A product of Riverside, Ca, Johnnie B. Baker aka “Dusty” has always shown signs of being a fierce competitor since his childhood. His moniker of “Dusty” was said to be attached to his propensity of being the dirtiest kid on the playground or even from his backyard sports activities. For newer fans of “America’s Pastime”, Baker was quite a power-hitting outfielder during his playing days which spanned 19 years (1968-1986). Two things quickly come to mind when reflecting on his active career. On the final day of the 1977 season, Baker became part of Major League Baseball history when deposited his 30th home run of the season for the Los Angeles Dodgers thus becoming part of the first quartet (Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Reggie Smith) to blast 30 or more home runs from the same lineup. The second Baker memory that readily jumps out is his being on deck in 1974 (see video link at the bottom of article) when MLB icon Hank Aaron slammed his 715th round tripper vs ironically the same Dodgers.
A quick Dusty Baker story. During the time I was covering MLB on a consistent basis as Sports Editor for a Houston, Tx based newspaper, I decided to do a feature on Baker while he was the skipper of the San Francisco Giants during the late 90s. I strolled over to the Astrodome (then home of the local Houston Astros) to make that happen. I popped into the Giants clubhouse and did not know specifically where the manager’s office was at that time. I located a familiar-looking face and decided to ask him where the Skip’s office was. The gentleman was Bobby Bonds (father of famed slugger Barry Bonds) who was on staff as one of the coaches. The senior Bonds instructed where the office was located and offered that Baker has an open door policy and if closed, wait until reopened to approach. I thanked him and walked down this narrow hallway to the door. Once there, I posted directly across from the door when I detected a series of high-pitched discussions seeping from the other side of the wall. I began to have second thoughts after hearing the heated discussion assuming that I had chosen a “not so good day” for a friendly chat with the Giants skipper.
Following an estimated 10 min wait, the door flung open and out walks a smiling Barry Bonds who spoke and went on about his business. I hesitated but thought again that since I had invested this amount of effort to procure this visit with Baker that I self-convinced myself to move forward with the process. The skipper invited me to come in and have a seat which resulted in one of the more memorable baseball interviews that I encountered from that era. I asked Baker to reflect on his days as a young player with the Atlanta Braves, and what was revealed was his relationship with mentor Hank Aaron who himself was a product of the Negro Leagues and consequently one of the early Black players to enter the game in 1954. Their association carried beyond the baseball diamond and the reverence for the “Hammer” from Dusty is a conversation that I’ll always remember.
As a manager, Baker has exceeded all expectations with his current Houston Astros. He inherited a team that had been penalized by the league for cheating and resulted in the firing of previous manager A.J. Hinch. Candidates were not exactly lining up to fill the Stros newly created void, and eventually Baker agreed to come out of retirement to take the job. In his first full season, Dusty led his club to the World Series and at press time has Houston again positioned as an American League force and will be the manager of the 2022 MLB All-Star Game.
The year was 1975 when a gentleman named Richard Milhouse Nixon was president of the United States. The unpopular Viet Nam War was still on the landscape, Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” were MLB kingpins, the Pittsburgh Steelers led by a cadre of HBCU performers were the reigning Super Bowl champs and the NBA was creating their own history with two Black coaches facing off to determine who would lead their contingent to the top of the throne on the hardwood. Golden State’s Al Alttles and the Washington’s K.C. Jones earned this distinction when the Warriors would go on to shut out the Bullets 4-0. Fast forward the clock to the third decade of the 21st Century and we’re witnessing the Boston Celtics (coached by rookie Ime Udoka) and the Dallas Mavericks (led by veteran Jason Kidd) in the NBA’s Final Four.
Let’s begin with Dallas Mavericks head coach Jason Frederick Kidd. At press time, it would be a daunting task for his Mavs to come back from a series deficit vs the vaunted Golden State Warriors but he’s led his contingent to the Western Conference Finals. A native of Oakland, Ca, the 49 yr old Kidd is a highly accomplished roundball aficionado on every conceivable level, having rose to the top high school player in the nation as a 6-4 point guard, an All-American in college and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist (2000 Sydney & 2008 Beijing). He was the 2nd player selected in the First Round of the 1994 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks. From there, Kidd would go on to enjoy a sparkling 20-yr NBA career (1994-2013) that resulted in him being a member of the 2011 Dallas squad that won the NBA Finals and ultimately the 10-time NBA All-Star would be named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team. As a player, Kidd was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. As a head coach in the NBA, Brooklyn came calling immediately following his retirement where Kidd led the Nets to the Conference Semifinals in 2014. He would go on to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to a pair of playoff appearances (2015 & 2017) as a prelude to arriving in the “Big D”. His Mavs 52-30 record is his best regular season mark so far in his 6-yr NBA head coaching career.
