By Glen Sparks
“He had the greatest stuff I have ever seen.” — Joe Morgan
J.R. Richard threw scary hard.
The 6-foot-8-inch right-hander fired 103 mph heat. He complemented those blazing fastballs with 98 mph sliders.
Over a 10-year career (1971-80) that doesn’t begin to tell the story, Richard compiled a 107-71 won-loss record for the Houston Astros, with a 3.15 ERA. Twice, he struck out more than 300 batters in a season. And, just to make things more frightening, Richard didn’t exactly boast pinpoint control. In fact, he led the National League in wild pitches and bases on balls three times each. Probably no batter dug in against J.R. Richard. It wasn’t worth it.
Houston drafted Richard as the second overall pick in the 1969 amateur draft, out of Lincoln High School in Ruston, La. He did not lose a game as a high school pitcher, and he did not give up a run during his entire senior campaign. Plus, he could play some hoops. Richard turned down more than 200 college basketball offers.
The Astros promoted Richard to the big club late in the 1971 season. He struck out 15 San Francisco Giants batters in his debut. All told, the prospect went 2-1 with a 3.43 ERA in 21 innings. He only gave up 17 hits and fanned 29. But, he did walk 16 batters. Richard instilled fear into grown men.
Houston knew it had something in Richard. If he could just keep from killing someone with a four-seam fastball. Richard, to the relief of National League hitters, saw limited action in the majors from 1971-74. He pitched 162.2 innings and totaled 154 strikeouts. Control still eluded him. The Phenom gave out 98 free passes.
Tim Wendel relayed a great story about Richard in his 2010 book High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball. On this occasion, longtime Dodgers shortstop Bill Russell stood in the batter’s box against the fireballer. Richard hurled a pitch that steaked above Russell’s head and knocked some wood off the bat. Russell had seen enough. He slunk back to the dugout. Manager Tommy LaSorda ordered bench player Pepe Frias to complete the plate appearance.
Frias: “Why do I have to bat?”
(In 23 career starts against the Dodgers, Richard went 14-4 with a 1.72 ERA in 188.1 innings. He recorded 200 strikeouts and gave up only 108 hits. He went at least eight innings in 18 of those starts and finished in double figures in strikeouts nine times. In his final career start against Los Angeles, Richard fanned 12 and tossed a one-hit shutout.)
Richard enjoyed his great run in the majors from 1976-79. A 20-game winner in ’76 (2.75 ERA, 214 strikeouts but 151 walks), he won 18 games in each of the next three seasons. Following another 214-strikeout campaign in ’77, he fanned 303 in 1978 and a career-high 313 in 1979. Maybe most interestingly, Richard threw a career-high 292.1 innings in ’79, but he dropped his walk total to 98. The former wild slinger topped all National League pitchers in K/BB ratio that year (3.19).
The 1980 season looked like it might go down as Richard’s best. Through 17 starts, he was 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA. Through 113.2 innings, he struck out 119 and surrendered just 65 hits. Amazingly, he finally made his first All-Star team.
About that time, Richard began suffering from dizziness, blurred vision and a dead arm. This is where it gets complicated. Some say the Astros didn’t buy into Richard’s complaints. Rumors of drug use and laziness began. (This despite the fact that Richard was something of an ironman of a pitcher. He rarely missed a start.) Houston placed Richard on the 21-day disabled list.
Richard collapsed at the Astrodome on July 30, 1980. Doctors performed live-saving surgery. J.R. Richard had suffered a stroke. In fact, he had suffered at least three strokes, according to doctors. The long rehab process began.
Two hard-fought years later, Richard was nearly ready to pitch again in the majors. More serious health issues followed, many of them related to the original 1980 surgery. Richard never pitched again.
His life turned into a mess. He found himself in some serious financial problems, got divorced twice and lost his house. He began living underneath a Houston freeway overpass. Finally, with the help of a local minister, the former pitcher put his life back together. Now, he is a popular figure at autograph shows and also raises funds for youth baseball programs in Houston.
Fans and former players remember the great right-hander and his fiery fastball.
“I still gives me goosebumps to think of what he might have become.” – Joe Morgan.
By Glen Sparks
Nolan Ryan put in some time as a paper boy while growing up in southeast Texas. That leads to all sorts of speculation.
How hard do you think young Nolan could fling a copy of the Houston Chronicle? Did he always throw the fastball, or did he like to mix in a 12-6 curveball?
Ryan started delivering newspapers at the age of eight. That was one way to build up arm strength. Supposedly, Ryan could hurl a softball 100 yards by time he was in junior high, 30 yards or so farther than any other kid in Alvin.
