News broke yesterday of the passing of Houston Astros legend, pitcher J.R. Richard, who played for the Astros from 1971-1980. It would have been even longer, and almost certainly Hall of Fame worthy, had it not been for an unfortunate stroke in 1980 that brought his shining career to a sudden end.
I could pore over his stats and cite his back to back 300 K seasons, his 20 game win season, his numerous accomplishments, or summarize his life for you, but you could just as easily go to his Baseball-Reference page or Wikipedia page for that.
Forty-one years after his last major league game, I never had the privilege of watching J.R. pitch outside of highlight videos. In fact, none of the TCB writing staff, save bilbos and Clack, are old enough to remember seeing him play.
So instead, I’ll turn it over to those in the Crawfish Boxes community who were fortunate to have seen the greatness of J.R. Richard in their youth.
When James Rodney Richard came onto the baseball scene in Houston, I was in elementary school and already obsessed with baseball. I had my favorite Astros players and had already developed an intense dislike of some opposing teams and players - but this giant of a young pitcher might be something special. At least that’s what Dad and Grandpa said, and being a pre-adolescent, I still listened to them. So I eagerly looked forward to begging Dad to go see him pitch, or looking to see if the game was to be broadcast, and then begging Mom to allow me to watch it. Most of the time neither relented when it was a weekday game, so the tried and true radio-under-my-pillow trick allowed me to listen to the call of J.R. Richard on the mound.
I only got to see him pitch in person at the Astrodome a few times. As a kid, the most vivid things in my mind were how huge a man he was, and how in the world could someone throw a baseball that hard? I mean, grown men all around me were marveling, too. This was nuts. I hated striking out when I played and this guy was punching out professional hitters seemingly at will.
Some may recall the famous Johnny Bench trick where he could hold 7 baseballs in one hand. Johnny Bench was a giant on the Big Red Machine so his ability was well-known across the country after he demonstrated it in commercials and on late-night TV shows. Not known as well is that J.R. Richard could hold 8 baseballs in one hand.
Eight baseballs? Imagine what that does to an Astros-obsessed kid’s mind? That guy must be some kind of god!
Well, from 1977 to 1980 J.R. Richard was every bit as much of a baseball god as any pitcher in the game. 6’8” with long arms and a long stride to the plate, pumping 98-101 MPH gas and sliders at 93-94 MPH, back in the day when a major-league fastball was around 90 MPH, he was the epitome of old-school, “Here’s what I got and I bet I’m a bigger man than you.”
The vast majority of the time in those seasons, he was right.
Growing up in Houston in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s tough to say but the city’s sports fans had an inferiority complex when it came to Los Angeles. They won. We didn’t. Heck, the Astros had NEVER made the playoffs in the history of the franchise. It was... unpleasant. Yet, J.R., with his domination of the Dodgers, gave us hope that one day it could happen. Then after narrowly missing the playoffs in 1979, the Astros acquired some guy named Ryan. The buzz among my baseball team pals and on sports radio was that 1980 was going to be OUR year. The Astros were finally going to make the playoffs - and they did!
41 years later, I’ll still stand on anyone’s table and let all in the room know if James Rodney Richard were in that playoff rotation, the Phillies and Royals would have been helpless. They would have watched the Astros win a World Series title before they did. Broke my young teen heart when I read in the Houston Post about his stroke.
What a tragedy for him and for Astros baseball. J.R. suffered through some very difficult times after his failed return to the game. His becoming sober and turning his life around to impact so many in Houston who suffered from addiction and homelessness as well as his being accepted back into the Astros baseball family was wonderful to behold. He got knocked around a bit but he finished his game strong.
Like an Ace.
J.R. Richard is the guy most responsible in my eyes for helping turn Astros fans like me from hopeful, even if irrationally so, to expectant. It’s what utterly dominant Ace pitchers do for a ballclub and its fans. J.R. Richard was the first truly dominant Ace in my time as an Astros fan. I’ll never forget my youthful admiration for his talent and skill.
God bless and Rest In Peace, James Rodney.
I first became aware of J.R. Richard in 1976 when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I’ve been an Astros fan as long as I can remember, but as a Navy brat I was living in San Diego at the time. At the time there was no ESPN or internet, so I got my information from box scores in the San Diego Tribune or Baseball Digest.
The first time I saw him pitch was in San Diego in August 1976. My Little League team went to the game. J.R. pitched a complete game and took the loss. He walked 9 and struck out 8. Willie McCovey hit a home run off of J.R. that day. I started following J.R. as best I could and was impressed that he won 20 games. I could not believe how big he was and became a huge fan.
