J.R. Richard, the former Houston Astros pitcher whose career was cut short due to a stroke, passed away today, it was announced. He was 71.
Richard was the second overall pick in the 1969 MLB Draft out of Ruston, Louisiana. At 6’8”, he was an imposing figure on the mound, and in his prime threw as hard as anyone in MLB. Richard first made the majors in 1971, but had his breakout year in 1976, putting up a 3.6 bWAR and a 2.75 ERA in 39 starts, winning twenty games and finishing 7th in the Cy Young balloting.
Richard would follow that up with a solid 1977 season, then lead the majors in strikeouts in both 1978 and 1979 with 303 and 313, respectively, finishing 4th and then 3rd in the Cy Young balloting, and leading the majors in ERA in 1979.
Richard was in the midst of his best season in 1980, with a 1.90 ERA and a berth in his first All Star Game, when he suffered a stroke in July, 1980. He had been reporting a dead arm, arm soreness, and at one point had trouble seeing the catcher’s signs, but the issues were largely dismissed at the time, with some in the media suggesting he was malingering, or just jealous of the attention teammate Nolan Ryan received.
Richard attempted a comeback but could never make it back to the majors leagues. He became homeless for a period of time in the 1990s, before getting help from the New Testament Church in Houston. He eventually became a preacher and worked with community baseball groups in Houston.