Not surprisingly, just a few years later, scouts crowded into Alvin High School to check out the Yellow Jackets’ right-hander. The kid went 19-3 as a senior. He pitched in 27 games and struck out 211 batters, many of whom were likely afraid for their lives.
That was in the pre-radar gun days. So, the argument began: Just how hard was this teenager throwing?
The New York Mets selected Ryan in the 12th round of the 1965 major league amateur draft, the first one ever held. So, 294 players were chosen before Ryan. What happened? The story goes that the Alvin baseball coach, upset at the team’s mental mistakes, put his players through one wind sprint after another. The next day, he told Ryan to take the mound. Still tired, the pitcher suffered through a bad day. Teams took notice; Ryan’s draft position plunged.
But, boy, did Ryan rebound to his old form. From 1965-67, he struck out 445 hitters in 291 minor-league innings. New York brought the kid with the golden right arm up to the majors in April 1968. In his first major-league start on April 14, 1968, against (appropriately enough) the Astros, Ryan tossed no-hit ball for five innings and left the game after 6.2 innings and eight strikeouts. In another early start, he struck out 14 Cincinnati Reds. The rookie was good, very good. Orlando Cepeda even declared that Ryan was the best young pitcher he’d ever seen.
Ryan spent five seasons in New York. He missed the 1967 season due to a military commitment and also suffered from finger blisters. Oh, and he walked a lot of batters. Nolan Ryan, with a fearsome fastball and no real control over it, was the very definition of an “uncomfortable at-bat.”
Over his Mets career, Ryan pitched 510 innings and struck out 493 hitters. He also gave up 344 walks. But, he only surrendered 244 hits. All that led to a 29-38 won-loss mark and a 3.58 ERA (98 ERA+). What exactly did the Mets have in Lynn Nolan Ryan? Would he ever join an outstanding Mets rotation that already included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry?
In the end, the Mets decided they couldn’t control Ryan’s wild side. On Dec. 10, 1971, they sent him all the way across the country, to the California Angels, along with Frank Estrada, Don Rose and Leroy Stanton, for Jim Fregosi.
Fregosi, a six-time All-Star in Orange County, didn’t do a whole lot in Flushing, Queens. He lasted a season and a half, battled some injuries and got into just 146 games. He hit five homers and batted .233 before being shipped to the Texas Rangers.
Ryan, meanwhile, came into his own in southern California, playing just one freeway exit away from Disneyland. He made 39 starts in 1972 and finished 19-16. Over 284 innings, Ryan struck out 329 hitters. And, despite walking a league-high 157 hitters, he posted a 2.28 ERA (128 ERA+). It helped that he gave up just 166 hits.
In 1973, the Ryan Express went 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA (123 ERA+). He also struck out 383 hitters, beating Sandy Koufax’s single-season record by one and doing it Sept. 27 against the Minnesota Twins in memorable fashion. He punched out Steve Brye for No. 382 in the eighth inning. Tied 4-4 after nine innings, the game went into extra innings. Ryan fanned Rich Reese in the 11th inning for the record, and the Angels won 5-4.
On May 15, 1973, at Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Ryan did what everyone probably thought he would do one day. He tossed a no-hitter. Ryan struck out 12 Royals and walked three. And, he wasn’t done.
The man with a 100 mph heater tossed a second no-hitter in 1973, on July 15 at Tiger Stadium. That time, he fanned 17 and walked four. Ryan retired after the 1993 season with seven no-nos, three more than Koufax. Ryan also threw 12 one-hitters, tied with Bob Feller for the most.
In his epic 27-year career (with the Mets, Angels, Astros and Texas Rangers), Ryan went 324-292. He struck out 5,714 batters, more than anyone in baseball history and almost 1,000 more than No. 2 Randy Johnson. (Ryan also is No. 1 on the all-time walks list with 2,795, nearly 1,000 in front of runner-up Steve Carlton.) The writers elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1999 with 98.8 percent of the vote.
He put together one of the most spectacular careers in the history of baseball.
By Glen Sparks
The New York Mets muddled their way through a laughably bad debut season of 1962. The Big Apple’s new National League squad, put into play after the Giants and Dodgers moved west in 1958, floundered first and quickly foundered.
By season’s end, the Mets had sunk to 40-120, 60 ½ games behind the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants. No team had finished with a sorrier record than the ’62 Mets since the Cleveland Spiders of 1899 ended the year 20-134, caught in their own web of ineptness.
