erik lundegaard

Saturday August 07, 2021

J.R. Richard (1950-2021)

J.R. Richard was an All-Star, a superstar pitcher, and maybe halfway to the Hall of Fame, when it all suddenly ended. Maybe because of racism, maybe because of our demands on athletes. Maybe both.

In 1980 he was having another Cy Young-type season, his fifth in a row, going 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA and 119 strikeouts by the beginning of July, but he also had arm fatigue, lethargy, nausea. In his first appearance after the All-Star game, which he started for the NL, he had trouble seeing the catcher's signals and left after 3 1/3 innings. Maybe if he were white his complaints would've been taken more seriously? But he wasn't and they weren't. If you have newspapers.com, check out this July 17 UPI story about Richard going on the disabled list. There's a lot of puzzlement but not much sympathy. Astros pitching coach Mel Wright undercuts Richard's complaints by saying he's never seen anyone throw that well with a dead arm, while Richard's teammate Joe Niekro undercuts Richard himself: “He's quiet. Nobody knows him on this club. He says his arm hurts so it's best to put him on the disabled list. ... Now that we know that he's not going to be pitching we can go play baseball.”

Thanks, friendo.

Then they found a blood clot in his pitching arm but chose not to operate, “fearing that it might hurt his ability to pitch,” according to The New York TimesLess than two weeks later, July 30, he was working out at the Astrodome when he collapsed. From his 2015 memoir:

“All of a sudden, I felt a high-pitched tone ringing in my left ear. And then I threw couple of more pitches and became nauseated. A few minutes later, I threw a couple more pitches, then the feeling got so bad, I was losing my equilibrium. I went down on the AstroTurf. I had a headache, some confusion in my mind, and I felt weakness in my body.”

It was a stroke. He never pitched another game in the Majors, finishing with a 107-71 record, 3.15 ERA, 1,493 strikeouts. 

Fifteen years later, he was homeless, living under a bridge in Houston. I remember hearing about that on the radio, the sadness of it. He bounced back, but it's shame upon shame. Baseball, Bart Giamatti famously said, is designed to break your heart. And not just baseball.

Posted at 07:40 AM on Saturday August 07, 2021 in category Baseball  
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