J.R. Richard, former Houston Astros All-Star pitcher, dies at 71, Richard was one of the best pitchers in baseball from 1975-1980

J.R. Richard, former Houston Astros All-Star pitcher, dies at 71, Richard was one of the best pitchers in baseball from 1975-1980
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Houston Astros legend J.R. Richard has passed away, the team announced Thursday. He was 71. Mark Berman of Fox 26 reports Richard passed away Wednesday night at a Houston hospital.

“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. He stood shoulder to shoulder with club icons Larry Dierker, Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan, to form a few of the best rotations in club history. Sadly, his playing career was cut short by health issues, but his 10 years in an Astros uniform stand out as a decade of excellence. We send our heartfelt condolences to J.R.’s wife, Lula, his family, friends and countless fans and admirers.”

“J.R. was one of my good friends,” longtime Astros teammate Jose Cruz said in a statement. “This is very sad to hear. I have great memories of J.R. He was one of the greatest Astros ever. When he was pitching, we knew that we were going to get a ‘W.’ I didn’t get too many balls hit to me in the outfield when he pitched because he was so dominating. He was a great friend and a great teammate. I send my condolences to his wife and kids”.   

Richard, a right-handed pitcher, was raised in Louisiana and he turned down multiple college basketball scholarships offers to pursue baseball after the Astros selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 1969 amateur draft. He reached the big leagues in 1971 and made a great first impression, striking out 15 batters in a complete game win over the Giants in his first MLB game on Sept. 5. The 15 strikeouts are tied with Karl Spooner for the most in an MLB debut.

It wasn’t until 1974 that Richard joined the rotation full-time and stuck in the big leagues for good. From 1975-80, he was simply one of the best pitchers in baseball. Richard had a 3.01 ERA in over 1,400 innings those seasons, and during his peak from 1976-79, Richard pitched to a 2.88 ERA and averaged 18.5 wins with 261 strikeouts and more than 280 innings per season. Richard is one of the last pitchers to post consecutive 300-strikeout seasons (303 in 1978 and 313 in 1979).

Richard was an All-Star in 1981 and he finished top 10 in the Cy Young voting in 1976 (seventh), 1978 (fourth), and 1979 (third). He also received MVP votes in 1976 and 1979.

At age 30, Richard’s career came to a premature end when he suffered a massive stroke during pregame warmups in the outfield in late July. He missed time earlier in the season with a blockage in an artery that caused his arm to go numb. Richard attempted several comebacks from 1981-83 but never did make it back to the big leagues.

By any measure Richard is one of the greatest pitchers in Astros history. He ranks among the franchise’s top 10 in just about every meaningful pitching category, including innings (1,606), wins (107), strikeouts (1,493), and WAR (23.1). Richard spent one year on the Hall of Fame ballot, receiving 1.6 percent of the vote in 1985, and he was inducted into the Astros Hall of Fame in 2019.

Following his playing career, Richard lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in a business scam, and also had to pay close to $1 million in a divorce settlement. He was homeless in 1994 and 1995, and lived under a highway overpass in Houston. In 1995, Richard became eligible to receive his MLB pension, and he became involved with a local church and other community endeavors.

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Houston Astros icon J.R. Richard, whose career was cut short by stroke in 1980, dies at age 71

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J.R. Richard, a two-time National League strikeout champion with the Houston Astros whose career was cut short in 1980 by a stroke, died Thursday at the age of 71, the team announced.

In 10 seasons with the Astros, Richard was 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA and 1,493 strikeouts — including 313 in 1979, which stood as the team’s single-season record until Gerrit Cole surpassed it in 2019. He still ranks tied for second in team history for career ERA, third in strikeouts — behind only Nolan Ryan and Roy Oswalt — and fifth in wins and shutouts (19).

“Today is a sad day for the Houston Astros as we mourn the loss of one of our franchise icons, J.R. Richard,” the team 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. He stood shoulder to shoulder with club icons Larry Dierker, Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan, to form a few of the best rotations in club history.”

