J.R. Richard, power pitcher for Astros in ’70s, dies at 71

Sports

FILE – In this April 25, 1980, file photo, Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard accepts congratulations from pitching coach Mel Wright during a ceremony before a baseball game at the Astrodome in Houston. Richard, a huge, flame-throwing right-hander who spent 10 years with the Astros before his career was cut short by a stroke, has died, the team announced, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. He was 71. (Jim McNay/Houston Chronicle via AP)

HOUSTON (AP) — J.R. Richard, a huge, flame-throwing right-hander who spent 10 years with the Houston Astros before his career was cut short by a stroke, has died. He was 71.

The team announced his death on Thursday but did not provide any further details.

“Today is a sad day for the Houston Astros as we mourn the loss of one of our franchise icons, J.R. Richard,” the Astros said in a statement. “J.R. will forever be remembered as an intimidating figure on the mound and as one of the greatest pitchers in club history. He stood shoulder to shoulder with club icons Larry Dierker, Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan, to form a few of the best rotations in club history.”

The 6-foot-8 Richard intimidated hitters with an effectively wild delivery, a fastball that often touched 100 mph and an almost unhittable breaking ball. He was selected by the Astros with the second overall pick in the 1969 draft and struck out 15 batters in a complete-game win over the Giants in his major league debut on Sept. 5, 1971.

He pitched for Houston from 1971-80, going 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA and 76 complete games. Richard won a career-best 20 games in 1976, the first of four straight seasons with at least 18 wins.

In 1978 he became the first Astro to strike out 300 batters in a season when he led the majors with 303. The next year, he led the National League with a 2.71 ERA and fanned 313 to again lead the majors.

Richard was having a great season in 1980, posting a 10-4 record with a 1.96 ERA in the first half of the season and starting for the NL in the All-Star Game on July 30. Less than a month later, Richard suffered a major stroke that ended his career.

Richard, who was just 30 at the time, attempted a comeback, but was never able to make it back to the majors and was released by the Astros in 1984.

Enos Cabell, who played with Richard for six seasons, raved about his teammate and longtime friend.

“He was one of the greatest pitchers we ever had and probably would have been in the Hall of Fame if his career was not cut short,” he said. “On the mound, he was devastating and intimidating. Nobody wanted to face him. Guys on the other team would say that they were sick to avoid facing him. This is very sad news. He will be missed.”

Houston manager Dusty Baker, who faced Richard often during his playing career, recalled some of his teammates manufacturing injuries to avoid the matchup.

“We had a couple of catchers, one came with his arm in a sling and another came on crutches,” Baker said. “There was something called J.R.-itis which was an incurable disease when you’re scared of J.R. Richard.”

Baker never backed down from the challenge of facing Richard, whom he called a friend, but he could see why others shied away from it.

“It was like J.R. was only throwing from about 50 feet,” Baker said. “With his reach and he was all legs, you didn’t have much time to make up your mind. … You didn’t really feel comfortable at the plate. He was the toughest guy I ever faced.”

Richard left his mark on the Astros’ record books and is tied for second in career ERA (3.15), third in strikeouts (1,493), fourth in complete games (76) and fifth in wins (107) and shutouts (19). He was inducted into the team’s inaugural Hall of Fame in 2019.

José Cruz, an outfielder who also played with Richard for six years, recalled what it was like playing behind him.

“He was one of the greatest Astros ever,” Cruz said. “When he was pitching, we knew that we were going to get a ‘W.’ I didn’t get too many balls hit to me in the outfield when he pitched because he was so dominating.”

Richard fell on hard times after his career ended. A series of bad investments, failed businesses and a divorce left him penniless, and he was briefly homeless in the mid-90s.

He eventually got his life back on track and worked as a minister in his later years.

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