JR Richard, a flamethrower right-handed pitcher whose scintillating career with the Houston Astros was cut short by a stroke in 1980, passed away on Wednesday. He was 71.
The Astros announced his death, but did not give a cause or say where he died.
Richard was one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball in the late 1970s. Standing 6-foot-8, his fastball was approaching 100 miles per hour, and his long stride toward home plate made him seem uncomfortably close to batters. He also had a devastating slider.
“When he pushes down that hill,” Pittsburgh Pirate slugger Dave Parker told Sports Illustrated in 1978, “he looks like he’s 10 feet away from you instead of 60. thinks you should swing the bat faster.”
After a few years in the minor leagues, Richard became a full-time member of the Astros’ starting rotation in 1975. In the next four seasons, he won 74 games and led baseball twice in strikeouts (with 303 in 1978 and 313 in 1979) and once in earned run average (with 2.71 in 1979). He could be wild; in 1976, he walked 151 batters.
He pitched well in 1980, but hadn’t played as many games as he thought he should have when he began to feel fatigue in his throwing arm in mid-June – though that didn’t stop him from making the All-Star Game on July 8 (He struckout three in two innings.)
However, on his next start, he seemed lethargic, felt nauseous and struggled to see his catcher’s signals. After three and a third inning, he left the game.
At the time, he had a 10-4 record with a 1.90 era
After Richard was placed on the disabled list, testing discovered a clot blocking primary circulation to his throwing arm. His doctors chose not to operate, fearing it would harm his ability to pitch, but they let him train. On July 30, while playing catch in the Astrodome, he felt a series of cascading symptoms that add up to a stroke.
In “Still Throwing Heat: Strikeouts, the Streets, and a Second Chance” (2015, with Lew Freedman), he recalls, “Suddenly I felt a high-pitched tone in my left ear. And then I threw a few more pitches and became nauseous. A few minutes later I threw a few more throws but then the feeling got so bad I lost my balance I went down on the AstroTurf I had a headache, some confusion in my head, and I felt weakness in my body .”
He was taken to a hospital, where it was found that he had no pulse in his carotid artery. Surgeons performed emergency surgery to remove a clot from the junction of two arteries in Richard’s neck.
The discovery that Richard had a life-threatening condition was proof that he wasn’t lazy, as some members of the press and fans had said, and that his complaints of arm fatigue should have been taken more seriously.
“Deep in my heart I knew something was wrong,” Richard said in his autobiography. “At that time I was just about the best pitcher in baseball. Why wouldn’t I want to pitch?”
James Rodney Richard was born on March 7, 1950 in Vienna, La. His father, James Clayton Richard, was a woodworker. His mother, Elizabeth (Frost) Richard, was an elementary school cook.
In high school, Richard played baseball and football and turned down numerous scholarships to play basketball. He was named second overall by the Astros in the amateur version of Major League Baseball. He played in Houston’s minor league system and in his first call-up to the Astros, in 1971, he had a promising debut against the San Francisco Giants, striking out 15, including three by Willie Mays.
In July 1974, he permanently joined the Astros.
“Nobody wanted to face him,” his teammate Enos Cabell said in a statement released Thursday by the Astros. “Guys from the other team would say they were sick not to see him.”
In 1980, the Astros added Nolan Ryan to their rotation, setting a record of 93-70 and progressing to the National League Championship Series, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies. (The Astros moved to the American League in 2013)
The Astros moved on without Richard, who never pitched for them again. He attempted a comeback, but after 21 games in the Astros minor league system, he was released in 1983.
After that he had a hard time. He lost money in business ventures and was divorced twice. For parts of 1994 and 1995, he was homeless and living under a bridge in Houston. A great man, he was not difficult for people to recognize.
“First of all, they can’t believe it, and then no one would really want to bother you,” he told Bill Littlefield of Boston public radio station WBUR in 2015. “They would probably look at you and say, ‘Okay, he doesn’t look. like he’s a happy camper.’ I looked like I wasn’t a man to mess with at the time.”
He was helped by a local pastor and the Baseball Assistance Team, which helps needy former players. He found a job in construction and eventually became a pastor at a church, helping the homeless and teaching baseball to children. (Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.)
Richard said his stroke affected his left side reflexes and sometimes his speech. But he never forgot what it was like to dominate batters.
“It was great to be in control,” he told NewsMadura in 2015. “You weren’t afraid of anyone. You respected them as human beings; they can hit a home run as well as you can knock them out. But I felt like I was the baddest lion in the valley.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.