The 6-foot-8 pitcher, who started the 1980 All-Star Game for the National League, was known for his 100 mph fastball as much as for his devastating breaking pitch. He won a career-high 20 games in 1976 — one of his three seasons with 18 or more wins. He led the NL with a 2.71 ERA in 1979, when he went 18-13 and had a 3.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 292⅓ innings over 38 starts.

“He had the greatest stuff I have ever seen,” Hall of Famer Joe Morgan once said, “and it still gives me goose bumps to think of what he might have become.”

Richard was playing catch during pregame drills inside the Astrodome when he suffered the stroke in July 1980.

The second pick of the 1969 MLB draft, Richard was inducted into the Astros’ inaugural Hall of Fame in 2020.

J. R. Richard

J. R. Richard
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Richard in 2013
Pitcher
Born: March 7, 1950
Vienna, Louisiana
Died: August 4, 2021 (aged 71)
Houston, Texas
Batted: Right Threw: Right
MLB debut
September 5, 1971, for the Houston Astros
Last MLB appearance
July 14, 1980, for the Houston Astros
MLB statistics
Win–loss record 107–71
Earned run average 3.15
Strikeouts 1,493
Teams
Career highlights and awards

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@j_r_richard

James Rodney Richard (March 7, 1950 – August 4, 2021) was an American professional baseball starting pitcher. He played in Major League Baseball for the Houston Astros from 1971 to 1980.

After graduating from high school, Richard was selected by the Astros as the second overall pick in the first round of the 1969 amateur draft. From the time he made his major league debut with the Astros in 1971 until 1975, Richard had a limited role as an Astros pitcher, throwing no more than 72 innings in a season. In 1975, Richard played his first full season in the majors as a starting pitcher.

From 1976 to 1980, he was one of the premier pitchers in the majors, leading the National League twice in strikeouts, once in earned run average, and three times in hits allowed per nine innings, winning at least 18 games a year between 1976 and 1979.  On July 30, 1980, Richard suffered a stroke and collapsed while playing a game of catch before an Astros game, and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to remove a life-threatening blood clot in his neck. His condition brought a sudden end to his major league career at the age of 30.  His 313 strikeouts in 1979 remained an Astros franchise record until Gerrit Cole surpassed it on September 24, 2019, and he held the team’s record for career strikeouts (1,493) until 1987. Two-time National League MVPs Johnny Bench and Dale Murphy both named Richard as the toughest pitcher they ever faced.

Early life

Richard was born to Clayton and Lizzie (née Frost) Richard in Vienna, Louisiana, and gained prominence in both baseball and basketball at historically black and since closed Lincoln High School in nearby Ruston. By the time he was a high school senior, Richard stood 6 feet 8 inches (2.03 m) tall and weighed 220 pounds (99.8 kg; 15.7 st). That year, he was one of the starting pitchers for Lincoln High School and did not concede a run for the entire season. In one game Richard hit four consecutive home runs while pitching his team to a 48–0 victory against its local rival, Jonesboro‘s Jackson High School. Richard, whose baseball idol was St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, never lost a game he started in his high school career.

Upon graduating from high school, he turned down more than 200 basketball scholarship offers to sign with the Houston Astros. The Astros would later select him with the second overall pick in the 1969 amateur baseball draft, behind the Washington Senators‘ selection of outfielder Jeff Burroughs.

Breakout season

Richard entered the 1976 season as the pitching staff ace and took over Larry Dierker’s position as the Opening Day starter for the Astros. In his first start of the season, Richard gave up four runs in four innings against the defending World Series champion Cincinnati Reds on April 8.  He followed this inauspicious beginning with wins in five of his next six decisions. One of them included a 10-inning shutout effort that led to a 16-inning 1–0 Astros victory against the Dodgers. By the end of May, however, Richard was sitting even with a 5–5 record, loser of four straight decisions. He closed the first half of the season by winning a 10-inning shutout against the Mets on July 6, and an eight-inning start against the Expos four days later.  At the All-Star break, Richard had a 9–9 record with a 2.88 ERA in over 153 innings of work.  From July 10 to August 31, Richard racked up eight complete games, including one shutout, and he improved his record from 9–9 to 16–13. He pitched 98 innings and yielded only 22 earned runs, which gave him an ERA of 2.02 during the approximately 50-day span.  On August 26, Richard hit his first home run of the season during the second inning of the game.  In his last game of the season on October 2, Richard pitched a complete game 13-strikeout performance, and he also hit a two-run home run in the sixth inning.