I remember in 1980 when he started having problems there were whispers that he was just being lazy and making excuses. When J.R. had his stroke I was saddened and in disbelief. I’ve always wondered what he could have accomplished personally and what the team could have accomplished had he been diagnosed sooner and not had the stroke.
RIP James Rodney Richard.
I remember watching him pitch his first game as a rookie. I was still in high school. It was against the Giants in San Francisco. The game was televised (not all games were televised then… as I recall, it was a Sunday game, which were more likely to be televised). He was shockingly dominant (15 K, 7 H complete game), striking out batter after batter (as well as walking batters). The opposing team had iconic hitters like Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, Dave Kingman, George Foster. You knew the Astros had someone special. Remember that league strikeout rates were much lower then. It set expectations so high, but J.R.’s career started erratically. He walked a lot of batters, and sometimes got into trouble after 5 or 6 innings. (In retrospect, this is typical of young hard throwing pitchers.) He was a tantalizing talent, but it took a few years for him to emerge as a star.
What is really memorable is his 1980 All Star game appearance. He completely blew away the batters. AL star hitters had never seen anything like it. The baseball world was stunned. The national audience became aware that he was an unworldly talent. Unfortunately. the stroke ended his upward spiral into greatness.
I never saw him with the Astros. But I saw him pitch in his rehab stint with the AAA Tucson Toros. (Editor: In 1982 during his comeback attempt) What I really remember is him warming up in the bullpen. A lot of people crowded around to watch; it was like seeing some legendary old war machine coming to life. He threw harder and harder, until one pitch went BOOM in the catcher’s mitt and the crowd let out its collective breath in a prolonged “Ahhhhhhh”.
RIP Mr. Richard. The ‘pen has it from here.
I saw him pitch at the Dome several times. When he pitched, the ball sounded different when it hit the catcher’s mitt. Like when a pro golfer hits a ball off the tee it makes a different sound than produced by us mere duffers. Watching J.R. was an experience.
And then I was there the last game before the stroke.
The tired arm story had been emerging and he was off that night. The crowd was impatient as we had no idea what was wrong. A tired arm? What the hell did that mean? (Especially in 1980). I really felt bad for dissing him when the next day (or two) he had the stroke. I had been through that with my dad a few years earlier and should have known better. Except my dad was about 30 years older than J.R.
One thing that gets lost about his last game before the stroke was they were playing the Braves and Phil Niekro pitched an amazing game – a one or two hitter if I remember right.
The “tired arm” story began midway through his amazing 1980 season. Al Yellon, managing editor of Cubs SBNation site Bleed Cubbie Blue, dug up this old scorecard he filled out, attending an Astros-Cubs game on June 17, 1980.
Richard was masterful, striking out 8, and allowing just 1 run on 2 hits, but left after just 5 innings. Prior to this game, he had routinely gone 7 to 9 innings in almost every start on just 4-5 days rest between each. This game could be seen as the beginning of the end of his career. His next 3 and final starts of his career, came over the course of 27 days and he would pitch just 3.1, 6.0 and 3.1 innings.
Al was able to dig up the Chicago Tribune recap of this Astros game. Richard told reporters afterwards “I felt tired early.”
It is clear now in retrospect, that these were precursor symptoms, but many cynically thought he was malingering or even faking it, and were unsympathetic. He collapsed in the outfield during warmups a month and a half later on July 30, 1980 from a stroke. Despite a comeback attempt in 1982 and 1983, it would end his baseball career at the peak of its prime, for a player head and shoulders above the rest, both literally and figuratively.
He was frightening in a Big Unit kind of way. Batters were terrified to face him; he was throwing gas and 100 on the radar gun was not a weapon in every team’s arsenal. He looked like a grown man staring down a child when he was on the mound. And yeah, anytime he toed the rubber you felt like a 20K no-hitter was possible, even if it took 140 pitches and six walks. But even players who got a base on balls felt like they lost a few years off their life taking those pitches. And I remember the sound the ball made hitting the mitt, even on a sh*tty small TV speaker…WHAPPP!!
I haven’t checked yet but I’ll bet there are players from that era who will post that he was the best pitcher they ever saw. And that would not be hyperbole.
Among those who felt he was the best pitcher they ever saw was Dusty Baker:
J.R. was only throwing from about 50 feet... his reach, and he was all legs. You didn’t really have much time to make up your mind, plus he was a little bit wild, and you didn’t really feel comfortable in the box. People ask me who was the toughest guy I ever faced, and he was the toughest guy I ever faced.
Rest in Peace, J.R. Richard. The Crawfish Boxes misses and remembers you.