Flashback: J.R. Richard

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.)


Comments

Flashback: J.R. Richard — 155 Comments

  1. One of my favorites: KC Royals hurler Steve Busby. WAR from ’73 to ’75: 2.4, 6.2, 5.8. Arm trouble cut his season short in ’76. Did not pitch in ’77 and barely in ’78. So-so comeback year before being released in 1980. Couple relatively sad notes in the context of Baseball reality at play here. Although he was part of the Royals organization from 1972 to 1980, a club that made the playoffs in ’76-’78 and the fall classic in 1980, Busby never pitched in the post-season. KC played the Yanks fairly tough in three straight ALCS. Assuming Busby never got hurt and allowing for randomness, one could argue that the Royals get to at least one world series in that time span.

    • Busby may or may not have made a difference. However, in 1976, in a series decided in the bottom of the 9th of the penultimate game, the Royals best all-around player, Amos Otis, sprained his ankle trying to beat out a bunt for a hit leading off the bottom of the 1st in Game 1. This forced the Royals to scramble their OF, moving Al Cowens from RF to CF for the remainder of the series, and playing the normally platooned in LF Tom Poquette in RF and his platoon partner, Jim Wohlford in LF for games 2 and 3, and then to try Hal McRae in RF in Games 4 and 5 with Jamie Quirk DHing.

      As a young Royals fan in the 1970s (I was 7 in 1976, as I was born the same year as the Royals), I didn’t remember this fact, until I saw a replay of Chambliss’s HR and thought that the RF looked a lot shorter than I remembered Al Cowens, in fact he looked a lot like Hal McRae. Then I found out it was McRae and wondered why he was playing RF.

      As for 1977 maybe Busby would have helped, but Whitey’s fetish about starting all his lefties against the mostly LH hitting Yankee lineup makes me think it wouldn’t have mattered. Jim Colborn, who was a fine RH starting pitcher for the Royals that year didn’t even pitch in the ALCS. Andy Hassler, a hard throwing but erratic lefty got the start in Game 2 and Larry Gura, who had been the long man all year (6 regular season starts) got the start in Game 4.

  2. Following up with J.R. Richard and also in line with post #1, the Astros lost the NLCS in 1980 w/o Richard 3 games to 2, starting in those games were Ken Forsch, Nolan Ryan, Joe Niekro, Vern Ruhle and then Nolan Ryan again. One must believe that Richard would have had at least 1 start, if not 2 (and in 1980 he was putting together a year for the ages when he suffered the stroke). He certainly might have made a difference.

    In 1981, they lost the LDS to the Dodgers 3 games to 2. Starting pitchers were Ryan, Niekro, Bob Knepper, Ruhle, and Ryan again. Again would Richard had made a difference. Very possible. Note that the team that the Astros barely lost to in those series won the WS in each case.

    • Baseball history more than likely would have been altered significantly if Richard hadn’t suffered that stroke. The Astros could have been in two World Series and maybe even had won both, Richard, if his 1980 season continued on the trajectory it was heading toward, could have won the Cy Young. It’s sad to think about but on the other hand I am always fascinated by the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what could have beens’ in baseball more than any other sport because as much as it’s a team sport baseball’s really more about the individual players than any of the other major sports.

      • Another point….Ryan and Richard were two of the hardest throwing pitchers in the game. Niekro was a knuckleballer. I would hate to have been a batter facing that threesome in the playoffs. Talk about screwing up your timing!

        • I seem to remember the Astros trying to set up their rotation so that teams would face Niekro sandwiched between the two flame throwers. Looking at the schedule for 1980, it does seem that the rotation was generally Richard, Niekro, Ryan.

    • I was going to make the same point regarding those Astros playoff teams.

      But going even further, if JR could have continued with Houston thru 1986 and pitched well in those playoffs, that is another scenario that could have changed some rather famous/infamous baseball history.

  3. Welcome aboard, Stacey.

    You didn’t mention Don Drysdale or Bob Gibson on the list of intimidating players. But, I’m guessing both were there. If not, “we’ve got a problem, Houston” (to get back, tangentially, on topic).

  4. Welcome Stacey! J.R. Richard not ringing a bell… oh my, we certainly are dating ourselves; a little playful ribbing is in order, no doubt.

  5. The Astros seem to have been haunted by a distressing number of especially sad cases. In addition to J.R., there was Walt Bond, who contracted leukemia and died at age 30; Don Wilson, who died just short of age 30 in his garage of carbon monoxide poisoning; Dickie Thon, whose splendidly budding career was seriously derailed by a beaning when he was just 25,; Darryl Kile, a two-time All-Star as an Astro, who died suddenly of a heart attack while with the Cardinals….

      • You ever go to a game there? It was like playing in a large tomb. Admittedly, when I went it was on its last legs (mid 90s), but it was a horrible place to see a baseball game.

        • Amazingly, I have never been to the middle of the country. Only to the coasts and only to LA when visiting California so I’ve been to Dodger Stadium and to Anaheim.

          A lot of the places that were built in the sixties that hosted multiple sports seemed to be really terrible baseball stadiums.

        • I was from the northeast. Just getting out of the heat was worth the crappy park. My other memory is that the “grass” looked so weird from the higher seats. The seams formed this kind of optical illusion that made the whole thing look really deep. Weird.

    • Right, I was going to say Don Wilson, too. Wilson wasn’t as good as Richard and already seemed to be slowing a bit (whereas Richard was still in his prime), but it’s crazy that they lost those two pitchers so close together.

      There are varying accounts of how the Astros handled Richard, too. I’ve often read that they simply didn’t believe him about his arm problems and questioned his work ethic. I can’t confirm if that’s true, though.

