J.R. Richard (born March 7, 1950 in Vienna, Louisiana) was a Major League Baseball pitcher for the Houston Astros. He was drafted by the Astros in the first round of the 1969 draft. By 1971, he made the Astros big league club, pitching 21 innings at 21 years of age. Richard was very inconsistent early in his career, and did not become a regular starter until 1975. His success blossomed in 1976 when he finally was able to control his 100+ MPH fastball and his knee-buckling slider. He still walked many batters, but struck many batters out, as well. From 1975 to 1979 (5 seasons) he was 1st, 1st, 2nd, 1st, and 5th in NL walks allowed. Over the same span, however, he was 5th, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, and 1st in strikeouts. From 1976 on, his ERA did not finish above 3.00.
He never won the Cy Young Award, but came in third place in 1979, when the Chicago Cubs' Bruce Sutter won the award. Many baseball writers, pundits, and fans consider this to have been a slap in the face to Richard, as many felt he deserved the award. In 1979, he went 18-13 (with losses largely due to poor run support) with a 2.71 ERA while striking out 313 batters, an Astros record. This was also the first year as a starter that he walked fewer than 100 batters. He pitched in 38 games and completed 19, with 4 shutouts.
1980 was looking to be his best season ever. By mid-season, he was selected to start the All-Star Game, and he was carrying a record of 10-4, likely to reach 20 wins, with a paltry 1.90 ERA and had already struck out 119. As the season progressed, he gradually started leaving games with such maladies as "dead arm," shoulder pain, and forearm pain. He finally went on the disabled list in mid-July, and doctors discovered a blood clot in his shoulder. Initially, the medical staff thought this to not be serious, with the team physician suggesting that he may have emotional problems. However, subsequent examination showed extensive arterial thoracic outlet syndrome, as his clavicle and first rib pinched his subclavian artery during the pitching motion. Richard was shut down for the year, and scheduled for arterial bypass surgery. Matters were complicated further when, on July 30, 1980, the blood clot broke away, and caused Richard to suffer a mild stroke. He did not play the rest of the year, and while he eventually played again in the minors, he never again appeared in a major league ballgame.
Many feel that this once-dominating pitcher was on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Prior to his injury (which was in part congenital), and he subsequent stroke, he was just entering the prime of his career, and had several good pitching years in him. Many of his contemporaries, like Nolan Ryan and Bert Blyleven pitched well into their forties, and Richard had a chance to do the same.
Although the Astros have not retired Richard's number 50, there is a grassroots effort among Astros fans petitioning the club to consider the action.