Roger Craig led the ’62 Mets with 10 wins. But, he lost 24 times. Al Jackson also lost 20 games. Craig Anderson finished 3-17. If you add Jay Hook’s 8-19 mark and Bob Miller’s 1-12 record into the mix (and, at this point, why not?), the five Met hurlers with at least 14 starts finished a combined 30-92. (Some of those losses did come in relief. Still …)
Offensively, Frank Thomas, no, not the guy who just went into the Hall of Fame, was one of the lone bright spots. He hit 34 home runs and drove in 94 runs, playing half his games at the Mets’ first home ballpark, the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Marv Thornberry (more about him in a minute) added 16 home runs, while former Philadelphia Phillies star Richie Ashburn hit .306 in 389 at-bats. This still didn’t stop opponents from outscoring the Mets by 331 runs.
Casey Stengel managed this crew. He took the job just a few months after getting dumped by the Yankees. Casey had won seven World Series in the Bronx, with players like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra.
With the Mets, he had Thomas, Ashburn, Craig and loose change. “Can’t anyone here play this game?” Stengel supposedly asked—pleaded?–on at least one occasion.
This may be the classic story that sums up the 1962 Mets: One time, Thornberry hit a triple. Or, so he thought. An umpire called Marv out for missing third base. Casey ambled out to argue. The second-base umpire ran over and told Casey to quit complaining. Marv missed that bag, too. (Thornberry also made 17 errors in ’62 … as a first baseman.)
Things were a little better in Houston. The Colt ‘45s, forerunner of the Astros, joined the Mets as an N.L. expansion team in 1962. The team played at Colts Stadium, a venue famous for holding both heat and humidity, welcoming vulture-sized mosquitos and offering Texas-sized hospitality to rattlesnakes that enjoyed lying in the outfield grass.
The Colt ‘45s claimed just one 20-game loser, Turk Ferrell 10-20. Of course, Turk put up an admirable 3.02 ERA (124 ERA+). So, he wasn’t half bad. Roman Mejiias, an expansion selection from the Pittsburgh Pirates, led the offense. The Cuban-born right-fielder hit 24 home runs, drive in 76 and batted .286. He put up a career-high 3.6 oWAR, remarkable because he retired with a 2.5 career oWAR over nine seasons. (That happens when you put up a season-long oWAR of 0.0 or lower six times.)
Houston actually started the year 31-36. Then, things fell apart. The Colt ’45s went 33-60 from there and finished 64-96 in ’62, good for eighth place in the N.L., 36.5 games out of first. (The Cubs at 59-103 neatly ended up in ninth place, between the Mets and Astros, 42.5 games behind San Francisco.)
So, expansion era baseball did not start well in the National League. Things were quite different when the American League grew by two teams in 1961, at least for one squad. In kicking off baseball’s expansion era, the A.L. introduced the new-look Washington Senators and the Los Angeles Angels (soon to be the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels, then the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).
The Angels finished a respectable 70-91 in their opening campaign. Even more impressively, they won 86 games the following year. Smartly, the team drafted young pitchers Ken McBride and Eli Grba (25 and 26 years old, respectively). Both men threw more than 200 innings in ’61 and both had an ERA+ of better than 100.
Dean Chance, another expansion-draft pick by the Angels, hit the baseball scene full-time in 1962. At age 21, he went 14-10 with a 2.96 ERA (130 ERA+). Two years later, the 6-foot-3-inch right-hander enjoyed one of the most overlooked seasons of the modern era. He finished 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA (200 ERA+) and a 9.3 WAR.
So, how did the Angels find so many good young pitchers in ’61, while the Mets were picking up 35-year-old Clem Labine and 32-year-old Roger Craig in ’62? Jack Moore writes on The Hardball Times web site that it wasn’t simply about scouting and good luck. Rather, he writes, the rules changed from one year to the next.
National owners decided they didn’t want the new clubs plucking off young pitching talent, as happened during the A.L. expansion draft. The Angels and Senators chose players from a much larger talent pool than did the Mets and Colt ‘45s.
“The new franchises were picking from the ranks of aging veterans, utility players and swingmen who would have certainly been released to make room for protected minor leaguers come December,” Moore writes.
The article is worth a look. Moore makes some good points. Things got so bad that the National League held a special draft in 1963 to help both New York and Houston. Even so, the Mets lost 100 games in five of their first seven seasons, and Houston didn’t enjoy a winning season until 1972.
Moore also shows some bias, political and otherwise. He also doesn’t mention that the Angels never really built on to their early success. The team didn’t make the playoffs until 1979 and didn’t win a World Series until 2002.
The Senators, meanwhile, playing under the same expansion rules as the Angels, flopped in their second go-round in the nation’s capital. They lost at least 100 games in their first four seasons, posted one winning season out of 11 in D.C., and played in decrepit RFK Stadium. That was more than enough. They left for the Dallas suburbs in 1972, becoming the Texas Rangers.
Maybe with those early Angels teams, it really was just a little bit of luck.