    • Astros manager Larry Dierker had heart problem (I´m not sure what exactly was) while he was in the dugout. He fell to the floor and had to be taken to the hospital in the middle of the game. I remember Bagwell was taking his turn at bat, when suddenly everybody in the dugout went to Dierker´s aid. What a scare that was.

      • Related – the horrifying moment on opening day in Cincinnati several years ago when the home plate umpire suffered a fatal heart attack on the field.

        The only thing I’ve ever seen more gruesome on any playing field were the incidents with Clint Malarchuk and Richard Zednik suffering catastrophic skate cuts to the throat in NHL games.

        • OK, looked him up… John McSherry. For some reason I thought it was Bruce Froemming, which would no doubt surprise Mr. Froemming a great deal.

          HOLY SMOKES… McSherry worked the plate for Dierker’s no-hitter. OK, that’s just a damned creepy coincidence.

    • Jimmy Wynn was stabbed nearly to death by his wife resulting in a horrifyingly bad 1971 season right in the middle of what was otherwise a ten or so year hall of fame quality run. Not a tragedy like the other examples but pretty messed up.

  6. He was one of my favorite pitchers growing up. I remember him appearing on two cards from the 1979 Topps set: A record breaker card (NL record for Ks by a righthander) and the Strikeout Leaders card with Nolan Ryan. I was amazed that Richard had 303 Ks, the most I had seen on a card outside of Nolan Ryan.

    I also remember that he was the tallest player in the league for a long time, standing at 6’8″. But you can’t talk about J.R. Richard, especially on a stats driven website, without mentioning his first start. As good as Strasburg was with his 14 K debut, Richard did him one better with 15 Ks in his debut (the most ever in a debut, tied with 1954’s Karl Spooner):

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SFN/SFN197109052.shtml

    • Incidentally, Richard would top his NL righty strikeout record the next season, with 313 Ks in 1979. Today, that is still the third most in NL history, behind two of Curt Shilling’s seasons: 319 in 1997 and 316 in 2002.

  7. Great first post, Stacey.

    Lyman Bostock would be another obvious example of a budding star whose career was cut short seemingly as we was entering his prime. In Bostock’s case he was murdered, but I’m sure you all know that.

    Bostock was actually nearing the end of a slighly disappointing first season with the Angels when the tragedy occurred. Plus, he may have been a tad over-rated as a high batting average guy who didn’t walk enough and didn’t have tremendous power. But, he certainly had star potential.

    • Add Ray Chapman to the list. A 29 year old SS who had a career 111 OPS+ when Carl Mays’ pitch ended his life. Since it was 1920, I would suspect some of his stats would have looked even better if he had played into the 20s (even if they weren’t better in actuality)

      Also, in a different way, what if the Judge had bought Buck Weaver’s story that he didn’t actually agree to throw the WS, even if he knew about the scheme? If Risberg gets thrown out for actually being dirty, you figure Weaver ends up back at SS, and his stats probably take a jump, given the rabbit ball (he batted a career high .332 in 1920)

      • And speaking of 1920, is there a book out there about the AL pennant race that year, because it has to be fascinating (and it would make a heck of a movie). The Indians won the pennant, after their SS is killed about 3/4 into the season by a pitch thrown by the best pitcher on the team that ends up 3rd (3 games out). It appears to me that Chapman had played in every inning of every game to that point in the season (and batted 2nd in every game). At the point Chapman is killed they are in first, tied with the ChiSox, the Yankees a half game back. They actually win the game in which he is killed, putting themselves in first by a half game (White Sox idle). Then they lose 2 of the remaining three to the Yankees and 3 of 4 to the Red Sox, putting the Indians 2 games behind the ChiSox and 1 ahead of the Yankees. (during that week, not only were they missing (obviously) Chapman, but Manager/CF Speaker as well. There doesn’t seem to be an injury to the Grey Eagle, so was he gone on team business, i.e. to attend to the funeral of Chapman??) From games 112-129 they play a guy named Lunte at SS (his OPS+ for the year is 18), then they switch to reserve outfielder Joe Evans for a few games. He could hit, but those are the only games in his career that he played SS. After trying those 2 players at SS, the Indians sit at 82-51 (in the 22 games after Chapman’s death they were 11-11), statistically tied with the White Sox for 2nd, a half game behind the Yankees. Then, they purchase the contract of 21 year old Joe Sewell from the Class A New Orleans Pelicans. He ends up hitting well the remainder of the season (116 OPS+), followed by a WS championship and a HOF career (all this from a guy who was 5’6″ and weighed 155).

        If that isn’t great enough, 2 of the 3 teams involved in that pennant race were vying for their 1st pennant of the WS era (the Indians and the Yankees) .

        But it gets better (or worse, depending on your perspective). At the end of the day on Monday, September 27, 1920, the Indians were 94-54, with 6 games to play, 2 against the 4th place Browns and 4 against the 7th place Tigers. They were a half game up on the White Sox, who were 95-56, and only had a 3 game series against the 4th place Browns left, starting that Friday. (at that point, the Yankees had fallen off the pace and were 3 games out, which is where they finished).

        By Friday, October 1, 2 major things had happened that affected the pennant race. First, while the ChiSox were idle the Indians had beaten the Browns twice, putting themselves up a game and a half on the ChiSox. But the second major thing was much worse for the ChiSox, the Black Sox scandal from the year before broke. Comiskey sat all the BlackSox remaining on the team (Cicotte, Williams, Risberg, Weaver, Jackson and Felsch) for the last series. They lost Friday to the Browns, while the Indians split a DH with the Tigers (putting them 2 up with 2 to play) and that was the pennant.

        • Also, Mike Sowell’s outstanding book about Chapman’s death — “The Pitch That Killed” — also covers the AL pennant race.

