Wednesday, April 10, 2013

April 10- Houston Astros

Every now-and-then I find myself perusing the various amounts of “this day in baseball” Web sites in search of inspiration for any kind of accomplishment that pops out. I’ve always been more fascinated with the lesser known stories hat have taken place in baseball. As kind of an oddball myself, in appearance that is, I love being able to research a new discovery; something that I know I can relay to the general public with my enthusiasm for history, as well as the game. The biggest problem with today; however, is that two very important, and hardly talked about things occurred for the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves. Not really knowing which one to write about I decided to put it to a vote on Twitter. Without anybody knowing what story I was going to cover for each team, an unexpected amount of votes went in favor of the Astros, simply because they’ve been playing extremely well despite thoughts that they would roll over and die this season. Actually, come to think of it, the “rolling over and dying” part is a rather interesting theme with the Astros post. So with the votes in hand and my new-found literary discovery, it looks like the Astros are on deck for tonight.

Tonight is my 100th night of sitting at my computer, writing about a clothing accessory that I’m passionate about. Every post has been a unique story about the men who have sacrificed their lives to play the game they love most and to entertain the fans who cheer them on for over 162 games every year until they fade into the record books. Last week I kicked the actual Major League Baseball season off with my post about the Houston Colt .45s. It’s not very becoming of me to write posts from the same franchise so close together, but this is one of those opportunities that I couldn’t pass up. My .45s post touched on the life and times of Jim Umbricht, a pitcher who played an entire season in 1963 with cancer festering and eating away at his body without effecting his determination to win. Tonight’s post takes an oddly similar route, as a man who very few outside of the Astros fan base, clawed his way to stardom, only to have it come crashing down. Not all of my stories take such a serious tone; however, when I do go down this road I intend to do a great service to the subject for the sake of the player, the team, the fans, and most important, the game itself.

While many players have channeled through the Astros organization in its 50-year history, there are a small handful of players who donned this hat who get more than deserved credit for their time with the organization. Guys like Nolan Ryan, Jose Cruz, Joe Niekro, Larry Dierker, Bruce Bochy, Art Howe and Joe Morgan, but very few ever add J.R. Richard to that list. This hat was used primarily as the Astros game cap from 1971-1980, and then used as their home cap from 1981-1982. If there was ever one player who best represented the original 10-year era of this cap, it’s definitely Richard.

#50- James Rodney Richard was born to Clayton and Lizzie Richard in Vienna, Louisiana and gained prominence at Lincoln High School in nearby Ruston in both baseball and basketball. By the time he was a high school senior, Richard stood 6’8’’ and weighed 220 pounds. That year, he was one of the starting pitchers for Lincoln High School and did not concede a run for the entire season. In one game Richard hit four consecutive home runs while pitching his team to a 48–0 victory against its local rival, Jonesboro's Jackson High School. Richard, whose baseball idol was St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, never lost a game he started in his high school career. Upon graduating from high school, he turned down more than 200 basketball scholarship offers to sign with the Houston Astros as they took him with the second overall pick in the 1969 amateur draft. The first overall pick by the Washington Senators was 1974 American League MVP Jeff Burroughs, father of eventual MLB prospect Sean Burroughs. Richard later recalled, "There were other guys in my high school with as much ability as I had, but instead of working at a job, they wanted to drink wine on Saturday nights. They thought that was the in thing to do, and consequently our lives went in different directions. For some people it takes that to make a world. It does not for me."

From 1969- the end of August 1971 Richard moved his way through the Astros minor league system, getting a lot of starts, but not necessarily having the greatest of games until he got to the AAA affiliate the Oklahoma City 89ers where he went 12-7 with a 2.45 ERA and 202 strikeouts. With a month left to go in the season those stats were phenomenal. In early September Richard got called up as one of many pieces to the 40-man roster. He had worn #50 throughout his entire minor league journey and kept it throughout his entire Major League career as well. On September 5 Richard, then 21-years-old, made his debut on the mound against the San Francisco Giants in the second game of a doubleheader. Richard was a fastball-slider combination pitcher and in the process he gave up only seven hits, three walks, and two earned runs and tied Brooklyn Dodger Karl Spooner’s record of 15 strikeouts in a debut game set in 1954. That record still stands. It should also be noted that Richard pitched a complete game as well.

