 2018 to play right field at 86 years young when his team didn’t have enough players one game, unyielding in his disdain of forfeits.
Turning around a program: It was a forfeit that actually spurred him to take over the Cardinals — in the infamous agreement Fry never followed up on — a struggling program who won just a quarter of its games his first year, he said. But four years later, in 1960, Rickenbach guided Mechanicsburg to a league title.
“That was a tremendous turnaround, and that was in the 50s — ‘57, ‘58, ‘59 and ‘60,” he said. “And in ‘60, this league was loaded with good ballplayers.”
He’s overseen some impressive squads in the decades since and coached some of the area’s best players.
“He’s amazing,” Wagner said. “To me, he’s the greatest baseball mind in Pennsylvania. I just enjoy listening to him talk baseball.”
A winding journey: Rickenbach spent a few years coaching Shippensburg University and a few Dickinson College teams. He’s gone through scheduling changes, teams folding and leagues changing. Longtime home, the West Shore Twilight League, collapsed in the spring, forcing the Cardinals to the Central League this year.
Through it all he remains a fixture of the Mechanicsburg summer, one whose reach extends to players like Wertz and other coaches, like Mechanicsburg high school coach Clay McAllister, who took over after Shirley died.
“We had a couple lean years early. In my career, the first two years, by wins and losses measures, weren’t great. You’d sit in the dugout and talk baseball with me,” he said. “There were times early in my career … where things weren’t going well, and he certainly encouraged me to keep after it.”
May be his last year: His 89th birthday on Sept. 15, Rickenbach said this may be his last year. But he’s said that before over the years. And at least one lifelong friend doesn’t buy it.
“He’s gonna be the guy that died with his boots on,” former longtime Mechanicsburg scorekeeper Skip Hutter said by phone prior to the game.
Rickenbach said he will think about it in the winter, but he isn’t the spry young pitcher and third baseman who was a player-coach in the 1950s and ‘60s anymore.
“This could very well be it,” he said. “Seriously. The summers are hotter. Heat never bothered me — it did this year, it did last year, too. So I could take the uniform up there next week, put it on the mound and burn it.”
He thinks that would be a fitting finish. But baseball doesn’t leave a man like Rickenbach easily, not after 2,801 wins and counting.