Among the most tragic figures in baseball annals is 6’8″ J.R. Richard. With a fastball clocked as high as 100 mph, the Louisianan signed with Houston as their first pick in 1969, passing up 200 basketball scholarship offers. Facing the Giants on September 5, 1971, he fanned 15 batters to tie Karl Spooner‘s record for most strikeouts in a major league debut. But he pitched mostly in the minors until 1975, and later blamed racism for his failure to advance. Explained teammate Enos Cabell, “He’s very sensitive to racial conditions….He’s a country boy, a Bible reader. He’s not used to pressure or criticism.”
Richard was intimidating. With his gigantic stride, he made batters feel as if they were “facing someone who is throwing at them too fast from too close and too great a height,” said Sports Illustrated in 1978. He mixed in a superb slider and, because he was wild, hitters could not dig in against him. His six wild pitches in a 1979 game tied a modern NL record. Bob Watson claimed, “I’ve never taken batting practice against him and I never will. I have a family to think of.” Richard led the NL in walks three times, but won 20 games in 1976 and 18 each year from 1977 to 1979. The Astros’ ace led the NL with 303 strikeouts in 1978 and 313 in 1979, winning the league ERA title (2.71).
In June 1980, Richard began complaining of “a dead arm.” The media, fans, and some teammates accused him of loafing (though he hadn’t missed a start in five years), gutlessness (the Astros were in a pennant race), jealousy of Nolan Ryan‘s bigger contract, and even drug abuse. He was 10-4 (1.89) and had started the All-Star Game when, in a July 14 assignment, he appeared dazed and had trouble seeing the catcher’s signs, and his movements became awkward. He was put on the disabled list, and though tests revealed a blockage in an artery leading to his right arm, doctors felt there was no danger. Richard resumed workouts, but on July 30, he collapsed. Finding no pulse in his right carotid artery, surgeons removed a clot to restore blood flow to his brain.
The stroke virtually paralyzed Richard’s left side, but, in an attempt to restore his chances of pitching again, another operation was performed. With therapy, most of his strength and speech returned, and he tried a comeback the following spring. But his reflexes and coordination were gone, he was unable to make spatial perceptions and could not field his position. He pitched some in the minors, but eventually “traded baseball for a life of God,” he explained, and sold cars. Said wife Carolyn, “I’ve never seen a player dragged through the mud like this….It took death, or nearly death, to get an apology. They should have believed him.”