Rick Wolff, Sports Radio Host and Much More, Is Dead at 71
Rick Wolff’s résumé is about as long as a Major League roster, his disparate professions linked by an adoration of sports and a fascination with sports psychology.
He was a professional baseball player, a college baseball coach, an author of books about sports psychology and an editor and publisher of books by athletes like Tiger Woods (as well as business figures).
In the early 1990s, he became the psychological coach for the Cleveland baseball team now known as the Guardians, helping them rise from the American League basement to perennial pennant contenders. And for 25 years he was the host of “The Sports Edge,” a show on the New York sports station WFAN dedicated to helping families navigate the increasingly competitive world of youth sports.
His last episode, which dealt with whether children were becoming less interested in youth sports, aired two weeks before he died on April 10 at his home in Armonk, NY, in Westchester County. He was 71. His son, John, said the cause was brain cancer.
Mr. Wolff began his quarter-century on WFAN after finishing his stint as Cleveland’s roving psychological coach. Becoming a broadcaster was hereditary: His father, Bob Wolff, was a radio and television sportscaster for nearly eight decades, longer than anyone else, according to Guinness World Records.
Over hundreds of Sunday-morning episodes, Rick Wolff tackled weighty youth-sports topics like hazing, the impact of social media and the risk of concussions, as well as more lighthearted ones like Big League Chew bubble gum.
The bad behavior of overcompetitive parents and the mental health of young athletes were motives. In an episode last year that served as a primer on sports psychology, Mr. Wolff said that sending children to compete without mentally preparing them was “like sending your kid to take a major test in school, but they really haven’t studied or prepared for that exam.”
His psychological insights were forged in the crucible of Major League Baseball.
He started with Cleveland in 1990, when the team was mired in one of the longest playoff droughts in Major League history — Cleveland had not made it to the postseason since 1954.
Cleveland was so notorious for losing that a fancifully woeful version of the team was at the heart of the 1989 movie comedy “Major League.”
Mr. Wolff worked with many young players in the Cleveland system, which in the early 1990s included future stars like Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome.
He often traveled with Cleveland and its minor league teams and had a dedicated home phone line on which players could call him at any time. Whether they were dealing with a batting slump, pregame jitters or anger issues, he was there to hear them out.
His counseling approach involved visualization techniques, muscle memory and pushing players to face their failures. He had some unorthodox views; for instance, he maintained that setting overly ambitious goals could be paralyzing instead of motivating and that pregame anxiety could often be embraced as a normal part of sports.
Even though sports psychology was rare in baseball, Mr. Wolff said on his show last year, Cleveland’s players “took the mental side of the game seriously” and within a few years were a “powerhouse in the American League.”
The idea caught on, he added, and “these days it’s the rare, rare sports team or professional or college organization that doesn’t have at least one sports psychologist on their staff.”
As an editor at various publishing houses, Mr. Wolff acquired a slew of New York Times best sellers, including Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad Poor Dad” (1997) and the General Electric chief executive Jack Welch’s “Jack: Straight From the Gut” (2001). He also acquired a number of sports books, including Roger Angell’s “A Pitcher’s Story: Innings With David Cone” and Tiger Woods’s “How I Play Golf.”
As an author, he wrote, among other books, “Secrets of Sports Psychology Revealed: Proven Techniques to Elevate Your Performance” (2018) and “Harvard Boys: A Father and Son’s Adventure Playing Minor League Baseball” (2007), which he wrote with his son.
Richard Hugh Wolff was born in Washington on July 14, 1951. His mother, Jane (Hoy) Wolff, was a Navy nurse who became a homemaker. His father was the broadcasting voice of the Washington Senators at the time.
In 1961, the Senators moved to Minnesota, where they became the Twins, and the Wolffs eventually moved to Edgemont, NY, in Westchester County, where Mr. Wolff grew up. He played baseball and football at Edgemont High School, graduating in 1969, and attended Harvard.
As an infielder playing for Harvard, he began looking for a mental edge but found little information about sports psychology. In time he adapted the visualization techniques advanced by the surgeon Maxwell Maltz in his book “Psycho-Cybernetics.”
The Detroit Tigers picked up Mr. Wolff was late in the 1972 amateur draft, and he played in their minor league system in 1973 and 1974 while completing his Harvard bachelor’s degree in psychology.
After playing in the minors, Mr. Wolff became editor in chief at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, a now defunct organization that published educational materials on business and management. He continued to hold that job after he became head baseball coach for Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY, in 1978. He coached there until 1985, leading the team to a 114–81–3 record.
In 1982, he married Patricia Varvaro, who survives him. In addition to her and his son, he is survived by two daughters, Alyssa Wolff and Samantha O’Connor; a brother, dr. Robert Wolff; a sister, Margy Clark; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Wolff earned a master’s degree in psychology from Long Island University in 1985. His book “The Psychology of Winning Baseball: A Coach’s Handbook” (1986) caught the eye of Harvey Dorfman, a psychological coach for the Oakland A’s and one of the first in the major leagues. He called Mr. Wolff and told him that other teams were looking for psychologists. After speaking to several teams, Mr. Wolff chose Cleveland.
He bonded with Cleveland players by wearing a team uniform and practicing with them.
At the time, his playing days were more recent than the young players he counseled might have thought — just the year before. He had played three games (and had four hits in seven at-bats) with the South Bend (Ind.) White Sox of the Midwest League in 1989, when he was 38, an experience he wrote about for Sports Illustrated.
His South Bend teammates had treated him gingerly, until he fielded a grounder and hit a dribbler to short in their first game together. He wrote that after the game one pitcher asked him, “Tell us, Rick, you must have known him, what kind of player was Babe Ruth?”
With that bit of ribbing, Mr. Wolff knew he had made it. “I had become the target of some old-fashioned needling—the ultimate acceptance in baseball.”