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Sports Then and Now

The J.R. Richard Story: From Unhittable to Homeless

Posted on October 19, 2009 by Blaine Spence

J.R. Richard was 107-71 with 1,493 strikeouts when his career was cut short by a stroke.

J.R. Richard was 107-71 with 1,493 strikeouts when his career was cut short by a stroke.

The amazing thing about J.R. Richard was that he could throw a baseball hard, really hard. One of Richard’s pitches was once clocked at 98 miles per hour. Oh, did I fail to mention that this particular pitch was his slider? His fastball was regularly gunned in the triple digits, and on more than one occasion reached 103 mph.

Born to parents Clayton and Lizzie back on March 7 in the year of our lord 1950, it didn’t take long for James Rodney Richard to figure out he liked sports. It also didn’t take long for him, and the surrounding communities, to realize he excelled at them.

Basketball and baseball were the two sports that quickly showcased Richard’s physical gifts.

As a pitcher, imagine not losing a single high school game for your career, and not giving up a single run in your senior year. How about hitting four consecutive jacks, and in the same game pitching your team to a 48-0 shellacking of your opponent?

His basketball prowess was such that Richard entertained offers of scholarships from nearly every elite college program in the country. He turned every one of them down flat.

Instead, he would sign an offer from the Houston Astros to play professional baseball.

The Astros were enamored enough with Richard’s high school production, as well as his physical tools (Richard stood 6’8’’ and weighed 220 pounds as a senior in high school), to make him the second overall selection in baseball’s amateur draft held in 1969.

Like many young pitchers, Richard spent the better part of the next two years toiling in the minors. The strikeouts were amassing quickly, but also like many young pitchers, mechanics had to be perfected and control had to be tamed.

Richard made his Major League debut with the Astros on Sept. 6, 1971 at the tender age of 21.

He was asked to take the mound for the second game of a doubleheader against the San Francisco Giants—a team that included Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Bobby Bonds.

All Richard did was strike out 15 Giants, including Willie Mays thrice. He picked up the win, and tied a 17-year-old record for strikeouts in a debut for a starting pitcher.

After Richard’s auspicious debut, he found himself again contending with control problems.

He split time between the major league and the minor league until 1975, when he finally became a fixture of the Astros pitching staff for the next five-and-a-half seasons.

Two of the best strikeout pitchers of their era, J.R. Richard and Nolan Ryan were teammates for half a season before Richard's career ended suddenly.

Two of the best strikeout pitchers of their era, J.R. Richard and Nolan Ryan were teammates for half a season before Richard's career ended suddenly.

While winning 20 games in 1976, and 18 games in each season from 1977 thorough 1979, Richard became a strikeout machine. Using his blistering fastball and his equally effective slider, he won the single season strikeout title in both 1978 and 1979, ringing up 303 and 313 batters, respectively.

In the 1980 season, Richard was named to his first All-Star Game. Before the break he was just flat-out gas—three straight complete-game shutouts, 10 victories, 110 strikeouts, and an ERA of 1.96.

Soreness in his shoulder and back would limit Richard to only two innings pitched in the All-Star Game however; foreboding of things to come.

As Richard’s complaints of dizziness, blurred vision, and arm “deadness” escalated, so did the zetetic position of the Houston Astros organization, as well as that of the media.

Rumors of a lackadaisical attitude, drug use, and even jealousy of Nolan Ryan began to swirl about.

“You know what gets me, they talk about me faking!” said Richard. “I’d pitched five years in a row without missing a start, and they talking about me faking.”

Richard made one start after the All-Star Game, against the Atlanta Braves; he was pulled in the fourth inning after not being able to see his catcher’s signs due to blurred vision.

The Astros responded by placing Richard on the 21-day disabled list.

Richard still questions the indecision on the Astros part.

“Why wasn’t I taken to the hospital and diagnosed to see what was really wrong if I’d meant so much to the Houston Astros?”

On July 30, 1980, while tossing a ball around in the outfield prior to a game, Richard collapsed from what would later be identified as a stroke.

Blood flow in the major arteries in the right side of Richard’s neck had been completely restricted. A few hours later, life-saving emergency surgery was performed to restore blood flow to his brain.

J.R. Richard attempted to come back following his stroke, but never pitched in the majors following his stroke.

J.R. Richard attempted to come back following his stroke, but never pitched in the majors following his stroke.

To make matters worse, it was later discovered Richard had suffered no less than three strokes; he still suffered from arterial blockages in his right arm. He also was diagnosed with a condition known as arterial thoracic outlet syndrome.

In short, he could start a game feeling fine, but the constriction of blood would eventually cause the arm to numb.

After two years of therapy, another stint in the minors, and an almost complete recovery, Richard was ready to pitch in the majors once again.

However, fate would once again rear its ugly head.

There were complications from the 1980 surgery. By 1983, he was having severe pain in his right calf.

Originally, an artery from the calf had been harvested and placed in his neck. That left a synthetic replacement in his leg. The substitute section of artery had collapsed, necessitating an emergency surgical bypass.

Doctors now advised Richard the risk of further complications were so great, that pitching again was out of the question.

It was also apparent to many that Richard’s physical abilities had diminished.

The Astros released Richard in the spring of 1984, and the downward spiral of J.R. Richard’s life hit overdrive.

Richard lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in bad business investments, was divorced twice, lost his home, and in the winter of 1994, was found living under a Houston freeway underpass.

Enter Reverend Floyd Lewis of the New Testament Church of South Houston.

With Lewis’s help, guidance, and understanding, as well as a deeply rooted faith in God, Richard overcame homelessness and despair.

In time, Richard himself became a minister in the church. He and Lewis now spend countless hours helping the homeless and mentoring the area’s youth that need a guiding hand.

Richard is also involved in raising funds to help establish youth baseball leagues around the city of Houston. He firmly believes if kids are playing baseball, they won’t be joining gangs.

Of his many accomplishments, one of them he is most proud of is his membership in the exclusive club known as, “The 12 Black Aces.”

The group is comprised of the 12 African-American pitchers that have achieved 20 or more victories in a single season.

Others in the group include Don Newcombe, Bob Gibson, Vida Blue, and the founder of the group, James Timothy “Mudcat” Grant.

After all the man has been through, he does not dwell on the bad things that have befallen him.

“That’s hindsight, and that doesn’t do any good to sit here and dwell on what could (have) been,” said Richard. “It’s part of my past, and I’m trying to go further in life. I try to leave that alone and look at what’s in front of me.”

This philosophy is the foundation of his message when he serves as a motivational speaker around the country.

With that said, he still firmly believes if his career wasn’t cut short, he would be the all-time strikeout leader.

With 1,493 in his shortened career, who can blame him?

Blaine Spence is a regular contributor to Sports Then and Now.

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