Boston Celtics rookie head coach Ime Udoka has been one of the most refreshing stories that hit the NBA in quite awhile. Unlike Kidd who landed an NBA head coaching job fresh from hanging up his sneakers as an active player, Udoka’s trek was much more complex. The American-Nigerian whose phonetics are (EE-may, oo-DOH-ke) was born in Portland, Oregon and played collegiately for three universities. His last stop was his most efficient at Portland State where he earned All-Big Sky Conference and Big Sky Newcomer of the Year his senior campaign. Although not drafted by the NBA, he bounced around the pro basketball circuit in the USA and overseas while toiling for the Knicks, Trail Blazers, Spurs and Kings of the NBA along the way.
Udoka’s coaching career began in 2012, being hired as an assistant for future hall of fame head coach Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. He was on staff when the Spurs defeated LeBron James and the Miami Heat 4-1 to win the 2014 NBA Finals. Ime would serve eight seasons in San Antonio prior to migrating to stops with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets (all three jobs as an assistant coach). On June 28, 2021 Udoka was hired to become the head coach of the Boston Celtics representing his first opportunity to serve as a head coach. Certainly one of his biggest challenges early on was to merge the talents of two of the brightest young stars in the league in forwards Jason “JT” Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Udoka’s no nonsense approach along with his ability to communicate with his players are traits that resemble his mentor Popovich from his San Antonio days. His exposure to professional basketball overseas as well as the states seemingly has been packaged and allowing roundball fans to witness one of the most impressive “rookie” coaching performances the league has ever seen.
The year was 1945 when Brooklyn Dodger president Branch Rickey approached Kansas City Monarch’s star Jack Roosevelt Robinson about possibly becoming the first Black in the modern era to integrate Major League Baseball. The irony is that Jackie wasn’t the most skilled from the available Negro League talent pool. There were mega-stars such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, “Cool Papa” Bell and others from a skilled set standpoint were more deserving to be the first. But Rickey knew that the barrier breaker had to have a certain profile that superseded the ability on the baseball diamond.
Robinson had been a multi-sport star at UCLA, starring in football, track and field as well as baseball. The conundrum with this exceptional athlete was that he was court marshaled while in the military during a racial related incident. Rickey’s experiment was to select a quality Negro League product that was capable of “turning the other cheek” when the extreme racism that first Black player would surely encounter continuously. Jackie was called in for the famous “talk” and left the conference agreeing for the benefit of paving the way for other capable Blacks to have a path into MLB, he would concede and compromise his instinct to retaliate. Following some trying experiences in the Minor Leagues, Robinson was brought up to the big league club (then based in Brooklyn) on April 15, 1947 becoming the first Black major league baseball player; thus launching the now famous “Experiment”.
Also a consideration is the period of time in America in 1947. This era represented seven years prior to “Brown vs the Board of Education” (1954), predated the Civil Rights Act (1964) by seventeen years, and eighteen prior to the signing of the Voting Rights Act (1965) just to name a few. Needless to say, when Jackie was asked to take the passive approach and counter his instinct to retaliate during this turbulent era of our country’s history, then reflecting back on the sacrifice that he made was monumental. Opposing players would sharpen their spikes and purposely slide into the bag high, attempting to injure Jackie when he was moved from first base to second base. Opposing players and fans would hurl various methods of the usage of the “N-Word” as commonly as the air that we breathe. Even several teammates of Robinson were not willing to accept the fact that a Black player was now a peer and sharing a locker room. On paper, this experiment had a small chance of being successful considering the obstacles that stood in the United States back in 1947.
The experiment succeeded because Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey pushed the right button when he was advised by Pittsburgh Courier’s Wendell Smith, a noted Black sports writer, that Jackie would be his recommendation based on his previous coverage of the Negro Leagues. Because Jackie was willing the make the brutal sacrifice and “turn the other cheek” while earning Rookie of the Year honors, 18 additional former Negro Leagues players were attached to MLB rosters between 1947 and 1951. Notably, two were fellow Brooklyn Dodgers (Roy Campanella-HOF catcher in 1948 and pitcher Don Newcombe in 1949) to go along with the New York Giants signing of the legendary Willie Mays in May of 1951. When Robinson signed with Brooklyn, another dynamic occurred. Black fans impacted the turnstiles in droves, as Rickey predicted with their likeness now allowed to participate in their tax supported ballparks. Like the late congressman John Lewis willingness to have his skull cracked so we can now enjoy our constitutional right to vote, Mr Robinson compromised his dignity to open the door for other minorities to finally be able to utilize their God-gifted abilities without the previous restrictions.
“PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME CANDIDATE (CONTRIBUTOR) JOHN WOOTEN ON HOUSTON FOX-26 WITH NATE GRIFFIN”
John Wooten, retired chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, was a recent guest on Fox 26-Houston with sports personality Nate Griffin. Mr Wooten discussed the origin of the FPA along with his interpretation of Brian Flores case, former coach of the Miami Dolphins who has sued the National Football League on discrimination charges. Wooten who has invested over 60 years with the NFL on a multitude of levels (player, scout, player personnel, FPA etc) is a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a contributor.
The Black College Football Hall of Fame announced their Class of 2022 to be inducted on June 18th in Atlanta, Ga at the College Football Hall of Fame venue. The selections are Livingstone College tight end Ben Coates, Alcorn State wide receiver Donald Driver, Morris Brown’s running back John “Big Train” Moody and Florida A&M offensive lineman Nate Newton. Also Grambling’s wide receiver Sammy White, Morris Brown contributor Roscoe Nance and Morris Brown and Prairie View coaching legend William “Billy” Nicks earned their right to round out the 2022 class.
Ben Coates-TE-Livingstone College (1987-90) New England Pats(1991-99), Baltimore Ravens (2000)
Benjamin Terrence Coates Jr was selected in the fifth round of the 1991 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. The 6-5, 245 tight end is a five-time Pro Bowl performer, a member of the 1990s All-Decade Team and inducted into the New England Patriots Hall of Fame in 2008. At the time of his retirement, Coates was fourth on the the all-time tight end receptions list with 499, trialing only Ozzie Newsome, Shannon Sharpe and Kellen Winslow. The Greenwood, SC native participated in both Super Bowl XXXI while a member of the Pats and Super Bowl XXXV with the Ravens. In 2018, he was inducted into the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Hall of Fame.
Donald Driver-WR Alcorn State (1995-98) Green Bay Packers (1999-2012)
Born in Houston, Tx, Donald Jerome Driver was a multi-star athlete at Milby High School, lettering in football, track, basketball and baseball. His versatility on the gridiron merited him Texas Honorable Mention All-State while starring at wide receiver, secondary and special teams. After accepting a scholarship to Alcorn State, the speedster went on to letter on the gridiron and the cinder where he earned SWAC Athlete of the Year”. He posted a career 19.9 yards per catch average while on the “Reservation” (moniker for the Braves campus). Drafted in the 7th round of the 1999 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers, Driver would spend his entire 14-year pro career with Green Bay becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in career receptions (743) and career receiving yards (10,137). The five-time Pro Bowler was a member of the Packers Super Bowl XLV championship over the Steelers and is a bonafide Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate.
John “Big Train” Moody-RB-Morris Brown College
An All-American running back for Morris Brown College that predated World War II, John “Big Train” Moody set a Black College football record by accumulating 290 total points. He played a pivotal role in Morris Brown’s Black National Championship in 1940
Nate Newton-OL- Florida A&M University (1979-82) Washington (1983) Tampa Bay Bandits-USFL (1984-85) Dallas Cowboys (1986-98) Carolina Panthers (1999)
Nathaniel “Nate” Newton was a four-sport letterman at Jones High School in Orlando. Until his junior season, he actually played the fullback position until he literally outgrew the position and was moved to the defensive line. Nate elected to remain in his home state and selected Florida A&M where he played both offensive and defensive line positions his first two seasons. Eventually he settled as a fulltime offensive lineman his junior season, and earned All-Mideastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) his senior campaign. Newton played 17 years of pro football, with 13 of those with the Dallas Cowboys. The 6-3, 335 pound offensive lineman is a three-time Super Bowl champion (XXVII, XXVIII & XXX) and is a 6-time Pro Bowl performer.
Sammy White posted a prolific collegiate career at Grambling State, becoming a two-time All-Southwestern Conference (SWAC) wide receiver and selected in the 2nd round of the 1976 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. It didn’t take long before the Winnsboro, Louisiana native asserted himself on the next level, becoming a unanimous NFL Rookie of the Year performer along with a Pro Bowl appearance that same season. White would go on to earn three Pro Bowl appearances, snare 50 career TDs, named to Minnesota’s 25th Anniversary Team and earned the distinction as one of the “50 Greatest Vikings”. Sammy was former Vikings QB Fran Tarkenton’s go-to receiver in Super Bowl XI vs the Oakland Raiders.
