Back in the days when Bruce Springsteen was a rock star instead of a political activist, my wife and I would go to his shows. He would introduce the “Big Man” in his band, the late Clarence Clemons, during the show. Clemons, along with being a heck of a saxophone player, was also a large and imposing figure on the stage at his full 6′-5″ tall.
Well, the Big Man for the Astros, J.R. Richard, has moved on to the next life this week. Yordan Alvarez is one of the most imposing players in the league at 6′-5″ himself, but J.R. would have soared 3 inches above that.
He was a bit of a Paul Bunyan legendary figure coming out of Lincoln High School in Ruston, Louisiana. He never lost a game in his high school career and did not give up a run in his senior season. He once hit 4 home runs in a game while shutting out the opposition. And he passed up college when he was chosen second in the 1969 baseball draft by the Astros, behind Jeff Burroughs, who had a solid career with the Senators/Rangers, Braves and others. J.R. had “interesting” statistics in the minors as a young prospect for the Astros. As a 20-year-old in A ball in 1970, he had a very nice 2.39 ERA and 1.239 WHIP, and 138 Ks in 109 innings.
But he also gave up 68 bases on balls and threw 20 wild pitches. Similarly, in 1971 at AAA OKC, he had a 2.45 ERA, a 1.222 WHIP and 202 Ks in 170.2 innings, along with 105 walks and 18 Ks. He made his MLB debut that season in a game I saw on TV. The Giants struck out a very uncomfortable 15 times, tying a record with Karl Spooner (who?) for the most Ks in an MLB debut. They seemed to be unsure if the pitches would be hittable or hit them, and he won a complete game. His next three starts featured more control problems and less success. Over the next three seasons, he spent more time in the minors than in the majors learning to control his tremendous talent until he finally made the Astros for good in 1975.
He had steady improvement at the major league level, and his stretch from 1976 to 1979, where he won between 18 and 20 games every year and had an ERA that ranged from 2.71 to 3.11was as fine as any pitcher in the game. He was an imposing, no, intimidating figure on the mound with a fastball that teased triple digits. But the pitch that set him apart was his 93 mph slider.
Batters revved up to meet a 99 mph fastball, and this pitch looked like one until it dipped under their bats. Try to imagine opposing teams trying to prepare for a rotation that might throw future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, followed by flutterball pitcher Joe Niekro, followed by the super fuel of JR in a 3 game series. Yikes! His 1980 season was looking like the season that he would finally breakthrough with a Cy Young award, making the All Star Game for the first time and being named the NL starter. After 14 starts, he was 11-3 with a 1.51 ERA and an insane slash against .166 BA/ .239 OBP/ .443 OPS. At that point, he had given up 0 HRs in 101 innings, and the slugging percentage against him was a miniscule .203 SLG. The league was hitting against him like they were a bunch of pitchers. But then “something” happened. He went 11 days between starts. Was his arm dead, as he said? Was he a malingerer as some thought? (This for a guy who had averaged 37 starts and 281 innings the previous 4 seasons).
He struggled in that next start, only going 3.1 innings, then had a more normal start before the All Star break and then pitched very well but left after 3.1 innings of 1 hit shutout ball with a dead arm again in what turned out to be his last MLB game on July 14, 1980. JR did not pitch for the next two weeks.
Whispers continued about him. He went through extensive testing, but they did not do surgery on him, and he collapsed during a workout on July 30 with one of the multiple strokes he suffered. It was found that when he pitched, his clavicle and ribs would cut off blood flow in an artery, and he had developed a blockage. Over the next few years, he tried to make comebacks and was at times close to what he had been. But there was too much concern that he would have a relapse, and he never pitched for the Astros or any other MLB team. In his mid-life, his world collapsed.
Two failed marriages, failed business dealings, the fall from major leaguer to citizen, bitterness, depression and some alleged drug use led to him living homeless under a Houston bridge. But he had a second act as he worked with a church, became a minister and was elected to the Astros Hall of Fame. Many believe if his health (and perhaps some alleged medical negligence by the team and doctors) had not failed him, he would have had a shot at the other Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
We will never know what J.R. might have become. We will never know if he had not collapsed if the Astros would have won it all in 1980 when they fell one win short of the World Series. We may never know all that was in his heart. But we do know that for a time, J.R. Richard was the biggest man in town.