Stroke Ends Richard’s Career
July 30, 1980
“J.R. Richard has taken a while to get his game together, but now has 79 wins at nearly 29 years of age. His intimidating figure on the mound may become a fixture for many years.” — Baseball Digest, January 1979
Before Randy Johnson came along, J.R. Richard was baseball’s Biggest Unit. Bursting on the scene in 1971 as the tallest pitcher in major-league history, Richard packed a vicious bundle of power and athleticism into his 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame.
Severe control problems kept Richard out of the Houston rotation until 1975, and in each of his first two seasons as a full-time starter he topped the NL in walks. But once he learned to harness his wildness, Richard showed the dominance that had allowed him to pitch an entire high-school season without allowing a run; in 1978, he became the first National Leaguer since Sandy Koufax to strike out as many as 300 batters in a season.
Just two years later, Richard’s promising career would come to a premature end.
“WHAT’S WITH J.R.?” was Baseball’s Big Question after the $850,000 crown jewel of the Astros’ rotation left for the 1980 All-Star Game complaining of a “dead arm.” Reporters, fans and even some teammates questioned whether he lacked the guts for Houston’s tight pennant race with Los Angeles. Some wondered if he still resented the $1 million contract the Astros gave to Nolan Ryan before the season. There were even allegations of drug abuse.
None of it was true. Richard’s body, for all its splendor, was at the mercy of his brain. And Richard’s brain was on the verge of breaking down.
The first indication that something was seriously wrong with the star pitcher came on a July 14 outing in which Richard had difficulty with his movements and reading the catcher’s signs. Initial tests revealed no physical problems, and a team doctor even went so far as to suggest Richard’s ailments might be emotional. A week later, doctors discovered a circulation impairment near Richard’s right shoulder. Not to worry, announced the Astros. Richard was neither in danger nor in need of surgery.
By the end of the month Richard was back at the Astrodome, playing catch with former Astro Wilbur Howard under the observation of trainer Doc Ewell. After a 10-minute rest in the dugout, Richard returned to the field to try some more throwing — and collapsed.
Emergency surgery at Houston’s Methodist Hospital uncovered the root of Richard’s struggles. The branch of his carotid artery that supplied blood to the right shoulder was completely clotted, resulting in a near-fatal stroke. When asked by a reporter if Richard would lose the use of his arm, one doctor replied: “Hell, they weren’t worried about his arm; they were worried about his life.”
THE SURGERY WAS A SUCCESS, but the stroke had nearly paralyzed the entire left side of Richard’s body. A second operation returned much of his strength and speech, but the fearsome right-hander never pitched in the big leagues again. A brief comeback ended in March 1984 after Richard had gone 0-2 with a 13.68 ERA in six starts for Triple-A Tucson. The Astros gave him his release.
Richard made an appearance in the Old-Timers’ Game at the 1995 All-Star festivities in Arlington, Texas, and at 45, he showed he could still rear back and fire in a mean fastball. During his time away from the game, Richard had lost his wife, $300,000 in an oil deal scam, and then his house. A reporter from the Houston Post had found the former All-Star under a bridge in January with no possessions beyond the $20 in his pocket. But by that summer, Richard appeared to be back on track, working for an asphalt company and settled in with his wife and son, J.R. III.