Obituary: J.R. Richard (1950-2021)

RIP to Astros legend J.R. Richard, one of the most intimidating (and misunderstood) pitchers of his era. He died in a Houston hospital on August 4 at the age of 71. It has been reported, including by former teammates, that his death was due to complications from COVID-19. Richard played for the Houston Astros from 1971-1980.

James Rodney Richard was born on March 7, 1950, in Vienna, La. He grew to be so tall that his teammates would later joke that he was born on March 5, 6 and 7, with the 7th being the day that all of him got here. His high school athletic career is so outstanding that he comes across as some kind of mythical sports hero created for movies or comic books. While attending Lincoln High School in Ruston, La., he completed 65% of his passes as the football team’s quarterback in his senior year. He once threw a pass from his own 20-yard line to the opposite end zone. He also could punt for an average of 67 yards or so, too. He averaged 35 points and 22 rebounds in basketball and was one of the top prospects in the state in that sport, getting hundreds of scholarship offers. And when it came to baseball, he was undefeated in his four-year high school pitching career and once hit 5 home runs in a row, including 3 grand slams. He was 7-0 his senior year with 89 strikeouts in 43 innings. To add to the larger-than-life accomplishments, Richard stood 6 feet, 7-1/2 inches tall (and would eventually reach the full 6-foot-8). The only thing he was missing was a blue ox as a sidekick.

Richard, who grew up close to Grambling University, wanted to attend college on a basketball scholarship, but he also was heavily scouted by virtually every MLB team. He was considered an obvious Top Five pick in the June 1969 Amateur Draft, which would bring a considerable signing bonus. The Washington Senators took Jeff Burroughs with the first pick, but the Houston Astros wouldn’t let Richard pass by.with the second overall pick in the draft. A few days later, he was signed.

“He has great potential and an outstanding fastball,” enthused Tal Smith, Astros player personnel director. “Everyone in our organization — for that matter in just about every organization — is high on him.”

Richard, right, poses with fellow Lincoln High School alum, Ralph Garr, left, and Charles Terrell of Management Recruiters, at a postseason event. Source: The Shreveport Journal, October 7, 1971.

Richard reported to the Covington Astros of the Rookie-Level Appalachian League, and his fastball was as good as advertised. He fanned 71 batters in 56 innings over 12 starts. Unfortunately, his control was practically nonexistent, as he walked 52 batters, hit 6 others and threw 10 wild pitches. It amounted to a 5-4 record but a 6.59 ERA. After some work in Arizona over the winter, Richard joined the Cocoa Astros in 1970 as a much improved pitcher. He still threw 20 wild pitches and had a 4-11 record, but he lowered his walk rate to 5.5 walks per 9 innings. He also fanned 138 hitters in 109 innings and set the Florida State League record with 28 strikeouts over two consecutive starts. The only thing that slowed Richard was a hospitalization in June, for a blood clot in his leg. He recovered from that medical issue and threw a 7-inning no-hitter a couple months later, striking out 10 batters in the process.

(Yes, the blood clot that effectively ended Richard’s career a decade later wasn’t even the first incident of a clot while he was with the Astros organization. Shouldn’t this have been part of a medical file that the team could have consulted later on?)

When he was a senior in high school, Richard was compared favorably to another recent Louisiana pitching prospect — Vida Blue. As Blue burst onto the scene with a dominating 1971 season for the Oakland Athletics, fans eagerly awaited Richard’s debut, too. The 21-year-old righty helped spur the anticipation by winning 12 games for Oklahoma City with 202 strikeouts. “I’d like to get to the majors as soon as possible,” Richard said. “But my time’s coming. I’ll be there. The Lord only knows when. But if I keep the faith, I’ll be there.”

Once the AAA season was done, Richard was called up to the big leagues. As far as major-league debuts go, Richard’s was one of the best in baseball history. Facing the San Francisco Giants on September 15, Richard threw a complete game and tied a record for most strikeouts in his first appearance with 15. He got Willie Mays and Dick Dietz 3 times each and Bobby Bonds twice. The Astros won 5-3, and baseball had a new phenom. Richard didn’t reach that same level in his other 3 starts, but he finished the year with a 2-1 record and a 3.43 ERA, with 29 K’s and 16 walks in 21 innings.

Richard came into 1972 without any specific goals in mind. “I just want to be a great pitcher. That’s the only important thing,” he said. “I’m not too particular about being a strikeout pitcher or a control pitcher. You can’t strike out everybody, and you can’t put the ball where you want it every time. The most important part is being good, which I’m always working on.”