        • A late comment here: After back-up SS Harry Lunte was injured, the Indians replaced Chapman with Joe Sewell, just out of college and in his first professional minor league season. In spite of feeling inadequate to the task and naturally uneasy about the whole situation for reasons unnecessary to detail, Sewell put up numbers very close to Chapman’s down the home stretch and went on to fame (for seldom striking out) and the Hall of Fame.

          I don’t have the book in front of me, but Bill james in the revised HBA relates how Sewell willed himself to succeed in his difficult situation by in essence pretending to be Ray Chapman.

          • Brent: sorry, didn’t spot your mention of Sewell, in that long paragraph—old age creeping in. My comment does flesh it out a little.

    • Sam McDowell I believe drank himself out of baseball after posting a couple of 300 strikeout years by age 27. He was also Ryanesque with a ton of walks (155, 132, 131), and lead the league in wild pitches 3x.

    • That’s not correct Dan. He had a bad start to his 78 season but he recovered after a couple of months and put up great numbers the rest of the season. When he was struggling at the beginning, he tried to give a portion of his salary back to the Angles owner (Autry?) but the guy wouldn’t accept it, so Bostock instead donated it to charity.

      And over-rated, no. The guy was already one of the best hitters in the game, and he’d only had 2 or 3 full seasons. Gene Mauch said he was a sure bet to win future batting titles, and Rod Carew said he had a stronger desire to do so than even he did.

      • Well, considering I said *slightly* disappointing and *might* have been a *tad* over-rated, I hardly think I was being critical of the guy.

        That said, the entire season is the entire season and his 1978 was nowhere near as good as his 1977, which was a tough standard to live up to, I realize. And, even as recently as the late ’70s, far too much emphasis was placed on batting average as an evaluation of a hitter’s ability, so I think it was possible he was a little over-rated.

        • Well, you fail to mention that he was with a new team and was then one of the highest paid players in baseball, so there were tremendous expectations on him. If Pujols can struggle with the Angels, then I think we can give Bostock a little leeway for two months or so.

          Bostock was not over-rated I guarantee you. He was a tremendous defensive center fielder and a pure hitter.

          • Jim – I think you’re definitely overstating the case for Bostock. Obviously he was talented but it’s doubtful that he was a future HOFer (which seems to be what you’re implying). I looked for a match for what Bostock had done through age 27 and the best match I found was Ken Griffey Sr. I matched on Total WAR, batting average, and lack of home run power. In looking at what each of them did through age 27, I’d say they’re very good matches. (similarity score puts them at 965). Interestingly both Bostock and Griffey hit exactly .336 in their age 26 seasons.

            As for Bostock being a tremendous defensive center fielder, two points:

            1) advanced defensive stats don’t agree
            2) neither the Twins not the Angels used him exclusively as a center fielder. In Minnesota he shared the position with Larry Hisle; in California it was with Rick Miller. If he was such as great center fielder, why was he sharing the position?

            No shame in being matched up with Ken Griffey Sr. but I think it’s important to be realistic about Bostock and what he might have accomplished.

          • Even discounting the first two months of 1978 Bostock’s stats were not nearly as good as they had been the previous year. His slugging % in 1977 was over .508. In the last four months of 1978 it was barely .400. It’s quite possible that had he played a full career 1977 would have been his career season.

          • I’m not saying he would (or would have) not been a HOFer Ed. I’m just countering the assertion that he was over-rated and the statements that just because his 1978 season was down from 1976/77 that this necessarily really means anything. If Gene Mauch and Rod Carew thought that highly of him, I’m going to take them at their word. The transition to a new team with a huge contract could also needs to be taken into account.

            Most importantly, I don’t see how it’s possible to make any type of statement regarding what he would have done the rest of his career. I could just as easily say he was going to be the next Rod Carew–and it would carry the same weight, i.e. very little.

          • A bit off topic, but now that you mention Pujols, he’s currently tied with Braun for 2nd in MLB in xtra base hits. He was leading the other day and when I saw it I adjusted my glasses to make sure I was seeing the screen clearly. The Phat man came out of that nicely…

  8. Lots of storylines in this regard surrounding the 1967 Red Sox.

    Obviously, I think of Tony Conigliaro in this regard. With 6.7 WAR through age 21 (27th all-time), Tony C compiled 3.5 WAR through 2/3 of a season in 1967, still aged only 22. Follow that trajectory for another 5 or 6 years – pretty special.

    After Conigliaro’s beaning on Aug 18, 1967, the Red Sox quickly snapped up another right-fielder ten days later – Ken Harrelson, just released by an As (that’s another story, by itself). Harrelson had an incredible breakout season in 1968 with 4.6 WAR, 155 OPS+, and 35 HR, 109 RBI – huge numbers in 1968. Inexplicably to many, the Sox dealt Harrelson to Cleveland in 1969 where he had another decent year (30 HR, 92 RBI, albeit with much reduced 1.1 WAR). In 1970, just coming into his prime at age 28, Harrelson broke his leg in spring training and played only 69 more games in his career.

    Another player from the ’67 Red Sox, Jim Lonborg, Cy Young winner and league leader in Wins and SOs, tore knee ligaments in a skiing mishap the following winter. It would be 5 seasons later, for the Brewers in 1972, before Lonborg would pitch 30 games in a season. That year, he also logged his post-injury strikeout high of 143, after notching 246 in his Cy Young year. Lonborg would become an effective pitcher in Philadelphia in his 30s, but never again the dominant hurler of 1967.

