NEW YORK – CIRCA 1978: J.R. Richard #50 of the Houston Astros pitches against the New York Mets during an Major League Baseball game circa 1978 at Shea Stadium in the Queens borough of New York City. J.R. Richard played for Astros from 1971-80. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
The Houston Astros announced on Thursday that J.R. Richard, a fearsome pitcher and all-time Astros great, has died at 71. The team did not reveal his cause of death, but released a touching statement about Richard, who spent all 10 seasons of his career in Houston and is a member of the Astros Hall of Fame.
Richard stood a massive 6’8, making him an imposing figure on the mound, and his 100mph speed and devastating breaking pitch only made him more of a nightmare to see from the batter’s box.
His career, which lasted from 1971 to 1980, was cut short due to health problems, but he made his mark. During a 2012 AMA on Reddit, retired slugger Dale Murphy was asked who was “the toughest pitcher to get a hit off of” during his career. His answer? None other than Richard.
“Anybody that played in the late 70’s or early 80’s will probably give you the same answer: JR Richard.”
His career couldn’t have started any better. During Richard’s debut on Sept. 5, 1971, he struck out a record 15 batters against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. His heroic effort on the mound in 1976 — 2.75 ERA over 39 (!) starts and a staggering 291 innings — earned him MVP votes and a seventh place finish in Cy Young voting.
In the late 1970s, Richard began to excel in a major way. He led the league in strikeouts in 1978 (303) and 1979 (313, which stood as the Astros’ single-season record until Gerrit Cole broke it in 2019), and led the league in ERA in 1979 (2.71). He finished in the top five for the Cy Young in 1978 and 1979, and made his first All-Star Team in 1980 — the first year he was teammates with Nolan Ryan, and sadly his final year in the majors.
Stroke ends his career
Richard, who’d had a dynamite start to the 1980 season, complained of some arm issues as the year went on, as well as ringing in his ears and blood spots on the tips of his fingers. His complaints were ignored by the team, which refused to shut him down, and interpreted as laziness or grumbling by the Houston media. Some believed he was jealous of Nolan Ryan’s contract, and others thought he was just whining.
It wasn’t either of those things. Richard’s dead arm worsened in mid-July, becoming so numb that he couldn’t grip a baseball. He went on the disabled list and checked himself into a hospital to figure out the cause. While the arteries in his pitching arm were almost completely blocked, doctors decided he didn’t need surgery. Just five days later, Richard had a massive stroke during practice and collapsed on the field. He never pitched in the majors again.
HOUSTON,TX-JUNE 01: Former Astros All-Star pitcher J.R. Richard speaks during a ceremony as he was inducted in the Astros Walk Of Fame on June 1, 2012 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas.(Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
In his 2015 autobiography “Still Throwing Heat: Strikeouts, the Streets and a Second Chance,” Richard described his feelings about how the Astros treated him at that time.
“I never could understand how the Astros handled things. If I meant so much to the ballclub and I started saying I had problems and didn’t feel right, why didn’t they send me to a doctor right away? I think teams are more sensitive to those situations now, especially with pitchers. They would automatically take you out of the game and make sure you went to the doctor the next day just to be on the safe side.
“My [teammate], Enos Cabell, thought it was racial. He said something about African Americans always played with pain so they wouldn’t lose their jobs. None of it made much sense, but that is a scenario. For a time I was looking for a good lawyer. I was ready to hire somebody. If I had hired an attorney, I would have told him, ‘Look at all this. Sue everybody.’ I would have walked away with $1 million.
“You think that people care about you and your health and something like this happens, and it makes you wonder if they really do care all that much. In theory I was one of the most valuable assets the Astros had. During some of that time period, I thought the Astros just didn’t give a damn about me.”
Richard’s life spiraled after the end of his major league career. He divorced twice, which drained his savings. After bad investments completely cleaned him out, he ended up homeless in Houston from late 1994 into 1995. With help from a local church, he got a job at an asphalt company and eventually became a minister, doing work with Houston’s homeless community. He was grateful for the assistance, but told WBUR in 2015 that the real change started with him.
“Well, I changed my thinking, which changed my attitude. I’m not going to do the same old things and act old way cause God is right here, so — and I just simply changed my thinking and didn’t accept the negativity.”
Friends, fans post remembrances
Richard’s friends and many fans posted touching stories and photos on Twitter, illustrating him as an inspirational, generous man who loved baseball and connecting with fans, as well as a pitcher so talented that his teammates were afraid to face him during spring training.
The Astros announced that they will hold a moment of silence for Richard before their Thursday night game, and will honor his career during their team Hall of Fame ceremony before Saturday’s game.
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