Incredibly, Richard’s initial major-league success didn’t give him any kind of leverage in gaining a major-league roster spot. To be fair, Houston did have a very good starting rotation, with Don Wilson and Larry Dierker as the aces, along with the likes of Jerry Reuss, Bob Forsch and Dave Roberts. Still, Richard spent most of ’72 back in Oklahoma City. He only made brief appearances with the Astros, including a 3-inning start in July and a few relief outings in August and September. He allowed 9 runs in 6 innings, with 8 strikeouts and 8 walks.

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame

It was the same story in 1973. Richard somehow did not merit consideration for the starting rotation and once again started in the minors — this time the Denver Bears of the American Association. He didn’t fare particularly well there, but the Astros called him to the majors in mid-June to fill out their rotation. He was used as a swingman until he shut out the Dodgers on August 1, allowing 5 hits and striking out 9. After that, manager Leo Durocher kept him in the rotation for the rest of the season. He had a couple of rough spots, but he was mostly hard to hit. He took a perfect game unto the sixth inning against Pittsburgh on August 20 before settling for a 10-2, complete-game 2-hitter. He struck out 9, and the Pirates’ excellent hitters vouched for his stuff.

“It looked like he was right on top of me,” said slugger Willie Stargell, who was 0-for-4 with 4 strikeouts. “The last time up I said I’m gonna make him throw me a strike, and he did — right on by me. He’s liable to start a forest fire with that smoke.”

“We’ve got a lot of reports on this guy,” added Al Oliver, who had the only two hits for the Pirates. “I’ve heard about him and now I’ve seen him and everything I’ve heard about him is true. He’s fantastic.”

By this point, the only team that apparently didn’t see Richard’s potential greatness was his own team, the Houston Astros. Despite the fact he finished 1973 with a 6-2 record, 4.00 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 72 innings (before dislocating his right shoulder in a motorcycle accident, ending his season), he once again started 1974 in the minor leagues. When he did come back to the majors in July, he was used as an ineffective reliever before he was given 9 starts. His control seemed to be the biggest problem.

“This is a boy who hasn’t thrown the ball as well as he did last season,” Astros manager Preston Gomez said of the 24-year-old Richard in spring training. “When he puts everything together you’re gonna see a great pitcher.”

Finally, in 1975, the Astros put Richard in the starting rotation and left him there through the ups and downs. While his first full season as a major-leaguer wasn’t a great one (12-10 record, 4.39 ERA), it showed what you get when you have J.R. Richard in your rotation. Yes, his control was an issue and would be for a few more seasons. He led MLB with walks allowed (138) and wild pitches (20), and he would lead the NL in those categories three time each in his career. However, when he was on, he was incredibly tough to hit. He allowed just 178 hits in 203 innings, and a mere 8 of those hits were home runs. He also fanned 176 batters. If you’re willing to take the good with the bad, you had a rare talent that made some of the game’s best hitters look silly. But if you’re the Astros, you ignore the low hit rates, and high strikeout rates and the rave reviews and pay attention only to the walks. Of Richard’s 10 seasons in the majors, he was a full-time starter in just six of them. His life-threatening injuries cost him five or six seasons at the end of his career, but the Astros’ hesitation cost him two or three seasons at the start of of it, too.

I should also point out that one of the factors in keeping Richard in the majors was the tragic 1974 death of Don Wilson. It literally took a pitcher dying to make the Astros stick with Richard.

Richard had his first great season in 1976, when he was 20-15 with a 2.75 ERA, entering him into the exclusive “Black Aces” club (the fraternity of African-American 20-game winners, as coined by the late Mudcat Grant). He made 39 starts and completed 14 of them, throwing 291 innings. No other pitcher on the Houston staff threw more than 200 innings. He walked 151, but he also gave up just 221 hits (leading the league with 6.8 hits per 9 innings), so his WHIP was a pretty normal 1.278. He also had 214 strikeouts. His one shutout of the year was a 10-inning, 1-0 win against the Mets on July 6. Richard may have walked 10 Mets, but he worked his way out of every jam and stranded 15 baserunners until Houston’s Jerry DaVanon hit the game-winning single off Skip Lockwood in the bottom of the 10th inning. At the end of the season, Richard was recognized by the national media with a 7th-place finish in the Cy Young Award and even a few MVP votes as well.

Richard didn’t win 20 games again, but he continued to be a force of nature in the Astros’ pitching staff. He won 18 games in 1977 with 13 complete games. His walk rate dropped to 3.5 per 9 innings, and even when he wasn’t dominating, he was still very effective. On June 20, He allowed 8 hits against the Expos but also struck out 9 and hit his first home run of the season, leading Houston to a 6-3 win. “I threw 162 pitches, but that doesn’t bother me,” Richard said.

