From a Minor League Dream to the Big Leagues

Charles Gibson's private look at presidential hopefuls.


Oct. 4, 2007 — -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has spent the better part of his life serving his country as a politician and policymaker, but he might have pursued a career in baseball instead of politics if not for his immigrant father's emphasis on education and belief in the American dream.

ABC's Charles Gibson spoke with Richardson as part of a new series called "Who Is," which features one interview every week with a presidential candidate from now until December, with the focus fixed on their private lives.

For an extended version of Charles Gibson's interview with Gov. Bill Richardson click here.

For Richardson, life began on Nov. 15, 1947. He was born in California after his father, William, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Mexico, decided it would be best for his children to be born in America.

"[My father] made it a dictum in our family that his firstborn would be born in the United States," Richardson said. "And so, when I was about to be born, he took a train with my mother and myself … and we went to Pasadena, Calif., where he had a sister. And so I was born there, just to be born American."

Richardson was then raised in Mexico City with his father, a bank manager; his mother Maria Luisa Lopez-Collada, a secretary; and a younger sister, Vesta.

Richardson's young life was filled with dreams of baseball. His idol was Mickey Mantle, and he started playing the game while still in Mexico.

When he was 13, Richardson's father sent him to Middlesex School, a private preparatory school in Concord, Mass. The rest of Richardson's family remained in Mexico. It was at boarding school that Richardson first began to feel like a true American.

"When I was growing up, I didn't know whether I was an American or a Mexican," Richardson said. "I was darker than most kids. They called me 'Poncho.' I was kind of typecast. I felt I had to win [the students] over. They were popular, self-confident, and I wasn't. So I was trying to find a way to fit in."

Baseball gave Richardson confidence during those transitional years, and he eventually excelled enough to be noticed by professional baseball scouts.

"I wanted more than anything to sign a Minor League Baseball contract," Richardson said.

However, his father made it clear that his son would not be pursuing a baseball career. He insisted that his son go to college.

"He was the total boss. He was a very strong disciplinarian," Richardson said. "He's the kind of father that never praised you, but the kind of father that pushed you to study, to help others. I believe that the fact that I am driven is because of him."

Richardson met his wife, Barbara, during his senior year at Middlesex. She lived across the street from the school.

"There was a tradition that the townspeople in Concord would pick up the Middlesex students, give them a ride, hitchhike," Richardson said. "So I was hitchhiking once and she picked me up in her car."

They began dating and eventually married eight years later in 1972, after Richardson had graduated from Tufts University, where he majored in French and political science.

He stayed on to attend the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. A self-described "straight-laced" student, he said he focused more on academics than partying while in college.

"I was against smoking marijuana in the fraternity house. I was wanting to do charity work at the fraternity house, which is known not for charity work but for beer drinking," Richardson said of his years as a brother in Delta Tau Delta.

His first taste of a political race came when he ran for president of his fraternity. "I won that race by a couple of votes. I didn't realize that if you run for office and you set an agenda you can win. And I kind of liked that."

Richardson also credited the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey for inspiring him to take a turn in politics. While in graduate school, Richardson admitted he was "aimlessly drifting" and not sure of his calling. But on a class trip to Washington, D.C., he heard Humphrey give a speech on public service, and his life course changed.

"I was just totally enamored. It was like a thunder bolt," Richardson said. "This is what I want to be. I want to be like Humphrey. I want to be a political leader."

When Richardson began to pursue politics, he found his first job as an unpaid intern working for Republican Rep. F. Bradford Morse from Massachusetts. Richardson later went on to serve as a staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Although his father was a staunch Republican, Richardson soon moved his loyalties over to the Democratic Party.

"The fact that I was brought up in Mexico City by my mother and my grandmother to be a strong Catholic -- I had a very strong sense of social justice, of helping the poor."

He continued as a low-level staffer at the State Department and other divisions of government, and after nearly a decade in Washington, he and Barbara made the move to Santa Fe. For 14 years, he served as a House rep from New Mexico.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Richardson ambassador to the United Nations, and eventually U.S. Secretary of Energy.

During his time in Congress and as ambassador under the Clinton administration, Richardson is credited with negotiating the release of several American political prisoners and servicemen overseas.

"The fact that I've made the difference in the life of a human being, and maybe I outwitted somebody that's a world leader, usually bad guys, " Richardson said.

After a brief stint in the private sector, Richardson returned to public life in 2002 when he was elected governor of New Mexico. He said he is committed to his life in politics.

"My philosophy is that if you have an opportunity to make a difference. If you have the skills, you should do it," Richardson said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events