From 1972-1974 Richard moved up and down between the minors and the Majors, making a total of 20 starts in the Show with a record of 8-5 and an ERA of 4.69 with 125 strikeouts. In the minors his results were mixed. He struck out a lot of batters, but had difficulty hitting his marks as he was tagged for just as many runs. After the completion of the 1974 season the Astros traded starting pitcher Claude Osteen to the Cardinals, and lost pitching ace Don Wilson, who died from carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 29 on January 5, 1975. As a result, Richard entered the 1975 season as the third starter of the Astros' pitching rotation, behind veterans Dierker and Dave Roberts. Richard was scheduled to start on April 9 versus the Braves. He was removed from the game in the fifth inning after jamming his toe on the first base bag but gave up no earned runs in his start. Richard continued to exhibit wildness, as shown when he issued eight walks in both his third and fourth starts of the season. He followed by pitching a complete game win against the San Diego Padres on April 29. The following start, he walked a career-high eleven batters in just six innings of pitching and also gave up seven runs in the Astros' 12–8 win over the Giants. By the All-Star break, Richard had six wins and four losses with a 4.93 ERA in just over 98 innings of work.

In an August 10 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Richard yielded just one hit in six innings but walked 10 batters. He rebounded with a complete game shutout against the New York Mets eight days later. Richard ended the season on a strong note by winning three of his last four starts, including his final two games against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He finished the year with a 12–10 record for the Astros, who finished with a franchise-worst 64–97 record. Richard was the only starter on the Astros' pitching staff who had a winning record for the season. He led the team with 176 strikeouts, which was also the fifth-highest in the National League. Richard also led the league in walks allowed and wild pitches thrown, with 138 and 20, respectively.

In 1976 Richard was given the role as the team’s ace and got his first Opening Day start against the defending World Series champion Cincinnati Reds where he got tagged for four runs in the first four innings. He followed his rough season debut with five wins over his next six starts. The rest of the year had more highs than lows as Richard wrapped up the year going 20-15, becoming only the second pitcher in Astros’ history to record 20 wins in a season; Dierker being the first. Richard pitched 14 complete games in 39 starts, maintained an ERA of 2.75 and struck out a then career high 214 batters. It should also be noted that he knocked in nine runners on the season and hit two home runs, one of which came on his last start of the season which also ended in a complete game performance with 13 strikeouts. At season’s end Richard finished in seventh place for the National League Cy Young award as well as seventeenth for the NL MVP.

1977 was just as prosperous as he finished the year with an 18-12 record, a 2.97 ERA and another 214 strikeouts, but it was in Richard’s next two seasons where everything came together. Richard entered the 1978 season as the Astros' Opening Day starter. In the first game of the season, he gave up seven runs on 11 hits and just made it into the fifth inning before being replaced in a loss to the Reds. He recovered from the loss by pitching a complete game two-hit shutout in his next outing against the Dodgers. In an eight-start period from April 26 to June 4, Richard threw six complete games, including two back-to-back shutouts, and lowered his ERA from 4.15 to 3.05. He struck out 67 and gave up only 39 hits in the 63 total innings he pitched. On a June 9 start against the Cardinals, Richard struck out 12 batters but also walked six and gave up five earned runs. By the end of the first half of the season Richard had pitched back-to-back games with nine and 12 strikeout performances, against the Reds and Dodgers, respectively. At the All-Star break, he had an 8–9 record with a 3.49 ERA but also had 157 strikeouts in 139 innings of work.

