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.