Richard won 18 games in both 1978 and 1979, and he also led MLB with 303 and 313 strikeouts, respectively. His fastball topped 100 miles per hour in a time where that was a rare feat. He also topped the leaderboards both seasons with hits allowed per 9 innings and strikeouts per 9 innings. When he whiffed Atlanta’s Rowland Office to lead off the second inning on September 28, 1978, he became the first right-hander in National League 20th-Century history to top 300 strikeouts. He broke the old record of righty strikeouts that Tom Seaver set in 1971 with 289 K’s. Richard felt good about the record, but he was happiest about what the achievement meant for others, including bringing recognition to the Astros and hope to others.

“I worked for it. I’ve earned everything I’ve ever had, nothing’s been given to me,” he said. “But I think I’ve been blessed. I was never poor black. I grew up middle class black. I’ve always been ambitious, willing to work hard.

“Not all kids can be a J.R. Richard or a Muhammad Ali,” he added. “That have to go at their own pace. But I’d be proud to set an example.”

As Richard noted, toiling away in Houston didn’t bring recognition to its star players. But National League hitters knew enough about him that some of the game’s top sluggers frequently called in sick on days where they were scheduled to face him. “There is not a pitcher that batters fear any more than J.R.,” said teammate Enos Cabell.

Richard finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 1978, and he topped it in ’79 when he finished in third place. He had an 18-13 record and led the majors with a 2.71 ERA. He also dropped his walk total to 98 — a career-best 3.0 per 9 innings — and had a career-high 19 complete games. On the occasion where he had to leave a game early, like after a 5-inning performance against the Cubs on April 26 because of a back strain — he was upset about it. “I like to go nine innings all the time, and every game I start I even think about going 10 innings. It makes you work that much harder and your stamina that much stronger,” he said.

“J.R. is the most feared pitcher in the game,” wrote columnist Jim Murray. “For one thing, he blots out the sunlight. His arms are so long they look collapsible and his hands comprise 40 percent of them. Some 300 schools were after him to play basketball, and some 400 major league batters wish he had.”

In 1980, Richard signed a four-year, $3.2 million contract with Houston. The team then signed free agent Nolan Ryan, giving them two of the most dominant pitchers in the game. Judging by the stats, Richard was on his way to maybe his best season ever. Through mid-July, He had a 10-4 record and a 1.90 ERA, with 4 shutouts. He was selected to start the All-Star Game — his first appearance in the Midsummer Classic — and threw 2 scoreless innings. He struck out Reggie Jackson, Carlton Fisk and a completely overmatched Steve Stone.

But something was wrong. Aside from the shutouts, Richard didn’t throw any other complete games, and as the summer wore on, he was leaving ballgames early, complaining of a tired arm. But whatever it was, it wasn’t affecting his speed, because he was still throwing as fast as he ever did.

Instead of wondering what was wrong with his arm, the Astros and baseball media tried to determine what was wrong with his head. Was he jealous of Ryan and the free-agent contract that he had signed? Richard had tried to put a stop to that rumor back in spring training. “I was happy we were getting a good pitcher like him,” he said in March. “You see, and this is the main point to understand, I had already signed. I had already gotten exactly what I wanted. I was happy then. I’m happy now.” He also noted that Ryan’s contract, which made him baseball’s first million-dollar player, could only help Richard when he became a free agent again.

People began to question Richard’s heart and his toughness. It didn’t help that Richard himself gave conflicting reports about his health. Shortly after the All-Star Game, he said he needed 30 days off to rest his arm, but then he started a game against Atlanta on July 14. When he left that game after 3-1/3 innings pitched, he initially blamed it on an upset stomach. A few days after that, he was put on the disabled list for muscle fatigue after a 22-minute bullpen session.

In the newspapers, he was frequently likened to another J.R. — Ewing, the fictional villain from the TV show “Dallas.” The show’s big cliffhanger moment was “Who shot J.R.?” when the character was shot by a mystery assailant. That was translated to the baseball world with “Who shot J.R.’s arm?” or “What’s wrong with J.R.?” The fact that he was so vague and private about his problems didn’t help matters, even among his teammates. Manager Bill Virdon seemed very understanding, but others were less so.

“Everybody’s been wondering just what the hell was going on. Now that we know he’s not going to be pitching, we can go play baseball,” said pitcher Joe Niekro.

Richard was given three days of testing at Methodist Hospital in Houston starting July 23. They found, reported writer Michael Madden, “an occlusion or blockage of the distal subclavian and axillary arteries on the right arm.” It was a blood clot in his pitching arm. Inexplicably, Dr. Harold Brelsford said that no surgical intervention was needed and that Richard “should be allowed to resume activities and work out under close control and observed conditions.”

So that’s just what happened. Richard was working out at the Astrodome on July 30 when he collapsed and was rushed back to Houston Methodist. He had suffered a stroke, and emergency surgery was needed to remove a blood clot in his neck artery. The clot, a hospital spokesman said, could have been “a life or death situation.”

