An All-Star’s hard life
Pitcher J.R. Richard was a baseball star before falling to illness and homelessness. As he recovered, he ministered to others struggling like him
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Sept. 5 is the 50th anniversary of one of the most auspicious pitching debuts in Major League Baseball history. It’s also one month after the death at age 71 of Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, who reached the heights of All-Star success, descended to the depths of all-homeless poverty, and had a comeback in homeless ministry and preaching.
Richard on Sept. 5, 1971, struck out 15 San Francisco Giants, tying the record for the most strikeouts by a pitcher in his first major league game. Willie Mays struck out three times and said after the game, “Who was that? He nearly scared me half to death!” That’s because Richard was 6 feet, 8 inches tall, threw a 103 mph fastball, and was often wild.
That James Rodney Richard would reach baseball superstardom wouldn’t have surprised his Lincoln High School teammates in Ruston, La. He didn’t give up an earned run his entire senior season. The Astros drafted him second in the 1969 amateur draft and were eventually rewarded when Richard twice topped the National League in strikeouts: 303 in 1978 and 313 in 1979.
At the end of 1979, according to the Los Angeles Times, four Dodger regulars sat out their last game against Richard. Houston teammate Enos Cabell said, “Nobody wanted to face him. Guys on the other team would say that they were sick to avoid facing him.”
Richard was in his prime in 1980. He signed a contract that paid him $850,000 a year. By the All-Star Game—he started and pitched two scoreless innings—he had a 10-4 record with an earned run average of 1.91. Then everything changed.
Richard had been complaining of nonspecific physical ailments, including arm deadness and fatigue. Some fans and teammates accused him of faking it. They whispered about cocaine use. (Richard later admitted to occasional drug use but denied being a heavy user.) Local reporters mocked his complaints: One columnist said they could be grist for a soap opera, As the Stomach Turns. But on July 30, 1980, during a light workout, Richard “became real nauseated, and I lay down on the Astrodome floor. And the next thing I remember I was waking up in the hospital.”
Richard had suffered a major stroke caused by a mostly blocked carotid artery. Emergency surgery saved his life. Two weeks later he had more complicated surgery to fix a vascular problem in his pitching arm. Astro employee Ed Wade visited Richard in the hospital and found him “struggling to speak.” The hand that was so large it could hold eight baseballs was “cold to the touch.”
Richard never regained his hand-eye coordination or power. Hidden damage reduced his ability to focus and make decisions. The Astros released him in 1984. His wife divorced him. By 1987—just seven years after his All-Star triumph—a Los Angeles Times reporter found Richard overweight and depressed, lacking motivation and failing to keep jobs or commitments. He was living with his girlfriend and their young child.
He told the reporter he was living on interest from his savings and had few friends: “Jesus is my closest friend. … The Bible said … man will let you down every time he says he won’t.” Richard ignored that knowledge and invested a million-dollar settlement from the Astros in scam artists: $300,000 for nonexistent oil wells; $150,000 for movie production; $125,000 for Arizona real estate; $25,000 in a spa, all disappeared.
By the early 1990s Richard was bankrupt. He lost his car and his house. He sometimes slept under a highway overpass where a Houston Post reporter discovered him. When former teammates read what had happened to him, they got him help with the Baseball Assistance Team, which agreed to pay his rent for six months.
A pastor invited Richard to his church and got him involved in homeless ministry and lay preaching. He gave occasional motivational talks to the homeless and offered private pitching lessons to promising young athletes. “I try to teach them about life,” Richard told the Toronto Star. “I don’t try to teach them about just baseball. Baseball is simple, it’s life that can be very hard.”
Life continued to be hard for Richard, but after two divorces he married in 2010 a woman he met at church. She helped him bring order to his life, maintaining his schedule and taking his calls. He told the Houston Chronicle that she helped with stability: “Trust was a big deal for me because I had been hurt a whole bunch of times.”
Over the past decade Richard received increasing recognition for his achievements: In 2012 the Astros inducted him into the team’s Walk of Fame—though they failed to retire his No. 50, an honor he dearly wanted. In 2018 the Negro League Baseball Museum inducted him into its Hall of Game, an honor that made him “peacock proud and honeymoon happy.”
After his death on Aug. 4, obituaries focused on what J.R. Richard lost. Sometimes he did the same thing. In 1999 he mused to The Sporting News, “Who knows how much better I would have gotten or what kind of records I would have put up?” Yet in that same story he also said it “doesn’t do any good to sit here and dwell on what could have been. … Life is good, God is good to me.”
—WORLD has updated this story to correct the age of J.R. Richard when he died.
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