  9. As an Indians’ fan I have to mention Herb Score. Total of 12.4 WAR in his first two years. Also led the league in strikeouts his first two seasons. Was off to a great start in his 3rd year when he was struck in the face by a line drive by Gil McDougald, knocking him out for the season. He pitched a few more seasons after that but was never the same. (he also supposedly developed arm problems which may have contributed to his subsequent struggles).

          • Likely the constant whiplash from the random benchings Pete Rose subjected him too. “Nah, Nick, I feel like playing first today. You DH… what? National League? Oh, well, get me some coffee and a Racing Form, meat.”

          • No, Nick Esasky’s vertigo was the result of an ear infection. Tough way to end a career,at age 30.

    • Ed, As a kid I remember running to the front door each morning to get the paper and find out whether Score was going to lose his eye – there were hospital photos of him covered in bandages. Scary to remember.

      In his first collection of New Yorker baseball articles, Roger Angell had a poignant little portrait of Score in spring training, 1962, trying to recover his form, to no avail. I remember he wrote that Score had “the saddest story in baseball.” (It was, in fact, a later arm injury which he tried to come back too soon from that took away his effectiveness.)

      But JR broke my heart at a much older age, he had been such a wonderful phenomenon. And that was despite my being an Astro-hating Mets fan (a sense of expansion team rivalry I did not outgrow till . . . well, we’ll see what happens when Houston leaves the league).

  10. Since 1900, the only consecutive seasons of more than 300 Ks:

    Rube Waddell 1903-04
    Sandy Koufax 1965-66
    Nolan Ryan 1972-73-74
    Nolan Ryan 1976-77
    J.R. Richard 1978-79
    Randy Johnson 1998-99-2000-01-02

  11. Since 1956, the most walks in a season by an NL pitcher:
    Phil Niekro (1977) 164
    J.R. Richard (1976) 151
    Bill Stoneman (1971) 146
    J.R. Richard (1978) 141
    J.R. Richard (1975) 138

    With IP down these days, you just don’t see those kinds of season walk totals anymore. The most walks in a season by any pitcher over the past ten years has been Brandon Webb with 119 BBs in 2004. And the last couple of years, the BB rate generaly is down. Gio Gonzalez led the majors in BBs last year with just 91.

  12. I don’t think you’ll find a case of prematurely shortened career of a player with outstanding ability than Mark Fidrych. Not that I think much of WAR, but for those who do, he clocked in at 9.3 for his 1976 season, even though he only started 3 games before the end of May.

      • Thanks for digging that up Stacey.

        As I suspected, completely biased, not a single player before the 1970s. I guess they never heard of Walter Johnson.

        Nor do I really understand how non-pitchers can really be considered intimidating. Those guys can break you fingers if they want to, and there were a number of them in former times who were more than willing to do so if they thought you were getting a little too comfortable up there. I mean, Bob Gibson’s not even on that list. It’s a joke frankly.

      • The guy I’d put on the list would be Ryne Duren, who was briefly a sensation as a Yankee reliever in the late ’50s. (Came over from the A’s – surprise!) He had an explosive fastball, wore coke-bottle glasses through which he squinted, had a (well deserved) reputation for emptying other bottles in quantity, and a habit of making sure that one of his warm-up pitches “slipped” and smashed into the screen while he peered in as if trying to find the plate.

        Batters tended to think twice about digging in, and – I just checked – Duren had ERAs of 2.02 and 1.88 in consecutive years (remember, late ’50s). I think the league figured him out afterwards – he really couldn’t find the plate.

        • e pluribus munu-

          I apologize for pretty much covering the exact same ground in my post #104 (above). I hadn’t read thru all the comments yet but when I way Dick Radatz mentioned- who, along with Duren, were the first names that came to mind when talking about intimidating players- I just had to comment.

          Great minds think alike, I guess

    • One intimdating dude from 60s I know of but never saw play was Dick Radatz, 6’6″, 230. Had 3 or 4 good years as a reliever for the Sox. He was done by 30. Maybe he blew out his arm in his late twenties? I don’t know.

      • This from Wikipedia on Radatz.

        Sportswriter Jim Murray wrote that “Dick Radatz brings one weapon – a fastball. It’s like saying all a country brings to a war is an atom bomb.” However, Radatz’s one-pitch arsenal was a worry for Boston, and Ted Williams encouraged him to develop a sinker. Radatz complied, but in changing his mechanics to incorporate the new pitch, he permanently lost the edge on his fastball.

        In 1965 Radatz went 9-11 with 24 saves and a high 3.91 ERA. He was diagnosed with injuries in his arm and shoulder which required season-ending surgery. He never recovered his form, was traded to the Indians at the 1966 mid-season, and was sent to the Cubs the following year. Out of action for the 1968 season, he finished his career with the Tigers and Expos in 1969.

        Also said that Radatz died at age 67 after falling down a flight of stairs in his home.

        • Thanks for remembering. I also saw this program on the MLB network and was surprised my dad was not on the list. He set the MLB record for strikeouts by a reliever in 1964 and recently deceased manager, Johnny Pesky, used him extensively for his first three years. I believe in those three years he had the most wins by a relief pitcher in a three-year span (40)and I can’t find any relief pitcher to date that had as high a WAR over a three-year span as he had in 1962-64. He was the first relief pitcher chosen for an All-Star team in 1963 and proceeded to strikeout 10 batters in 4 2/3 innings of combined work in the 1963-64 All-Star games despite taking the loss in ’64. Included in the K’s were Aaron, Mays, McCovey and Snider.

          • I just searched the Play Index and I think you’re right, Dick, about your dad having the best 3-year WAR period for a reliever post-1901. Here’s the three best group of seasons I could find:

            1. Dick Radatz 17.0 1962-64
            2. Goose Gossage 16.6 1975-77
            3. John Hiller 14.8 1973-75

            The way relievers rarely go multiple innings anymore, I’d say your dad’s record is pretty safe for awhile.

