He stood 6-foot-8 on the mound, reason enough to look larger than life to the major league hitters he tortured during his 10-year career. But that’s not what made J.R. Richard a special pitcher. It was his searing fastball, which often reached the high 90s.
“Whenever I am requested [to speak], I go,” Richard said. “I love to go out and talk to people. I am a people person. I like to have some fun and put smiles on the faces [of his audience] and make them happy.”
But the story Richard had to tell isn’t the happiest.
“A story like J.R. Richard’s is the reason The World Series Club has existed for 91 years. From his dominance as a pitcher, to a misdiagnosis, suffering a stroke, becoming homeless and turning it all around,” Tim Brennan, The World Series club president, said.
At the end of July 1980, while the Astros were in Philadelphia, Richard, the perfect physical specimen at 240 pounds with 3 percent body fat, was at the Astrodome working out during stint on the disabled list.
“I don’t think I was even close to the top of my game at that point,” Richard said. “I was on the verge of striking out 300 hitters again. And I think I could have stayed on that level for another four or five years.”
He was complaining of arm fatigue, a condition the Astros doctors felt could best be resolved with rest. At the time, Richard, who was making $850,000, was 10-4 with a 1.89 ERA and had thrown a two-hitter and a one-hitter against the Dodgers. He was the starting pitcher for the National League in that season’s All-Star Game.
Suddenly, a high-pitched ringing appeared in his left ear, followed by a feeling of nausea. Within a matter of moments, he collapsed.
Medics arrived to take him to the hospital. And not long after he woke up he was confronted with the news that he had suffered three strokes.
“Things happen for a reason,” Richard said. “So you make a decision. Do you lay down and die? I’ve always tried to stay positive. You can learn how to encourage yourself. There’s no one that can make you do things.”
Richard said at the time of his illness people were accusing him of laziness and that he was jealous of Nolan Ryan, whose contract was more substantial. He was not pitching as many complete games because of arm fatigue and that fueled the gossip.
Surgery eventually left him with problems on his left side, including blurred vision in his left eye. His big problem, at that point, was that no one could tell him if he would ever pitch again and the uncertainly forced him into a depression.
This was a pitcher who struck out 15 in his first major league start in San Francisco on Sept. 5, 1971.
“Unbeknownst to everyone, unbeknownst to the whole world,” Richard said. “That day the whole world went, ‘Whoa, where did he come from?’ All of a sudden, I was there and there was nothing anyone could do about it.”
He eventually won 20 games in 1976 and in 1978 struck out 303, the first National League right-hander to ever whiff more than 300 in one season.
“I think if I hadn’t gotten sick, I could have been the greatest pitcher ever. Every year, I just kept getting better and better. I had more command of my fastball, more command of my slider, all my pitches. And who knows? I might have added another pitch or two.”
In 1979 he won 18 games for the second season in a row, struck out 313 and led the NL with an earned-run average of 2.71.
"He was the best pitcher in baseball, no question about it," former Astro manager Bill Virdon said at the time. "He probably created more headaches and stomachaches for right-handed hitters than anybody who ever played."
But Richard’s playing career was basically over. In 1983, he was 0-2 with a 13.68 ERA at Triple A Tucson. He was released the next spring by the Astros after a comeback effort and there were long periods when he was unemployed. He was basically living on the interest accumulating in his savings accounts.
During his times of despair, Richard said he developed a devout spirituality. But by 1993, after the failure of a barbecue business, Richard lost his home, living with a series of friends before he found himself on the streets. He began working for an asphalt company that provided him a truck and an apartment. At one point, he was down to $20.
His life began to turn around when he was 44 and met the Rev. Floyd Lewis of the New Testament Church of South Houston.
With Lewis’ help, Richard himself became a minister and now he spends a lot of his time helping the homeless, mentoring area youth and raising funds for civic projects. Richard has published a book, “Still Throwing Heat: Strikeouts, the Streets, and a Second Chance.”
“I’m retired, doing a lot of fishing,” Richard said. “But the main thing is my ministry. I visit people, talk to them, ask them if they want to commit themselves to Christ. … I am fine and the reason I say that is because I am still alive regardless of what has gone on around me. I’m still here. I’m thankful for that every day.”