After the break, Richard threw an 11-inning, 10-strikeout game against the Montreal Expos and followed with two complete games and another nine-inning performance in a game that went into extra innings. He was selected as the National League Pitcher of the Month after going a perfect 4–0 with a 1.29 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 56 innings during July. Throughout much of August, his season ERA hovered below 3.00, and he averaged well over a strikeout per inning. On August 21, in an 8–3 victory over the Chicago Cubs, he broke Don Wilson's 1969 club record of 235 strikeouts. In the final two months of the season, Richard's strikeout average dramatically increased, and he struck out a double-digit number of batters in three of his last five starts. In his third-to-last start, Richard broke Tom Seaver's NL record of 290 strikeouts by a right-hander when he struck out Bob Horner. In his final outing of the season, Richard reached the 300-strikeout pinnacle by striking out Rowland Office in a September 28 victory over the Braves. He also hit his seventh career home run, making him the Astros' career leader in home runs by a pitcher. At that time, he became only the tenth pitcher, third National Leaguer and first NL right-hander in history to strike out more than 300 batters in a single season. Not even Nolan Ryan tallied 300 strikeouts in any of the nine years (most with any team) in Houston. Richard finished the season with an 18-11 record, 3.11 ERA and of course, 303 strikeouts. Despite his dominant numbers he only managed to finish in fourth place in the NL Cy Young vote behind Gaylord Perry (Padres), Burt Hooten (Dodgers) and Vida Blue (Giants). Richard’s strikeout total was double that of Perry’s and Hooten’s.

#6/313- On April 10, 1979 Richard took the mound in the Astros’ second game of the season against the Dodgers. Despite pitching a 13-strikeout 2-1 complete game victory, Richard set the modern day (1900-present) record for most wild pitches thrown in a game with six. Today is the 34th anniversary of that record which has yet to be broken. For the rest of the season Richard was on point, by his own standards that is. He pitched nine straight complete games and matched a career-high with 15 strikeouts against the Reds on September 21. He finished the season with 18–13 record and a league-best 2.71 ERA. He struck out 10 or more batters 14 times in the season, and totaled a league-leading 313 strikeouts for the season, breaking his own club record. Richard joined 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 gave up 220 hits in the season, which gave him a league-best 6.77 hits per nine innings ratio. He led the league by limiting the opposing hitters' batting averages to .209 that year. Still, despite his best efforts, he fell short of the NL Cy Young by finishing third, in which he also finished in 19th place for the NL MVP.

Richard was among the best pitchers in baseball. When asked in 2012 who was the "toughest pitcher to get a hit off of" during his career, Atlanta Brave great Dale Murphy answered "Anybody that played in the late 70's or early 80's will probably give you the same answer: JR Richard". In 1980, Richard was now teamed with seven-time American League strikeout champion Nolan Ryan, who had joined the Astros as a free agent. During the first half of the 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. He was named National League Pitcher of the Month for April. At one point, Richard threw three straight complete-game shutouts, two against the Giants and one against the Cubs. On July 3, he broke Dierker's team record of 1487 career strikeouts in a 5–3 win over the Braves; it was to be Richard's last major league victory. 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, the only appearance of his career. He lasted only two innings due to intense pain in his back and shoulder.

Every start Richard made after the All-Star Game came with a great deal of pain as he complained of “dead arm,” citing discomfort in his shoulder and throwing arm. His concerns fell on deaf ears. Some in the media even interpreted these complaints as whining or malingering, citing Richard's reputation for moodiness. Others theorized that Richard was egotistical and could not handle the pressure of pitching for the Astros, while others suggested he was jealous of Ryan's $4.5 million contract.

On July 14th Richard took the mound against the Braves and pitched well through the first two innings, but was having trouble reading the signs from catcher Alan Ashby. He then began having difficulty moving his arm. In the fourth inning after throwing a fastball he felt 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.

Nine days later, he checked into Methodist Hospital in Houston for a series of physical and psychological tests to determine the cause of his mysterious arm problems. An angiogram revealed an obstruction in the distal subclavian and axillary arteries of the right arm. Richard's blood pressure in his left arm was normal but pressure was nearly absent in his right arm due to the completely obstructed artery. On July 25, however, the arteries in his neck were studied, and the doctors reached a conclusion that all was normal and no surgical treatment needed to be performed.

