One of my favorite things to do is to sit and talk about players from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s with my father. He’s the reason I became such a big baseball fan in the first place and the amount of information he knows about these players is extraordinary.
For instance, I could name a random player whose name I just happened to have seen tweeted – more than likely by Andy – and my dad will know what position he played, which side he batted from or pitched from, depending on the player and will rattle off all the teams he played for. He’ll even mention if they were traded and who they were traded for. Sometimes I sit there with my mouth agape because of his ability to know that much about guys who haven’t played – in some cases – in fifty years.
This was the case a few days ago when we were watching one of those MLB Network Countdown shows together. The one we caught was a countdown of the Top 30 Most Intimidating Players. Players that all baseball fans know like David Ortiz, Nolan Ryan, Darryl Strawberry and Mariano Rivera were on the list. In fact, I knew all 30 players except for one.
When they got to number eight, the name wasn’t ringing a bell at all. Most of the people on the list are Hall of Famers, will be Hall of Famers or just missed being Hall of Famers. Of course, when my dad saw J.R. Richard appear on the screen, he said, “I remember J.R. Richard! He threw a 98 m.p.h. slider!” I gasped at the thought of a 98 m.p.h. slider, wondered if my dad was actually remembering correctly and then laughed at him for being a diehard Yankee fan who remembered a guy who played for the Houston Astros from 1971-1980.
Turns out my dad was right. Richard was once clocked throwing a 98 m.p.h. slider. That’s just ludicrous.
Players like Hall of Famer Dave Winfield were talking about Richard and how afraid they were to face him. Winfield, who was on the Padres back then, mentioned how uncomfortable Richard would make players in the box.
Right after Richard’s segment ended, I decided to look him up and this is what I found:
J.R. Richard – not to be confused J.R. Richards of Dishwalla – was drafted by the Astros in 1969 in the second round. He made his debut September 5, 1971 but didn’t begin to make an impact until the 1975 season when he went 12-10 with a 4.39 ERA, 179 strikeouts and 138 walks in 203 innings of work. Not exactly barn-burning numbers. Those would happen in 1978 and 1979.
Richard was 18-11 in 1978 with 303 strikeouts in 275.1 innings. His SO/9 was 9.9 that season – he led the league in that stat. The following year Richard went 18-13 with a 2.71 ERA, 1.088 WHIP, 313 strike outs in 295.1 innings and a SO/9 of 9/6. That strikeout total is still the all-time record for the Astros.
Sadly, in the 1980 season, just as Richard was establishing himself as an elite pitcher, he suffered a stroke at the age of 30 and never made it back to Majors. He pitched his last game for Astros on July 14, 1980 against the Atlanta Braves. At the time of his removal from the game, Richard had pitched 3.1 innings and had only give up one hit and one walk. He also had struck out four batters.
Richard stated afterward that he was having trouble seeing the catcher’s signs and had felt his arm go dead. Also that his fingers were numb and he couldn’t grip the ball.
He suffered his life-altering stroke while playing catch before a game in the Astrodome on July 30, 1980. His doctors ended up removing a blood clot from his neck later that night, ultimately saving his life.
Richard would attempt a comeback in 1981 but the stroke altered his depth perception and his reaction time had slowed – two things that are not good for pitchers or ballplayers in general. After toiling in the minors for a couple of years, the Astros released Richard in 1984.
It was a sad ending for a pitcher who between 1976-1980 had led the National League in strikeouts two years, had won at least 18 games 1976-1979 and had led the league in earned run average in 1979. He had 10 wins at the time of his stroke. Richard also had 119 strikeouts in 113.2 innings, had a 1.90 ERA and 0.924 WHIP in that shortened 1980 season.
Some J.R. Richard facts:
- In 1978, he threw six complete games in an eight start period from April 26 to June 4.
- Also in 1978, along with leading the league in SO/9, he led the league in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.28), in walks (141), and unfortunately, wild pitches (16).
- Speaking of wild pitches, Richard set the record for most wild pitches in a game – six – against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1979.
Spoiler Alert: Randy Johnson was number one on the Most Intimidating list. He did kill a bird, after all.
(Now, I realize this isn’t your typical HHS post so I thought we could use the comments section to name and discuss other players whose careers were cut short – due to injury or other circumstances – just as they were establishing themselves as excellent baseball players.)