A native of Enterprise, Alabama Roscoe Nance was a sports writer deluxe for well over 40 years having cut his teeth in the deep south in Columbus, Ga back in 1975 and later stints with the Jackson, Ms Clarion Ledger (1978-85) and the USA Today (1986-2007). It was during his term with the Clarion Ledger, where Nance became the first Black sportswriter and later wore the moniker as “Dean of Black College Sportswriters”. An example of Roscoe’s colorful writing style was his penchant for coining nicknames for legendary SWAC football coaches that stuck such as Mississippi Valley’s Archie “Gunslinger” Cooley and Alcorn’s Marino “Godfather” Casem. Known as ‘Sco to those who knew him well, Nance founded the SWAC Alumni Association as part of his rich HBCU sports legacy.
William “Billy” Nicks-Coach- Morris Brown -Prairie View A&M
A native of Griffin, Ga and an alum of Morris Brown College in the 20s, William James Nicks would return to his alma mater as a coach and compile an impressive 65-21-13 ledger. Included was a Black National Championship team in 1941. If one thought that his 75% success ratio was apparent due to home cooking, then he squash those notions once he arrived in Texas shortly following World War II. From 1945 through 1965 during two different stints on “The Hill” in Waller County, Coach Nicks would amass a sparkling 127-39-8 record, including five Black National Football Championships, seven SWAC Football Championships and earned the NAIA Coach of the Year in 1963. His career record stands as 192-60-21. Prairie View’s basketball arena, as well as other current athletic complex structures are named on behalf of Coach Billy Nicks.
“HBCU LEGACY BOWL 2022”- Black College Football Hall of Fame
The inaugural “HBCU Legacy Bowl”, hosted by the Black College Football Hall of Fame will transpire on February 18, 2022 at Yulman Stadium on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, La starting at 3:00 pm…”We thought the creation of the Legacy Bowl would showcase the HBCU (Historically Black College & University) draft eligible football players to get an additional look, compete against each other, and have an outlet to display their skills before NFL scouts” stated James “Shack” Harris (Co-Founder and Trustee of the Black College Football Hall of Fame). Harris went on to say “Ultimately, the goal is to increase the HBCU football player the opportunity to get drafted into the National Football League”. The game will be broadcast live on the NFL Network. Steve Wyche will provide the play-by-play, Charles Davis (Game Analyst) and Bucky Brooks (Sideline). Ticket information can be retrieved online by visiting tulanegreenwave.evenue.net or 504-861-9283.
The teams will be structured with the East vs West model indicated below:
(West) SWAC and SIAC deemed as the “Eddie Robinson Team” Coaches: Willie Simmons (FAMU) Offense Gabe Giardina (Albany State) Defense
(East) MEAC and CIAA deemed as the “Jake Gaither Team” Coaches: Buddy Pough (SC State) Defense Damon Wilson (Bowie State) Offense
Sponsors include: Coors Light Patrick Mahomes’ 15 Foundation New Orleans Saints National Football League Adidas Pro Football Hall of Fame State Farm Insurance Riddell Allstate Insurance Bobby Wagner-Seattle Seahawks Jameis Winston-New Orleans Saints Aaron Donald-Los Angeles Rams Terron Armstead-New Orleans Saints The Home Depot Hyatt Regency The Odor Doctors Deluxe Athletes GoCoastGuard.com
Early in my collegiate football broadcasting career, I was assigned to provide said services for the renown Historically Black College (HBCU) located in the heart of centrally located Third Ward smack dab in the middle of Houston, Tx. Texas Southern University (TSU) is located a short distance from downtown, the world famous Medical Center, the University of Houston, Rice University and even closer to the Cuney Homes (former residence of George Floyd who “shook up the world” with his untimely death symbolic of police brutality unjustly assessed against minorities). I had previously covered the Tigers from a distance while serving as the Sports Editor of the Houston Newspages. But once I became one of the voices of TSU’s football team, with it required more time invested to become more versed about the product that I would be articulating.