          • Reply to #97

            bstar; Sorry about the name mix-up. I did my PI run differently. To get a WAR of 17.0 in three years a pitcher must have at least one season of 5.7. I ran PI, sorting by WAR and for “Choose a stat” used WAR => 5.7. There were 9 seasons involving 8 players. I went to each of their BR home pages and visually scanned for each pitcher’s best three years. That verified that Radatz was number 1. Gossage was number 2 with 16.6, so I ran PI again using “Choose a stat” => 5.6 (16.6/3 rounded up) to verify Gossage as number 2. To verify Hiller as number 3 I did it again using “Choose a stat”= 5.0 (14.8/3 rounded up).

          • Several relievers were named to all-star teams before the Monster. Johnny Murphy was the first in the 30s though he usually started a couple of games a year. The first pure reliever to make an all-star team may have been Joe Page in 1947.

          • Good note, Richard. And he didn’t make the all star team in his other big year, 1949. That might make Jim Konstanty the first in 1950.

          • Reply to 142:
            In 1939 Murphy was an AS and had no starts that year. Are we looking for pitchers who never had a career start or never had a start just for the season he was named to the AS team? Konstanty had starts in years prior to 1950. Radatz never had a career start.

          • Ace Adams never started a game before being named to the 1943 A-S team.

            In that 1943 A-S game, the starting NL battery were brothers, Mort and Walker Cooper. Didn’t work out too well – Mort got shelled.

      • Thanks Richard Chester for verifying numbers and enlightening me about Mike Marshall, another great relief pitcher. You seem to have a real knack for sorting the info. Question-Did my dad have the most wins over a two year period for a relief pither with 15 wins in 1963 and 16 wins in 1964 for a total of 31 over a two year period? Thanks again for any help.

        • According to my search those 31 wins are the record for a two-year period. Second is Bill Campbell with 30, then Mike Marshall with 29 and Elroy Face with 28.

          • Richard,

            Thanks for that search. If I may impose for one last search…was my dad the first pitcher chosen for an All-Star team that did not start a game in the year chosen? Thanks again for this imposition. I want to have my facts straight.

          • Elroy Face was selected to the NL All-Star team in 1959 and no starts that year. There may have been others, I did not check.

            Let me take this opportunity to say that I am a long-time Yankees fan and I had this sickening feeling whenever your father came in to pitch. For his first three years he was untouchable.

          • DRJr @127 — I believe that Johnny “Grandma” Murphy was the first All-Star with no starts, in 1939. Also, 1950 NL MVP Jim Konstanty was an All-Star that year with 74 games, all in relief.

            Your dad (I assume you’re not joking!) was the first pure reliever to average 9 SO/9 with 100+ IP — also the first with 10 SO/9, and the first with 11 SO/9…

          • Thanks Richard. He had a lot of success against the Yankees, and as you know, they had some very good teams and players. I have a “priceless” piece of memorabilia, a poster from Mantle signed to my dad “To the toughest I ever faced” I also had the chance to play in Mantle’s golf tourney with my father in Oklahoma before Mantle died. I’ve been very blessed.

          • John,

            A question. Along those lines…I believe my dad had the highest SO/9 for all pitchers with 600+ IP at the time of his retirement in 1969.

            Not joking. President and founder of a Summer-Collegiate Baseball League called the Northwoods League.
            Check it out…www.northwoodsleague.com

          • John,

            Would you consider a discussion for a research project involving Minor League players and their stats? I’m trying to “prove” that our League is accelerating the development of players in their ascent to MLB. See Kole Calhoun and Drew Smyly as recent examples.

          • Dick — At the time of his retirement, your dad did hold the highest SO/9 of any pitcher with 500+ IP (I prefer the rounder IP standard, which is also more flattering to your dad).

            He held that mark until Nolan Ryan passed him in 1973.

            Even now, he ranks #20 all-time in SO/9 with 500+ IP.

            P.S. It’s always a treat to hear from MLB family.

          • Dick — How could I resist the chance to be connected, even tangentially, with the Wisconsin Woodchucks?

            I’d be glad to hear what you have in mind for the project. I have to warn you, though — I am not trained in formal statistical analysis; for instance, I still have to be reminded of what a standard deviation is.

            What I do best is what you see here on the site.

            If I send an e-mail through the Northwoods website, will you see it?

          • Yes John. Please send through the League site. I’m headed to bed right now as I have three days of League Meetings starting tomorrow. I’ll be back in touch with you for more info on the “Chucks” when I get a break in the action.

            Thanks.

          • Mickey wasn’t just being friendly with that bat inscription.

            Mickey Mantle vs. Dick Radatz: 19 PAs, 16 ABs, 12 Ks, 3 walks, 3 hits (1 HR, 1 2B).

            So Radatz fanned the Mick in 63% of their meetings. Nobody else with 10+ PAs whiffed Mantle more than 47% (Marv Grissom, 8 of 17).

            I guess this is widely known to Yanks & BoSox fans, but I just found out about it.

          • Dick, Jr: I did another PI search. Your father’s ERA+ for the first three years of his career is 181. That is the highest for any pitcher with at least 400 IP.

          • To Dick Radatz, Jr.: I have stumbled across another record of your father’s. He holds the AL record for most games in a season with at least one strikeout. He had at least one strikeout in 68 games in 1964.

          • This is for Dick Radatz, Jr. if he is still accessing this web-site. Your father also holds the record for most strikeouts in a season by a relief pitcher with 181 in 1964.

        • Dick, I’m the founder of this blog and just wanted to say thanks for your contributions here. You are most welcome.