On July 30, Richard went to see a chiropractor who rotated his neck to fix the flow of blood in his upper torso region. Later that day, Richard was participating in warm-ups before the 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, that 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 neurologist William S. Fields showed that Richard was still experiencing weakness in his extremities and on the left side of his face. He also had blurred vision through his left eye. A CAT scan of Richard's brain later showed that Richard had experienced three separate strokes from the different obstructions in his arterial system. Furthermore, the arteries in his right arm were still obstructed. Later examinations showed that Richard was suffering from extensive arterial thoracic outlet syndrome. While pitching, his clavicle and first rib pinched his subclavian artery. As a result of this problem, Richard would feel normal for the first few innings of the game but after putting repeated pressure on his subclavian artery, his arm would start to ache in pain and eventually start to feel "heavy". His wife at the time, Carolyn, told reporters, "It took death, or nearly death, to get an apology. They should have believed him."- Wikipeadia

Richard underwent rehabilitation and missed the rest of the season. Meanwhile, the Astros recovered from the loss of one of their staff aces and made for the playoffs the first time in the club's 18-year history. Richard would never play in the Majors again.

Richard made an attempt to comeback in 1981, but lost a lot of control on his pitches. While he did make the 40-man roster in during September-callups, then manager Bill Virdon did not use him. In 1983, Richard started to complain of pain in his left calf. The synthetic graft inserted in his July 1980 surgery had closed off, which meant that he needed a surgical bypass in his left leg. Richard was granted free agency by the Astros on November 7, 1983, but the Astros still had faith in him, so he was re-signed on February 17 of the following year. Just a little over two months later, he was released by the Astros, thus ending his baseball career. Despite an almost complete recovery, the risk of future complications was so great that he 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. Nolan Ryan broke his Astros record for career strikeouts in 1987. - Wikipedia

After his baseball career ended Richard moved back to Louisiana where he made failed attempts at random business ventures including a $300,000 oil scheme. Years later Richard’s first wife divorced him and took $669,000 in the divorce settlement. He married again down the road, but once again got divorced at which he lost his house in Houston and most of the money that remained. In 1989 Richard was drafted into the Senior Professional Baseball League, but was cut during preseason. By 1994 Richard was broke and homeless, living under a highway overpass in Houston. The only amount of money made public that Richard made in his career was $75,000 he made in 1977, and yet Nolan Ryan cut a $ 4.5 million contract in 1980. Luckily for Richard’s sake when 1995 came around his pension from MLB kicked in and he played in the Old Timers’ Day game at the Astrodome that season, but every night, at day’s end, Richard continued to sleep under the Highway 59 overpass.

He turned to the Now Testament Church and sought help from its minister, Reverend Floyd Lewis. Richard overcame his homelessness by working with this minister, with a belief that he "always knew God was on his side". He started working at an asphalt company and later returned to the church as a minister. Richard became involved in the Houston community, working with local financial donors to help establish baseball programs for children. Even a small-budget 2005 movie, Resurrection: The J.R. Richard Story, was maid to pay tribute to the legend that had fallen so far.

Prior to a few years ago I had never heard of J.R. Richard. I remember scrolling across his name a number of times when looking at old Astros stats, but never gave much thought to it. Today I was mostly going to focus on the six wild pitches he threw against the Dodgers, but I found his life story too hard to not write about or talk about. Such a damn shame the way his career shook out, but perhaps this can be a first step in getting him the recognition he deserves. For starters, I don’t understand why the Astros didn’t retire his numbers. They’ve given #50 to nine different players and a bullpen coach since his retirement. Talk about an ass-backwards franchise.


  1. Wow -that's an incredible story. I'm glad that Richards was able to find his way in life, despite injuries and ex-wives. Also, I absolutely love Houston's old logo, as well as the "refurbished" one they've began using this year.

  2. Fantastic post! By far my favorite so far. Such a sad story it's sad that players were viewed with so little care for there well being even as late as the 1980's.