Once embedded, I quickly noticed that several of the members of the coaching staff were former players of the local NFL franchise Houston Oilers. Being a huge Oilers fan for years, I readily recognized several staff members and former pro players such as Conway Hayman (who blocked for Earl Campbell), along with former secondary stars C.L. Whittington and Al Johnson. Head Coach Walter Highsmith, who also had a pro football resume, was in the second year of his five year contract. His son Alonzo was a starting running back across town for the Oilers during this same period. As a broadcaster, the defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator were where one procured the insight of the players, in addition to Highsmith. Whittington at that time was the defensive coordinator, who molded several of his pupils from that program that went on to the NFL ranks. Coach Whittington often spoke of a protégé that was originally a raw prospect, who actually had not played many years of football prior to his arrival at TSU, that was absorbing the coaching and quickly developing into a force as an edge pass rusher.
Michael Strahan was not your prototypical recruit that comprised the resume of your typical collegiate student-athlete. His trek carried him to a military upbringing in Mannheim, Germany before returning back to the states and H-Town (his birthplace) to live with his uncle Art. As the Strahan folklore has it, Michael’s only college scholarship offer was TSU due to his uncle’s connection to Coach Highsmith and his alma mater. Our paths intersected around 1991 (Mike’s junior season) when he was emerging as a star at his position in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Since I was now part of the radio broadcasting contingent, I felt compelled to implement a head football coach’s show that was noticeably missing with the blessing of Coach Highsmith. During that era, Houston Sports and Entertainment (HSE) was the outlet for a large chunk of the football coaching shows that I had witnessed. As fate would have it, I inadvertently crossed paths with that station’s general manager Jack Stanfield and worked out a deal where we could get TSU football on the televised airwaves. Through Stanfield, we were not only airing in the Houston market, but also the Southwest Region which included other connecting states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Mike would appear a couple of times as “Player of the Week” where we would highlight the TSU gridder’s exploits on the field, but also take that opportunity to discuss their academics and/or profile related entities.
Little did anyone know at the time that Strahan would continue to develop on and off the field, drafted in the 2nd round of the 1993 NFL Draft, become a 7-time Pro Bowl selection, enjoy a sterling 15-year NFL career, Super Bowl XLII champion, 2000s All-Decade Team, New York Giants Ring of Honor, No 92 jersey permanently retired, Black College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame among other accolades. And those are just some of his on field accomplishments. The Houston native would go on to become an NFL studio personality for Fox NFL, “Live with Kelly and Michael”, “Good Morning America” co-host, the “$100,000 Pyramid” host among others while fully taking advantage of his New York City celebrity and ambition. And if that wasn’t enough, Strahan is slated to launch into space on Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin’s rocket slated for December 2021. This gentleman has certainly come quite a distance from his highlight having been knocking out Alcorn State’s QB Steve “Air” McNair while at TSU to going where only a few humans have ever traveled.
Over the past three decades or so (whose counting), we had the good fortune of crossing paths with some of the biggest names on the sports landscape. Back in the day, we established a platform that we titled “Sports Briefs” that was typically less than two minutes in length and featured either a contemporary issue and/or a top shelf personality of that time period. With that said, we’ve reached back and retrieved four previous segments, with two attached to each reel.
The first highlights two gentlemen from the world of Major League Baseball, where one is known for his voice and the other for his booming bat. Vin Skully, legendary voice of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers was asked about his Dodgers producing more than their fair share of “Rookie of the Year” performers over the years. The next visit was the guy best known by baseball fans as “Mr October”, Reggie Jackson. The lefty swinging power hitter was asked about his love and hate relationship of playing in New York for the Yankees. Both Skully and Jackson are MLB Hall of Fame members.(SEE VIDEO BELOW)
The second video highlights former Texas Western University (now known as University of Texas-El Paso) head basketball coach Don Haskins. During a roundball broadcasting excursion to west Texas prior to the production of the movie “Glory Road”, we caught up with the history-making coach popularly known as “The Bear”. Back in 1966, Texas Western became the first college in American history to start five Black cagers in a NCAA Division I Torunament championship game to win the national title.
The second segment connects with former Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan. The Bonham, Tx native was asked about his seemingly smooth transition made from the diamond to the press box. Both Haskins and Morgan are Hall of Famers in their respective sports. (SEE VIDEO BELOW)
We’ll present more “LennyMoonBriefs” on future posts on this site https://www.lennymoonsports.com, so you want to stay tuned for more of the biggest sports stars of that era.