Richard finished the season with a 20–15 record, 14 complete games, three shutouts, and 214 strikeouts in 291 innings of work. At age 26, Richard became only the second pitcher in Astros’ history (after Dierker in 1969[48]) to record 20 wins in a season, tying him for fourth in the NL that year.  Richard also became the ninth member of the Black Aces, an organization founded by Mudcat Grant that consists of all African American pitchers who have won at least 20 major league games in a season. He was named the most valuable player (MVP) of the Astros by the Houston chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA). Richard finished 17th in MVP Award voting and seventh in the NL’s Cy Young Award voting.  His 2.75 ERA was the seventh-best among the league’s starting pitchers, and he held hitters to a 0.212 batting average. He led the league in lowest number of hits allowed per nine innings and in walks allowed; Richard also finished the season second in batters faced, innings pitched and games started. In addition, he led all NL pitchers with 14 hits, two home runs, and nine runs batted in as a hitter. However, during the year he committed ten errors and finished with an 0.853 fielding percentage, nearly 0.100 lower than the league average.

Record-setting year

Richard entered the 1978 season as the Astros’ Opening Day starter. In the first game of the season, he gave up seven runs on 11 hits and just made it into the fifth inning before being replaced in a loss to the Cincinnati Reds. He recovered from the loss by pitching a complete game two-hit shutout in his next outing against the Dodgers.  In an eight-start period from April 26 to June 4, Richard threw six complete games, including two back-to-back shutouts, and lowered his ERA from 4.15 to 3.05. He struck out 67 and gave up only 39 hits in the 63 total innings he pitched. On a June 9 start against the Cardinals, Richard struck out 12 batters but also walked six and gave up five earned runs. By the end of the first half of the season Richard had pitched back-to-back games with nine and 12 strikeout performances, against the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively.  At the All-Star break, he had an 8–9 record with a 3.49 ERA but also had 157 strikeouts in 139 innings of work.

After the break, Richard threw an 11-inning, 10-strikeout game against the Expos and followed with two complete games and another nine-inning performance in a game that went into extra innings. He was selected as the National League Pitcher of the Month after going a perfect 4–0 with a 1.29 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 56 innings during July. Throughout much of August, his season ERA hovered below 3.00, and he averaged well over a strikeout per inning. On August 21, in an 8–3 victory over the Chicago Cubs, he broke Don Wilson’s 1969 club record of 235 strikeouts. In the final two months of the season, Richard’s strikeout average dramatically increased, and he struck out a double-digit number of batters in three of his last five starts.  In his third-to-last start, Richard broke Tom Seaver‘s NL record of 290 strikeouts by a right-hander when he struck out Bob Horner. In his final outing of the season, Richard reached the 300-strikeout pinnacle by striking out Rowland Office in a September 28 victory over the Braves. He also hit his seventh career home run, making him the Astros’ career leader in home runs by a pitcher.  At that time, he became only the tenth pitcher, third National Leaguer and first NL right-hander in history to strike out more than 300 batters in a single season.

Richard finished the season with 18 wins, 11 losses and a 3.11 ERA. He led the team’s pitching staff in innings pitched, starts, complete games, shutouts, hits allowed, earned runs, walks allowed and strikeouts. He held batters to a .156 batting average at home and a .196 average overall, which was the lowest in the NL. Richard again fared well in the field, finishing with three errors and a 0.957 fielding percentage, slightly higher than the 0.950 league average. He finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting, behind Gaylord Perry, Burt Hooton and Vida Blue. He finished atop the league in strikeouts per nine innings (9.90), fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.28), walks (141), and wild pitches (16).

