By CHRIS CHRISTOPHER
Tony Richardson does not have to look far to celebrate the history of the Negro Leagues.
All the Neptune resident has to do is look around his home, which doubles as a shrine to the professional baseball circuit. While social unrest rages around the nation, Major League Baseball celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues.
Richardson’s home contains an extensive memorabilia collection.
“Oh geez,” he said. “I have just about everything. I probably have over 1,000 items. I have bats, balls, pictures, cereal boxes and autographs. I keep them in my basement, garage, boxes and in plastic containers. I can’t put a price on them. That’s what I will say.”
Richardson began collecting memorabilia in 1992 when he met a man named Wilbert Fields, a Virginia resident who put on a show in Neptune in a Route 35 boutique.
“Most of my stuff is from Mr. Fields,” Richardson said. “We became good friends. He died around 2008. I bought $500 worth of memorabilia from him.”
Richardson worked 30 years for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, spending the final 10 years of his tenure specializing special agents in New York City. Richardson also served as a special agent in Milwaukee. He continues to work in several law enforcement capacities.
Richardson remains a big fan of former Negro Leagues player Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947. He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, now the Los Angeles Dodgers, and enjoyed a Hall of Fame career.
“Collecting memorabilia is a passion of mine because of Jackie Robinson,” Richardson said. “He carved the way for me to join the FBI, which has about 500 black agents out of 15,000. I followed Jackie the most. Hank Aaron (who retired as Major League Baseball’s career home runs leader) was another favorite of mine. He played for the Birmingham Black Barons. Three women played in the Nego Leagues.
“Josh Gibson should have been drafted into Major League Baseball, but he had a short fuse. He would never have been able to tolerate being called the N-word. It was in Jackie’s contract where it said he would be able to fight back for three years.”
Richardson has displayed his memorabilia at numerous shows. Three did not take place because of the coronavirus pandemic. He has put on numerous shows during Black History Month in February. He has shown his wares at Monmouth University, Brookdale Community College, high schools, middle schools, senior citizens centers and libraries. The Negro Leagues folded as many players wound playing major league baseball.
“I am very passionate about putting on the shows, especially for the young kids,” Richardson said. “I talk to the young kids, especially the kids of color, and explain how today’s players make all of that money today because of Jackie Robinson. It takes longer for me to set up for a show than the presentation does.”
Richardson is no longer in possession of his favorite piece of memorabilia, a bat that contains 56 signatures, including John Hancocks from Leon Day, Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin.
“The theft took place in Neptune (Township) of all places,” Richardson said. “Someone stole it from my Jeep two or three years ago. It dug into my heart. I put sporting good stores in the area on alert. The bat was made of oak and was a hard bat unlike the bats made of pine that are used today. Teams had only one or two bats. I paid $250 for it and it was stolen. Somebody has it, but they can’t show it because someone will spot it.”
Richardson spoke of the hard times Negro Leagues players faced because of their skin color.
“Teams barnstormed to different towns,” he said. “They traveled by bus and swept the bus. They bought food at restaurants and ate on the bus because they were not allowed in restaurants. Black players played in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and in Puerto Rico where they were treated like royalty. They came back to the United States and dealt with segregation.”
Richardson, 74, is a graduate of Matthew W. Gilbert High School in Jacksonville, Fl., where he played first base.
“I had to quit baseball because my family was on welfare,” said Richardson, who was raised by his great grandmother. “I quit during my senior year and wound up working in a segregated movie theater. I could not attend its shows as a customer, but I could work there. Somebody had to clean the place up. When I was on my break, I watched the shows. I grew up down South and it was kind of expected. I made the best of the hand I was dealt with. It made me what I am today.”
Richardson graduated from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville in 1972 when he joined the FBI. He earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physical Education. He has been involved in Little League Baseball for 35 years. He works with 12 leagues as the District 11 Administrator.