This morning, while checking up on the late baseball scores and trade news on Twitter, I happened to find a peculiar tweet from Super 70s Sports. The account known for posting tons of vintage sports photos and now podcasts with some the game’s overlooked heroes pointed out a bold error by the Houston Astros.
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) July 29, 2016
While J.R. Richard did not have a long enough prime to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s odd that he never got his number retired from the only team he ever played for, especially given his special circumstances. I want to take this post to back up Super 70s Sports claim for Richard’s number getting recognition.
Of the nine numbers retired actually worn by Colt .45’s or Astros, five were worn by pitchers. Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan were the twin aces for the 1986 staff. Larry Dierker and Don Wilson were part of the rotation when Richard joined the franchise in 1971. Finally, Jim Umbricht was a solid relief pitcher in the 1960s while he battled melanoma, which claimed his life less than a week before the 1964 season. Somehow Richard has not had his number retired.
For most fans my age, born after Richard’s last start, his name is not normally mentioned when talking about baseball’s best starting pitchers. Talk to people who covered the National League from 1975 to 1980, though, and chances are they will talk about how dominant the Astros pitcher was.
Long before advanced metrics, Statcast, and home computers, pitchers were valued on how “hard” they threw, how many strikeouts they got, their wins, and ERA. Richard had all of that. Armed with a blistering fastball, with speeds comparable to his future teammate Ryan, it was his slider that set him apart. In the late 1970s, no one threw a harder slider than Richard. Long before movement was heralded as one of the best attributes to have, Richard’s slider had plenty of it. The results: lots of frustrated hitters.
Recently, Pete Rose was on The Dan Patrick Show and was asked, “Who was the hardest thrower you faced?” The first pitcher he mentioned was Richard. Speed and movement posed a threat to baseball’s all-time hit king.
All that changed in July 1980. As the above 1980 All-Star Game clip mentioned, Richard had recently complained of being “fatigued” in his right forearm. That was July 8. In his next start with Houston, on July 14, Richard had trouble seeing his catcher’s signs and had difficulty moving his arms. By the fourth inning, he could not grip a baseball due to numbness in his hands and fingers. He was put on the 21-day disabled list and had his arm checked out. It was determined his pitching arm had a blood clot but did not require surgery.
On July 30, Richard was warming up at the Astrodome. Despite having a headache and feeling weak, earlier a chiropractor worked his neck to get the blood flowing in his upper torso. Trying to loosen up, he collapsed in the outfield. He had suffered a stroke. He never pitched another major-league game again.
Richard accumulated great numbers during his peak years as an Astros starter. Overall, he is in the discussion of being one of the top pitchers in franchise history. His numbers from 1975 to 1980 are quite impressive. Even when you stack them against every other qualified starter during that time, there is no question he was one of baseball’s best during those six seasons.
Done by age 30, it opens up so many avenues concerning revisionists history for the team. If Richard did not have the stroke, would he have been able to take a game from the Phillies in the NLCS that year? Could the Astros have been able to establish a dynasty during that era, especially when Scott came into form by the middle 1980s?
J.R. Richard could have been a baseball legend. Unfortunately his stroke ended his prime and his career. It seems like a mere oversight that the Astros have not retired number 50. Here’s hoping this can change so future generations of Astros fans will associate his career with greatness.