          I am so sorry about your father’s tragic death at a young age. It was such a terrible shock to hear, and I was reminded of it a few years after when another former Red Sox player, John Marzano, died in the same fashion.

          • Richard,

            Thanks for the extra info on those records. I will include them in my dialogue when remembering my father to others. I was just notified by the Red Sox that they are honoring the All-Time Red Sox team tomorrow that my father is a member of. Thanks again.

          • Mr Radatz, I have gone to many Madison Mallards games and they are very well done and a good time (although I play softball at a park that shares a parking lot with the Mallards and their attendance is so high I have to end up parking blocks away when I play at the same time as a Mallards game). Your league seems to be a great success.

            Must be exciting to have Robin Yount own a team in your league, the Lakeshore Chinooks. Thats right people, not panthers or bulldogs or tigers, in Wisconsin we only have great, unique team names that pay homage to the area
            Badgers, Brewers, Packers, Bucks; all unique in professional and major college sports.

  13. Great first post Stacey. Here’s my submission for career cut-short by injury: Noah Lowry.

    Lowry started his career with the Giants by going 7-0, including a three hit shutout in his fourth start. He was solid in 2005, winning pitcher of the month honours in August by going 5-0 with a 0.69 ERA. After a down year in ’06, where he suffered injuries at both ends of the season, he won the most games on the Giants staff in ’07.

    However that season was too cut short by forearm injury, and surgery kept him out of the 2008 season. Given how awful Giants starting pitching was that year (Cy Young Timmy and Matt Cain apart, although Cain was in the can’t-buy-a-win stage of his career) his loss was felt particularly keenly. More surgery followed in 2009, following a new diagnosis that contradicted the earlier one, as it became increasingly apparent that he wasn’t going to return.

    Obviously the Giants went on to pitch their way to the World Series in 2010, as Lincecum and Cain dominated, Jonathan Sanchez found a new gear and Madison Bumgarner emerged, so Lowry became a bit of a forgotten man. But he was well liked, and you can still usually see a Lowry jersey or two being worn at AT&T. I’m not saying he was going to win a Cy Young award, but as a fourth or fifth starter, you could have done a lot worse.

    • Thanks so much.

      And I had forgotten all about Noah Lowry. Great submission. Sadly, there are a lot of these kinds of stories. I really wish I could write a “what if” series. Like try to imagine what could have been for some of these guys. But I think that would be a tremendous undertaking.

    • Apropos of Lowry and J.R. Richard is Karl Spooner, co-holder with Richard of the record for most strikeouts (15) in a career debut game. Spooner followed that up with a 12-strikeout game for two shutouts to start his career, one of only 10 players to accomplish the feat (4 of those 10, including Spooner, would finish their careers with only 3 shutouts, though all but Spooner would pitch at least 6 seasons and 144 games).

      The following year, in 1955, Spooner was rushed into a spring training game without sufficient time to warm up (source: Wikipedia), and developed severe arm trouble. He struggled through the 1955 season, his last in the majors. His final appearance, starting game 6 in that year’s WS for the victorious Dodgers, was an unfortunate shelling by the Bombers, 5 R, 3 H, 2 BB, all in only one-third of an inning.

      • Spooner’s two shutouts were in 1954. He won eight games for Brooklyn in 1955 before pitching in the world series and never appeared in the majors after that.

      • Another early memory: ’54 was my first season of baseball awareness, but I had a little trouble sorting it all out – Spooner’s debut made a huge impression, since most of my household were Brooklyn fans. I remember a few years later a roomful of adults laughing when I tried to join a conversation on baseball’s greatest pitchers by naming Karl Spooner. “A flash in the pan,” my mother explained, but she looked very sad.

  14. Where is the list? I can’t get it from the MLB link, which is just an advertisement for the countdown…Anyway, I hope it’s not just home-run hitters and power pitchers–Rickey Henderson should be on there, and high. His form of intimidation was to get so deep inside the other team’s head that their entire game plan concerned him. And the second he got on base, the opposition crumbled.

  15. Definitely belonging on the J. R. Richard-esque short-circuited careers list: Charlie Hollocher had one of the greatest debut seasons by a shortstop in MLB history, back in 1918 playing for the Cubs at age 22. After his first six seasons in the majors, through his age 27 season, his career WAR was comparable to that of Larkin, Tulowitzki, Boudreau and other shortstops of that ilk over their first six seasons. Then at age 28, illness issues that had bothered him periodically became too much for him, and he left the Cubs mid-season. Although his illness problems were never successfully diagnosed, and may possibly have been related more to mental illness than physical, he never returned to the majors after that. He committed suicide in 1940 at age 44.

  16. Another Indian…Hal Trosky whose career was derailed by migraines. Trosky is one of 4 players in the post all-star game era to have over 3000 PAs, an OPS+ above 130, and never make an all star game (the others are Travis Hafner, Mike Epstein, and Bob Nieman). Troksy had the misfortune of being a first baseman during the same time as Gehrig, Foxx and Greenberg which explains his lack of all-star invites.

    • Those guys could really rake though I was surprised how high Superjew’s OPS+ is. Unfortunately they all shared the same iron glove and Trosky had the added problem of playing 1b at the same time as Gehrig, Greenberg and Foxx.

          • It would be appropriate here for me to resubmit my comment of Aug.28.
            August 28, 2012 at 1:40 pm The most famous of those 2 HR 2-1 games was probably the one that occurred on 9/10/34. The Tigers were currently in first place battling the Yankees for the pennant. That day was the Jewish New Year and the Tigers had a scheduled game with the Red Sox. Hank Greenberg, who was religious, was torn over whether or not to play. He consulted with a Detroit rabbi and the ruling was that because it was a joyous Holiday he could play. He did and ended up with the 2 HRs for a 2-1 victory. The headline of the Detroit Free Press on the following day was “Happy New Year Hank” in Yiddish.

