There was a time when J.R. Richard was the scariest dude in baseball.
At 6-foot-8, the fire-balling right-hander would unfold his frame in sections before launching pitches. He would end up looking like he was six feet away instead of 60. Hitters would call in sick rather than face him.
Richard was intimidating, equipped with a fastball that touched 100 mph and a slider that would dive away from batters. He grew up in the Houston Astros minor league system, joining the big club for the first time in 1971 when he struck out 29 batters in 21 innings, including 15 in his Major League debut against the San Francisco Giants. By 1975, he was the centerpiece of the starting rotation.
He won 20 games in 1976 and 18 in each of the next three seasons. He led baseball in strikeouts with 303 in 1978 and 313 in 1979 when he posted a major league leading 2.71 earned run average.
Richard was 10-4 with a career-best ERA of 1.90 in 1980 when he started the All-Star Game for the National League and struck out three batters in two innings. But there was a problem. His stamina was not good. He felt fatigue in his right arm. He was struggling. There were whispers that he was lazy, shiftless, not hurt but rather just avoiding the workload expected of a frontline pitcher.
In his first start after the All-Star Game, he had all sorts of physical problems – lethargy, nausea, vision issues. He was lifted in the fourth inning and doctors discovered a clot blocking circulation in his pitching arm. I
Instead of operating, Richard was placed on the injured list and allowed to continue working out, hoping the condition would resolve itself. Instead of getting better, his symptoms got worse. There was ringing in his ear, more nausea, a loss of balance. Finally, he collapsed.
J.R. Richard had suffered a stroke.
He would never pitch for Houston again. He was released in 1983 and his life spiraled downward after that. There were failed business ventures and two divorces and he drifted into homelessness, living under a bridge in downtown Houston.
He eventually got help from the Baseball Assistance Team, which aids indigent former players. He found work in construction and later became a minister in a local church.
In 2019, the Astros saluted him with induction into the team’s Hall of Fame. It was a tribute to what he was and what he might have been.
Last week, J.R. Richard died. He was 71.