Pro Football Hall of Famer and Fritz Pollard Alliance Executive Director Harry Carson talks with veteran sports broadcaster Lenny Moon about the 2022 PFHOF Contributor candidacy of recently retired FPA chairman, Mr John Wooten. The Riverview, Texas native was an All-American at the University of Colorado in the late 50s, prior to becoming a 60-year National Football League-“Lifer” . Wooten was an All-Pro guard (primarily for the Cleveland Browns) having blocked for three Pro Football Hall of Fame running backs in the likes of legendary Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelley. From there he landed in the Player Personnel department of the Dallas Cowboys where he was an integral part of the infamous “Herchel Walker Trade” that paved the way for America’s Team to become multiple Super Bowl champions during the 90s. Among his many other achievements and acknowledgements in the NFL, Wooten was the first chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance where he served for 25 productive years. The FPA is the entity that established the “Rooney Rule” signifying that an African American or other minority candidate must “at least” be interviewed by NFL clubs when a vacancy as head coach, front office, etc become available.
The baseball world lost one of it’s brightest stars from the 70s recently when former Houston Astros hurler James Rodney (J.R.) Richard transitioned at the age of 71 years of age. It’s been reported that the Vienna, La native passed of complications from Co-Vid 19 where he was said to be unvaccinated. Richard remained a resident of Houston during most of his post baseball career including at the time of his death.
Personally, I did not meet J.R. during his active career which spanned from 1971-1980 (all with the Astros) but crossed paths with him during his stint as a Bar-B-Q restaurant owner in Southwest Houston about a decade or so later. I went over to interview him and out walked this 6-8 gentleman wearing a smoked-filled apron. Before we got around to the business at hand, J.R. was determined that I sample his wares. In all sincerity, the product was delicious while featuring his signature homemade sauce punctuating the rich smoke-flavored entree. Once the interview unfolded, one of my vivid memories of that conversation was the overtone of bitterness with the local media who covered the Astros at the time of his on the job illness along with his former employer the Astros. From all indications, both impediments were left in the past as the big fella became more visible and active in the community and honored by his former team on several occasions; including the team’s Hall of Fame.
J.R. was selected by Houston with the 2nd pick of the 1969 MLB Draft after dominating the state of Louisiana in baseball and basketball while at Lincoln High in Ruston, La. An indication of why the hulking but versatile athlete was so coveted, he never lost a game that he started spanning his entire high school career on the mound, while slugging four homers in four at bats in a game. Additionally, the gifted student athlete received over 200 basketball scholarship offers but opted to began his professional career with the Astros. As with most fireballers, Richard struggled with control issues early in his MLB development, but like Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan and others once mastered became one of the most feared pitchers on the bump of his era. In 1975 at the age of 25, the Astros were confident that he was prepared to become a part of the rotation where he posted a respectable 12-10 record with 176 K’s in 203 innings and 31 starts. That season would prove to be a prelude for the best five year stretch of any Astros hurler in team’s history.
From that juncture of his career the genie was released from the bottle. In 1976, J.R. reached the coveted 20-win plateau to go along with a paltry 2.75 ERA and completed 14 of his 39 starts. In both 1978 and 1979, Richard led the National League in KO’s with 303 and 313 respectively and a Cy Young Award candidate in each. Not only had the northern Louisiana native arrived, he was now “the guy” that hitters felt extremely uncomfortable in the batter’s box. Standing 6-8 and consistently throwing fastballs over 100 mph to go along with a slider thrown nearly as hard, added up to a recipe for disaster for N.L. hitters. As fate would have it, J.R. was enjoying his best season in 1980 earning the nod as the N.L. starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, appearing on the scene with a 10-4 record and a stingy 1.90 ERA and blowing away the competition once the game unfolded. It was shortly after his return from the All-Star break that Richard suffered the stroke while warming up at the Astrodome. Having signed a then-lucrative contract prior to the 1980 campaign, the local media turned on him, indicating that he was faking his ailment leading up to his collapse. Their take was now that he had gotten the large contract, his drive to be dominate was compromised. Even the team’s medical staff misdiagnosed his condition and understandably left a bitter taste for him for quite some time. Although he experienced some rough patches during his post career with costly failed marriages along with business investments that went south and even homeless for a spell, like the warrior that he exhibited during his career rose above those obstacles and appeared to be in a good place at the time of his transition.
The award represented in the above photo was granted during the week of Super Bowl XXXVIII here in Houston. I was chair of the selection committee that recognized local athletes from a variety of sports sponsored by the African American Ethnic Hall of Fame. Along with Clyde Drexler, Sheryl Swoopes, Donald Driver, Carol Lewis and others, J.R. was an easy choice for yours truly. If he was not fallen by his life-threatening stroke in 1980, it was crystal clear that we would preface his title with MLB Hall of Fame member J.R. Richard.