1980 season and stroke

By now Richard was among the best pitchers in baseball. When asked in 2012 who was the “toughest pitcher to get a hit off of” during his career, Dale Murphy answered “Anybody that played in the late 70’s or early 80’s will probably give you the same answer: JR Richard”. In 1980, Richard was now teamed with seven-time American League strikeout champion Nolan Ryan, who had joined the Astros as a free agent. During the first half of the season, Richard was virtually unhittable, starting the year with five straight wins, 48 strikeouts (including two starts with 12 and 13 strikeouts), and a sub-2.00 ERA. He was named National League Pitcher of the Month for April. At one point, Richard threw three straight complete-game shutouts, two against the Giants and one against the Cubs. On July 3, he broke Dierker’s team record of 1487 career strikeouts in a 5–3 win over the Braves; it was to be Richard’s last major league victory. After finishing the first half of the season with a 10–4 record, 115 strikeouts and a 1.96 ERA, Richard was selected to be the National League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game on July 8, but he pitched just two innings due to various back and shoulder problems. As the season progressed, Richard began to complain of a “dead arm”, citing discomfort in his shoulder and forearm. His concerns fell on deaf ears. Some in the media even interpreted these complaints as whining or malingering, citing Richard’s reputation for moodiness. Others hypothesized that Richard was egotistical and could not handle the pressure of pitching for the Astros, while others suggested he was jealous of Ryan’s $4.5 million contract.

During his next start on July 14 against the Braves, Richard was pitching well and even struck out the side in the second inning, but had trouble seeing catcher Alan Ashby‘s signs and also had difficulty moving his arm. He left the game in the fourth inning after throwing a fastball and feeling his right arm go “dead”. He had numbness in the fingers of his right hand and could not grasp a baseball. The Astros placed Richard on the 21-day disabled list.  As it turned out, it would be his last major league game.

Nine days later, he checked into Methodist Hospital in Houston for a series of physical and psychological tests to determine the cause of his mysterious arm problems. An angiogram revealed an obstruction in the distal subclavian and axillary arteries of the right arm. Richard’s blood pressure in his left arm was normal but pressure was nearly absent in his right arm due to the completely obstructed artery. On July 25, however, the arteries in his neck were studied, and the doctors reached a conclusion that all was normal and no surgical treatment needed to be performed.

On July 30, Richard went to see a chiropractor who rotated his neck to fix the flow of blood in his upper torso region. Later that day, Richard was participating in warm-ups before the game when he suffered a major stroke and collapsed in the outfield. Before the stroke, he had a headache and a feeling of weakness through his body. Eventually, that progressed into vision problems and paralysis in the left side of his body. A massive blockage in his right carotid artery necessitated emergency surgery that evening. An examination by neurologist William S. Fields showed that Richard was still experiencing weakness in his extremities and on the left side of his face. He also had blurred vision through his left eye. A CAT scan of Richard’s brain later showed that Richard had experienced three separate strokes from the different obstructions in his arterial system. Furthermore, the arteries in his right arm were still obstructed. Later examinations showed that Richard was suffering from extensive arterial thoracic outlet syndrome. While pitching, his clavicle and first rib pinched his subclavian artery. As a result of this problem, Richard would feel normal for the first few innings of the game but after putting repeated pressure on his subclavian artery, his arm would start to ache in pain and eventually start to feel “heavy”. His wife at the time, Carolyn, told reporters, “It took death, or nearly death, to get an apology. They should have believed him.” Richard underwent rehabilitation and missed the rest of the season.

Richard became involved in the Houston community, working with local financial donors to help establish baseball programs for children.  A small-budget 2005 movie, Resurrection: The J. R. Richard Story, depicted Richard’s baseball career as well as his life after baseball. Along with former major leaguers Dick Allen, Mudcat Grant, Kenny Lofton, and Eddie Murray, Richard was honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as a 2018 member of the “Hall of Game.”[94] Richard was inducted into the Baseball Reliquary‘s Shrine of the Eternals in 2019.

Richard died in a Houston hospital on August 4, 2021.

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Vida Blue
Rick Reuschel
National League Pitcher of the Month
July 1978
September 1979 & April 1980
Succeeded by
Kent Tekulve
Steve Carlton

 

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