It’s a word and or phrase that’s commonly used throughout the sports world. Baseball is no different, especially when regarding the art of pitching.
Whether it’s Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax in the 1960’s or Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer in the 1970’s and beyond, some pitchers are clearly above the rest. Household names that roll off the tongue of baseball enthusiasts.
Remember J.R. Richard?
However, there’s one other pitcher from the 1970’s whose dominance during the decade gets forgotten way too often. He’s a Melanated Mound Marauder and Black Ace whose career was more of an impactful flash in the pan than an extended body of work.
But if you don’t know one of the greatest moundsman to ever do it, your baseball knowledge is questionable.
From 1976 to 1980, James Rodney (J.R.) Richard was one of the premier pitchers in the majors. While hurling for the Houston Astros, the native of Vienna, Louisiana led the National League twice in strikeouts, once in ERA, and three times in hits allowed per nine innings.
He also won at least 18 games a year between 1976 and 1979, including his 20-15 mark in 1976. With his 6-foot-8, 221-pound frame, Richard was one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball history.
However, Richard’s greatness was never truly appreciated by the Astros and the game as a whole.
Sadly, it took a near-fatal stroke in 1980 at the height of his career that allowed those who ridiculed him to realize his greatness.
Early Dominance In Several Sports
Richard’s athletic dominance began as a youngster who attended Lincoln High School in Ruston, La. While J.R. showed prowess on the basketball court (averaging 30 points and 20 rebounds a game), it was on the diamond where he clearly left his mark.
During his time at Lincoln, Richard never lost a game he started during his high school career.
In his senior season, J.R. did not allow a run. In one game, Richard hit four consecutive homers while pitching his team to a 48–0 victory against its local rival, Jackson High School of Jonesboro.
Eventually, the Astros selected him with the second overall pick in the 1969 amateur baseball draft, behind the Washington Senators’ selection of future AL MVP Jeff Burroughs. J.R. turned down more than 200 basketball scholarship offers to sign with Houston.
Instant Impact On MLB Level
By 1971, Richard had earned his first taste of the majors when he was called up to the big club in September. To say he made a good first impression would be an understatement. On September 5, Richard made his major league debut at just 21 years of age, in the second game of a doubleheader against the San Francisco Giants.
J.R. used his fastball/slider combination to pick up the win and tied Karl Spooner’s 17-year-old major league record by striking out 15 batters in his first major league start.
Richard also struck out future Hall of Famer Willie Mays three times in the contest. During the next few seasons, Richard split time between the minors and majors and did not become a regular starter with the Astros until 1975.
During the offseason, staff ace Don Wilson tragically committed suicide due to carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 29 and Claude Osteen was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Richard entered the season as the third starter, behind veterans Larry Dierker and Dave Roberts.
He finished the year with a 12–10 record for a club that finished 64–97. As the only starter with a winning record, Richard also led the team with 176 strikeouts, which was the fifth-highest total in the National League. J.R. also led the league in walks allowed and wild pitches thrown. However, Richard was poised to have his breakout season in 1976 and become the ace of the Astros’ staff.
J.R. Richard Becomes A Black Ace
Following an Opening Day loss to the defending World Series champion Cincinnati Reds, J.R. would solidify his spot on the staff with wins in five of his next six decisions. 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 improved his record from 9–9 to 16–13.
The 26-year-old finished the season with a 20–15 record while becoming only the second pitcher in Astros’ history (after Dierker in 1969) to record 20 wins in a season.
At the time, Richard became the ninth black pitcher in MLB history to record a 20-win season. He was named the Astros’ MVP by the Houston chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. A top 20 finish in the NL MVP voting and Top 10 finish in the Cy Young Award was his reward for posting a 2.75 ERA, holding batters to a .212 batting average and leading the league in lowest number of hits allowed per nine innings. In addition, he led all NL pitchers with 14 hits, two home runs, and nine RBIs as a hitter.
A year later, he led the Astros’ pitching staff in wins (18), starts, complete games, innings pitched (267), while posting a 2.97 ERA and 214 strikeouts.
In 1978, J.R. he posted another 18-win season with 11 losses and a 3.11 ERA. He led Oakland’s pitching staff in innings pitched, starts, complete games, shutouts, hits allowed, earned runs, walks allowed, and strikeouts, finishing fourth in the Cy Young Award voting, behind Gaylord Perry, Burt Hooten, and Vida Blue.
300 K Crew
A year later, J.R. finished with an 18–13 record and a league-best 2.71 ERA with a league-leading 313 strikeouts for the season, breaking his own club record.
Richard joined Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax as the only modern-day pitchers to strike out over 300 batters in consecutive seasons.
He led the club in ERA, complete games, and innings pitched and tied Joe Niekro in number of games started.
He also led the league with 9.64 strikeouts per nine innings, while placing third in Cy Young Award voting, behind winner Bruce Sutter and knuckleballer Phil Niekro, who had 21 wins and a 3.00 ERA that season.
On October 11, Richard signed a four-year contract with the Astros.
J.R. Richard and Nolan Ryan: The Duo That Never Was
Ironically during the off-season, Houston would sign the aforementioned Ryan as a free agent to give the Astros one of the strongest rotations in the game.
During the first half of the 1980 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.
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.
Silent Cries Unheard and Unseen Through Racial Lenses
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 within the organization. Some in the media even interpreted these complaints as whining or malingering.
Citing Richard’s reputation for “moodiness”, others felt that Richard was egotistical and all of a sudden could not handle the pressure of pitching for the Astros, while others suggested he was jealous of Ryan’s $4.5 million contract.
“Deep down in my heart, I knew something was wrong,” Richard said in his autobiography. “At that moment I was just about the best pitcher in baseball. Why wouldn’t I want to pitch?”
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 J.R’s last major league game.
On July 30, Richard was participating in warm-ups before a 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, it 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 Dr. William S. Fields showed that J.R. was still experiencing weakness in his extremities and on the left side of his face, and he had blurred vision through his left eye.
A CAT scan of Richard’s brain later showed that J.R. had experienced three separate strokes from the different obstructions in his arterial system. Furthermore, the arteries in his right arm were still obstructed.
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 made several attempts to comeback from 1981 through 1983, but he was never able to resume his career.
Despite an almost complete recovery, the risk of future complications was so great that J.R. never pitched again. His final major league record was 107–71, with 1,493 strikeouts and a 3.15 ERA in 238 games and 1,606 innings.
Retirement Leads To Rough Times
After his professional baseball career ended, Richard returned to Louisiana and invested in some business ventures. He fell prey to an oil business scam, losing over $300,000 in the deal. At one point in 1994, J.R. was homeless and destitute and living under the overpass Highway 59 at Beechnut Road in Houston.
By 1995, Richard became eligible for his pension from Major League Baseball and was able to turn his life around. J.R. became involved in the Houston community, deeply involved in the church and began working with local financial donors to help establish baseball programs for children.
In 2018, Richard along with Dick Allen, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Kenny Lofton, and Eddie Murray were honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as a member of their “Hall of Game”.
A year later, J.R. was inducted into the Houston Astros Hall of Fame. Richard would pass away at 79 on August 4, 2021, due to complications from COVID-19.
The fact that the Astros organization, the Houston media, and many others thought that Richard was “faking” his injury back in 1980 is sad reminder of the unfair scrutiny and racial double standards black athletes have and are still enduring.
While the story of J.R.’s dominance is one that will never be forgotten, the ridicule he suffered cannot be forgotten as well.
One can only imagine the kind of career Richard could have had if his cries for help had been heard and he received the proper medical attention earlier in his career.