  17. JR Richard is always the first name I think of in the “what if” club, at least among pitchers.

    When I used to watch Randy Johnson during the early part of his career, I thought of JR Richard frequently, with the main difference being one threw righty and one threw lefty. Extremely tall, hard throwers who could seemingly hit 98-100 mph at their peaks (and I do believe that Richard threw even harder than Johnson), but had no command early on and walked a ton of batters, but giving up few hits. Yet both found their form in their late 20s, and then became extremely good command pitchers, walking few all things considered. Richard’s last year in 1980 was an indicator of exactly where he was. He could still still hit 100mph without extending himself, commanded his slider. I’m fairly sure he would have dominated pitching through the 1980s in his 30s, just as Randy Johnson did in his 30s.

    End Randy Johnson’s career at age 30 and that’s JR Richard, and then project forward on what was lost (probably).

  18. He doesn’t fit into the category of his career being cut short, but Frank Tanana is another pitcher I have in the what-if category.

    Heavy workload basically took its toll on his arm. I’m sure if they were using radar gun readings in the early to mid-70s, we would have seen a pitcher whose velocity was trending downward from mid-90s to low 90s, and then eventually into the upper 80s. Perhaps Tim Lincecum is a righty version of Tanana in the making.

    Dominant pitcher on a lousy team, heavy workload, and in Tanana’s case, he was done as a dominant pitcher by the time he was 24. Amazingly, he never missed a season and transformed himself from David Price to Jamie Moyer over the span of a few years. He was always a bit difficult for me to watch as a junk baller remembering what he was like when he first came up, yet as I got older and was more amazed at what he accomplished. It would have ended most careers. He was a HOF-level talent his first four or five seasons.

  19. Pete Reiser played the game with a reckless abandon
    that endeared him to Brooklyn fans.

    In 1941 during his age 22 season Reiser batted .343
    with 117 runs, 39 doubles, 17 triples, 14 homers
    and 76 RBI’s. He played in a career high 137
    games and collected 184 hits.

    He had an OPS of .964 and accumulated 7.4 WAR.

    Reiser led the league in runs, double, triples,
    BA, OPS, OPS+, SLG and TB.

    Future stardom seemed assured. Reiser had three
    good years in 42,46 and 47. Playing 125, 122 and
    110 games while battling injuries.

    After this he never had more than 221 Ab in a single
    season and was done at age 32 after a brief stint with
    Cleveland in 1952.

    Brooklyn had some remarkable players in the 40’s and 50’s,
    but many oldtimers will tell you that Reiser minus the war
    and injuries, would have been the best.

    • Funny, I was just going to post something about Eric Davis who I guess was the modern day Pete Reiser. Fantastic player who just couldn’t stay healthy. Obviously had a much longer career than Reiser but never played in more than 135 games in any season.

      • Eric Davis is a great example. His 1987 season
        was other worldly.

        There is a great write up on Eric Davis in The Hall
        of Nearly Great. Which btw I really enjoyed.

        I think I liked the Buddy Bell one the best.

        I am not sure if Pete Reiser was Troutesque, or
        is Mike Trout Reiseresque.

        Seriously though we all hope for Mike Trout to have
        a long career.

          • I am jealous the Angels picked him when I know
            he could have been a Yankee.

            It may have worked out for the best.

            There is no doubt the NY media would have
            broken out the “annointin” oils and bestowed
            upon him most favored Mickey Mantle status.

            This may have been to much pressure which may have caused his performance to suffer.

            Truth is I doubt this, but it is something I tell myself so I can sleep nights now and for
            the next twenty years.

    • Reiser’s short career was a collaboration between Pete and the Dodger management, chiefly Durocher, the manager. In ’42 he had one of his near-death encounters with a wall and fractured his skull. When he was released from the hospital three days later, Leo put him in uniform and then, in the 14th inning, into the game. After Reiser knocked in the go-ahead run, he collapsed unconscious rounding first. In ’47, when Lavagetto broke up Bevens’ no-hitter in the Series, the previous batter was Reiser, who was walked intentionally. Durocher pinch-hit him despite knowing Reiser had broken his ankle the day before. (According to Reiser, DiMaggio told him the Yankee manager, Bucky Harris, knew he had a broken ankle and still wouldn’t let Bevens pitch to him, despite being 8 2/3 IP into a no-hitter.) So the reckless abandon wasn’t all on Pete’s side.

  20. I saw J.R.’s major league debut in September of 1971 at Candlestick against the Giants. Even sitting in the bleachers, he looked enormous, and the fastball looked other-worldly. I think he had 15 strikeouts- just blowing away hitter after hitter. As a 16-year-old, he looked scary as hell- his later story is very sad indeed…

    • Anyone have a handle on why J.R. Richard didn’t crack Houston’s rotation in ’72? He had already logged a full year at AAA in ’71 before that 15-K MLB debut. But he spent most of ’72 back at OK City, having the best year on that squad (his 11.9 SO/9 was 2.3 more than anyone else in the league); he only got a brief look from the big club even though 3/5 of their rotation was crap.

      P.S. Hard to believe, but the ’72 Astros led the NL in Runs. For some reason, the Dome played friendly that year, and the ‘Stros had 4 of the best hitters in the league.

      • John – No real insight into your question but I notice that in his last start in ’71 Richard was pulled after only 4 batters. He walked three and gave up a single. Based on that and perhaps a poor spring training in ’72 the Astros might have felt he needed more time in the minors to work on his control.