“Something happened between July 25 and July 29. But what that was, I just don’t know,” said Dr. Brelsford.

J.R. Richard during his comeback efforts. Source: News Press, June 14, 1983.

Tom Reich, Richard’s agent, unloaded on everyone who had criticized Richard and his work ethic. “How in the name of God, could anybody conclude in light of J.R.’s endurance, in light of how many innings he has pitched over the years, in light of how many balls he has thrown, that he was faking? How could you ignore his track record? Over the last five years, how could it have been ignored? This was a great injustice. How could anyone conclude that J.R. was a dog? All the factual issues were lost. This was more like a crucifixion than anything I had ever seen. J.R. is a big, strong man and he’s a smart man, but he’s not a product of Madison Avenue, and I think he was overwhelmed by all this pressure.”

Others saw that race was a factor in it, too. “If Jay were white, maybe they would have checked him more thoroughly and maybe he wouldn’t have been out there throwing. Most black athletes play hurt, and he pitched when he was hurt,” said Cabell.

The stroke left Richard with partial paralysis on his right side, which he had to overcome. He then needed an 18-hour thoracic outlet syndrome to replace a portion of an artery that had been pinched by Richard’s overdeveloped muscles. He started throwing again in 1981 and pitched in Houston’s minors in 1982 and 1983. He had well-wishers from around the world, and even if he occasionally frustrated reporters by keeping his inner thoughts to himself, he was very public about his faith, which he said was instilled at an early age when his mother made him go to the local Baptist church every Sunday.

“After the stroke, there were doctors who said I would never pitch again. You can’t always believe what others tell you,” he said in 1982. “The biggest thing right now is for me to keep the faith.”

Richard had some success in the low minors but struggled against higher-level competition. His last pitches were thrown with the Rookie League Gulf Coast Astros in 1983. He was officially released by Houston in March of 1984, after trying out in spring training as a non-roster player. His fastball was no longer the remarkable weapon it had been, and his slowed reflexes on the mound presented more of a danger to his health. He later sued the doctors who told him he could return to working out and received an out-of-court settlement. Initially after his retirement, he spent some time working in drug rehab clinics and even tried out for the Senior Professional Baseball Association in 1989. But mostly the very private Richard dropped out of sight.

Richard played for 10 seasons and finished with a 107-71 record and a 3.15 ERA. He struck out 1,493 batters in his career and walked 770. He made a total of 221 starts in 238 appearances, and he threw 76 complete games and 19 shutouts. His career WHIP is 1.243, and his ERA+ is 108. Richard was also a career .168 hitter, with 10 home runs and 50 RBIs. All total, Baseball Reference has him at 22.2 Wins Above Replacement. Add five more years to the end of his career, and you’re looking at a Hall of Fame pitcher.

In January 1995, it was reported that Richard had spent parts of the last two years living under a bridge in Houston. A couple of divorces and some bad business deals left him broke and cost him his house. When he couldn’t live with friends, he was homeless. At the time of the report, he was living in an apartment with his current wife and son while working for an asphalt company. His old teammates like Cabell, Bob Watson and Jimmy Wynn tried to get him help, though Richard would later maintain that he got no help from Major League Baseball or anyone associated with it. He was able to work up from that low point and became a minister in his church. He chronicled his life story in the 2015 book, Still Throwing Heat.

“Today is a sad day for the Houston Astros as we mourn the loss of one of our franchise icons, J.R. Richard,” the Astros said in a statement. “J.R. will forever be remembered as an intimidating figure on the mound and as one of the greatest pitchers in club history.”

After looking over a decade’s worth of news articles, I never saw any evidence that Richard was lazy or selfish. Aside from the usual pitcher maladies that caused him to have the rare early exit — a tweaked back muscle here, a blister there — Richard only had two significant injuries in his career prior to 1980. One was the dislocated shoulder, and the other was the blood clot in his leg. While nobody is perfect and not every scandal gets reported by the media, every indication was that Richard was remarkably unremarkable. Whatever faults he may have had, Richard didn’t complain about injuries, he didn’t trash his teammates publicly and he didn’t miss starts.

It’s unfair that Richard was portrayed in such a poor light, and if he comes across as bitter or cynical in later interviews, he had reasons for it. His team, which should have put his health above anything else, let him participate in workouts after he was diagnosed with a blood clot. The doctors who were supposed to look for his best interest gave him terrible medical advice. Some of his teammates dismissed him, the media that built him up promptly tore him down, and business associates swindled him. It seems like so many of the struggles that Richard had from 1980 right up to his death from COVID-19 were a series of dominoes. If someone stopped Richard from working out with a blood clot, that first domino never falls. It will go down as one of baseball’s biggest “what ifs.”

For information about COVID-19 and the facts about vaccinations: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

For more information: ESPN

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