By Lenny Moon
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.