        • Another odd note about those ’72 Astros…they fired their manager (Harry Walker) partway through the season. He was fired even though the team was 67-54, in second place, and having their best season ever. I don’t get that one.

          • Ed, I think the move is probably hard to understand because it was stupid, having to do with Durocher becoming available. Walker was not an easy person – he was a compulsive talker, if my memory is right – and I think the Astros thought they were going big time by grabbing Leo. It may also have had to do with Walker having some tension with Cesar Cedeno, whom the team saw as its rising franchise player (bad thinking – Durocher was quickly alienated from Cedeno). Durocher has a discussion of some of this in his surprisingly good autobiography (I no longer own it so I can’t check).

          • Thanks EPM! I actually found an online preview of Jimmy Wynn’s autobiography. He attributes Walker’s firing to the following factors:

            1) Walker was a racist a..hole who had lost the respect of his players and the team was winning despite him, not because of him.

            2) Management was looking for a way to distract fans from the Morgan, Staub and Cuellar trades.

            3) Management was looking for a publicity stunt to boost late season ticket sales and with Durocher having recently become available….

            BTW, Wynn clearly was not a fan of the Durocher hiring. He compares hiring Durocher to manage the ’72 Astros to hiring Snoop Dogg to lead the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He goes on to say that Durocher taught his team how to play cards and then cheated against his own players in order to win money. Real class act.

          • Yes, Durocher was perhaps not an exemplary character. He sure liked Wynn, though, if I recall his book: I think he referred to him as “peaches & cream,” a positive contrast to Cedeno. (The reason Durocher’s autobiography is so good, despite Leo being such a schmuck, is probably that his ghost was Ed Linn, who also co-wrote Veeck’s autobiography. Those two books convince me that Linn was exceptionally talented.)

            Sorry to hear that Wynn says Harry the Hat was racist. His brother – Dixie – was famously so in ’47, and bought himself a ticket out of Brooklyn with his response to Robinson, but I thought that the Walkers later got over their background. Harry’s reputation was as a good baseball man who couldn’t control his talking, but I thought the talk was about baseball.

  21. Ross Youngs from age 21-27 hit .331 with a 137 OPS+. He slumped at 28, and the next year was diagnosed with Bright’s disease; he died at age 30.

    These others aren’t sudden endings, but anyway:

    Marcus Giles had an MVP-caliber year at age 25, retired at 29.

    Billy Grabarkewitz had a great year at 24, his first full year. In the rest of his career, he had about one full year’s worth of ABs and hit .203; retired at 29.

    Pete Ward at 25 was runner-up in the AL ROY and followed up with a 6-
    WAR year, but faded badly (but had 5 more years as a regular).

    Lloyd Moseby from age 23-27 averaged 98 runs, 20 HRs, 85 RBI and 117 OPS+. He never had another good year, and retired at 31; not sure what the cause was.

  22. One of the most spectacular career abridgments was Smoky Joe Wood’s (I wonder whether I’ve just missed someone else’s comment on it – Stacey, this is a wonderfully productive first post: so many good comments).

    Just in case anyone on HHS isn’t aware of it (not too likely), in 1912 Wood went 34-5, and added a 3-1 record in the Series, winning the best eighth game ever in extra innings. His overall W-L record was 81-43 – he was 22 years-old. He hurt himself in spring training, tried to come back too fast (like Score in ’57) and was never the same (though he still had enough to go 36-14 over the next few years, including a low-IP ERA title, plus five subsequent years as an outfielder, with a 117 OPS+).

  23. I have read most of the comments and a lot of these names bring back memories from the 60’s and 70’s but after reading your post two names came to mind almost immediately and these careers were cut short in the 90’s. The first name that came to mind is Bo Jackson, arguably the most talented two sport star to ever play, and then Nick Esasky. Nick is a little more lesser known who played only 7 1/2 years but in 1989 with the Boston Red Sox hit 30 home runs and knocked in a nifty 108 RBI’s, In November 1989 he was signed as a free agent by the Atlanta Braves to a 3 year contract. It would seem the sky was the limit and his career was set to take off. Well Nick only played 9 games for the Braves in 1990 and his career was cut short because he developed Vetigo from an inner ear infection. Nick was released by the Braves in 1994.

  24. Just realized that we haven’t mentioned one of the all-time “couldn’t stay healthy” guys. Bob Horner. Given his early start, his obvious homerun power, and playing his home games in The Launching Pad, he probably would have topped 500 career home runs. If he could have stayed healthy.

  25. One of my favorite Cardinals was John Fulgham, who pitched in 1979 and 80 at age 23 and 24.

    He won 10 games as a rookie, 4 the next season, all complete games, and then hurt his arm in mid season, never to pitch again.

    As a kid listening to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon, I thought we had our next Bob Gibson.

  26. A few other guys come to mind who looked like they were going to have long and great careers, but maybe their skills just diminished before 30. Two were Tigers coming up with Trammell, Whitaker, Gibson, Parrish, Morris, & Co, but not long enough to be part of the ’84 championship — Steve Kemp and Jason Thompson. Two others about a decade later faded just as fast — Ben Grieve and Travis Lee.

  27. So sorry I wasn’t around yesterday. I did a dual stadium doubleheader – Yankee Stadium in the afternoon and Citifield in the evening. It was quite a long day but definitely worth it.

    I’m really glad the post has generated this much discussion. There are so many players who fall into the ‘what could have been’ category.

  28. Another Cardinal, Bill DeLancey, hit 316 with 13 homers in half a season at age 22 in 1934 as a catcher. He played another partial year in 1935 before lung problems derailed his career. He made a brief comeback in 1940, but hit 222 in 18 at bats. He died in 1946 at age 35.

    Branch Rickey thought enough of him to name him as his all time Cardinal catcher at one point.

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