J.R. Richard, one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball history and one of its most tragic tales, died on Wednesday, it was confirmed by the Houston Astros. He was 71.
James Rodney Richard stood 6-foot-8, and a strapping 222 pounds at his peak with the Houston Astros. He was armed with an overpowering fastball, reportedly 100 mph, a 94-mph slider, and he was wild enough to make every at-bat uncomfortable. Richard led the National League in strikeouts in 1978 with 303 and 313 in 1979. Before the 1980 season, the Astros signed Nolan Ryan to team up with Richard.
It was Richard, not the legendary Ryan, who was more dominant that season. Richard was on his way to a potential Cy Young-winning season, going 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA. He also was chosen to be the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.
However, he had been complaining about fatigue. A workhorse who pitched 291 innings with 19 complete games in 1979, Richard had just four in 1980. There were whispers around the team that he was dogging it. Those proved to be utterly unfounded when he collapsed and suffered a stroke in late July.
From his autobiography Still Throwing Heat: Strikeouts, the Streets and a Second Chance:
“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.”
Richard, 30 at the time, never pitched again, although he had a brief spring training comeback attempt in 1984. That was just the beginning of his difficulties. He went through two divorces, made bad investments, and ended up homeless.
Many would recognize the hulking former star as he lived under the overpass of Highway 59 at Beechnut Road in Houston.
But with the help of a local church, he put his life back together, becoming a minister, remarrying and becoming an advocate for the homeless.
Richard was an inaugural member of the Astros’ Hall of Fame. His career record was 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA and 1.493 strikeouts.