HOUSTON -- Enos Cabell, like most of his former teammates of the era, is convinced the Astros would have won the 1980 World Series had starting pitcher J.R. Richard -- who was perhaps the most feared pitcher in baseball that season -- not suffered a career-ending stroke shortly after starting for the National League in the All-Star Game
“Nobody would have beaten us,” said Cabell, whose Astros dropped the best-of-five National League Championship Series against the Phillies in five games, four of which went to extra innings. “When J.R. went down, he was leading the league in everything -- strikeouts, wins. He was going to win the Cy Young.”
Richard, a large and intimidating right-hander who struck out more than 600 batters over two seasons for the Astros in a 10-year career that was cut short by a stroke, died Wednesday at age 71. He left behind a legacy larger than his 6-foot-8 frame and remains one of the biggest what-ifs in Astros history.
“If it hadn’t been for the stroke in 1980, I’m certain he was destined to be a Hall of Famer,” said former Astros president and general manager Tal Smith, who led the charge to draft Richard out of Lincoln High School in Ruston, La., with the No. 2 overall pick in 1969. “I don’t think there was any doubt about it.”
The Astros, who lost club legends Bob Watson, Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn last year, honored Richard prior to Thursday’s game against the Twins with a moment of silence.
Astros manager Dusty Baker became friends with Richard through Baker’s close friend and Braves teammate Ralph Garr, who was also from Ruston.
“We became friends even though we were adversaries on the mound,” said Baker, who was 11-for-78 against Richard with 24 strikeouts. “He got the nod most of the time. I got him a couple of times, but he got me a whole bunch of times. I remember when he had his stroke and I went to see him in the hospital. We’ve been in contact for a while, damn near all our lives. A lot of legends are leaving.”
Richard had a 107-71 record with a 3.15 ERA and 76 complete games for the Astros. He won 18 or more games in four straight seasons (1976-79). In '78, he became the first Astros pitcher to reach 300 strikeouts in a season with 303, a record he broke the following season with 313 strikeouts.
On the Astros' all-time lists, Richard ranks tied for second in career ERA (3.15), third in strikeouts (1,493), fourth in complete games (76), fifth in wins (107) and fifth in shutouts (19). In 2019, he was part of the inaugural class inducted into the Astros Hall of Fame.
“When he got on the mound, he was so big and threw so hard and had such a devastating slider that right-handed hitters found it very intimidating to hit off of him,” Hall of Famer pitcher Nolan Ryan said in 2015.
Richard still made the most of his shortened career, which began with a 15-strikeout performance in his big league debut in 1971, whiffing Willie Mays three times. Still, it wasn’t until '75 that he became a full-time starter, helping the up-and-coming Astros emerge a threat in the late '70s.
For the next 5 1/2 seasons, he was a dominant pitcher, winning 20 games in 1976, leading the Majors in strikeouts in 1978-79 and in ERA in '79. Throwing a 100 mph fastball and a sharp breaking pitch, he also led the Majors in wild pitches three times, which made him all the more difficult to face.
"The thing about his size was, the plate is 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound, but J.R. is throwing from 50 feet,” Baker said. “He was all legs. You didn't have much time to make up your mind, plus he was a little bit wild. He was the toughest guy I ever faced, and we faced him all the time."
Growing up in a small town in northern Louisiana, Richard spent most of his time outdoors fishing and hunting for rabbits and birds. He developed his arm strength by throwing rocks because his mother didn’t want him playing in the house. By the time he finished high school, he was 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds and a three-sport star. He went 11-0 on the mound his senior year at Lincoln High, making him a hot commodity in the MLB Draft.
Smith, who was the Astros’ vice president and director of player personnel at the time, led a contingent from the Astros’ front office that traveled to Ruston to watch Richard pitch in a high school playoff game. Alas, Richard started in right field, and his team was eliminated with a 1-0 loss. The next day, the Astros arranged for Richard to throw on a rainy field.
“We had J.R. and this catcher we recruited in sort of a makeshift workout, and that was our final look, and we made the decision to draft him,” Smith said. “When he went out, we sent him to Covington in the Appalachian League and J.R., literally at that time, didn’t know how to pitch out of the stretch. He never had to.”
On Sept. 5, 1971, in San Francisco, Richard made his Major League debut and struck out 15 Giants in a complete-game win. Richard bounced between the Minors and Majors the next three years before making the rotation in '75, going 12–10 with a 4.39 ERA.
He won 20 games in '76 and established himself as one of the most intimidating arms in the game with his size and triple-digit fastball. He won 18 games in each of the next three years, finishing in the top five in Cy Young Award voting twice.
“Playing first base, when guys would get on base somehow, they would come down to first base and say, ‘Gee whiz, he is so uncomfortable to hit off of,’” former teammate Bob Watson once said.
Stories of some of the best hitters in baseball asking not to play on days they were facing Richard were more than folklore.
“I remember one day it was supposed to be my turn to hit against him in the cage,” Cabell said. “I said, ‘I’m not doing that.’ They put Bruce Bochy in my spot, and he broke Bruce Bochy’s toe.”
Baker said one day both catchers came into the clubhouse on the day the Dodgers were scheduled to face the Astros and one came with his arm in a sling and the other was in crutches.
“There was such a thing as J.R.-itis -- an incurable disease when you’re afraid of J.R.,” he said. “We had a team meeting and said, 'Somebody’s going to catch.' There were a lot of guys who would take days off when J.R. was pitching.”
The Astros signed Ryan prior to the 1980 season, giving Houston a scary rotation that included Ryan, Richard and Joe Niekro. Richard began the year 10–4 with a 1.90 ERA in 17 starts and started the All-Star Game in Los Angeles. But Richard suffered a stroke while playing catch at the Astrodome a few weeks later, on July 30, and nearly died.
He had a massive blockage in his right carotid artery, which required emergency surgery. Richard attempted a comeback in 1981, but the toll the stroke took on his body was too much. He was released in 1984, and his life spiraled downward to the point he was homeless at one point.
“For the most part, he had turned things around in a more positive manner in the last 10 years or so,” Smith said.
Cabell said it was only because Richard was so big and strong that he was able to withstand the stroke, which hampered his ability to perform everyday tasks like button his shirt. He persevered and changed his life for the better, becoming a minister and counselor to youth.
“I was at a card show with him about three months ago,” said former Astros outfielder Terry Puhl. “We had the greatest conversation. He was in a good place in his life at that point. Right now, he’s in a better place.”