James Rodney Richard (March 7, 1950 – August 4, 2021) was an American Major League Baseball starting pitcher who played for the Houston Astros from 1971 to 1980.

After graduating from high school, Richard was selected by the Astros as the second overall pick in the first round of the 1969 amateur draft.[1] From the time he made his major league debut with the Astros in 1971 until 1975, Richard had a limited role as an Astros pitcher, throwing no more than 72 innings in a season.[2] In 1975, Richard played his first full season in the majors as a starting pitcher.

From 1976 to 1980, he was one of the premier pitchers in the majors, leading the National League twice in strikeouts, once in earned run average, and three times in hits allowed per nine inningswinning at least 18 games a year between 1976 and 1979.[2] On July 30, 1980, Richard suffered a stroke and collapsed while playing a game of catch before an Astros game, caused by a blood clot in his neck. His condition brought a sudden end to his major league career at the age of 30.[3] His 313 strikeouts in 1979 remained an Astros franchise record until Gerrit Cole surpassed it on September 24, 2019, and he held the team’s record for career strikeouts (1,493) until 1987. Two-time National League MVPs Johnny Bench and Dale Murphy both named Richard as the toughest pitcher they ever faced.[4][5]

In 1981, Richard attempted a comeback with the Astros, however this failed because the stroke had slowed down his reaction time and weakened his depth perception. He spent the next few seasons in the minor leagues before being released by the Astros in 1984. After his professional baseball career ended, Richard became involved in unsuccessful business deals and went through two divorces, which led to him being homeless and destitute in 1994. Richard found solace in a local church and later became a Christian minister.

Game action of Houston Astros J.R. Richard on the mound, 1979


Richard was born to Clayton and Lizzie (née Frost) Richard in Vienna, Louisiana,[6] and gained prominence in both baseball and basketball at historically black and since closed Lincoln High School in nearby Ruston.[7] By the time he was a high school senior, Richard stood 6 feet 8 inches (2.03 m) tall and weighed 220 pounds (99.8 kg; 15.7 st).[8] That year, he was one of the starting pitchers for Lincoln High School and did not concede a run for the entire season. In one game Richard hit four consecutive home runs while pitching his team to a 48–0 victory against its local rival, Jonesboro‘s Jackson High School.[9] Richard, whose baseball idol was St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, never lost a game he started during his high school career.

Upon graduation from high school, he turned down more than 200 basketball scholarship offers to sign with the Houston Astros.[10] The Astros selected him with the second overall pick in the 1969 amateur baseball draft, behind the Washington Senators‘ selection of outfielder Jeff Burroughs.[11] Richard later recalled, “There were other guys in my high school with as much ability as I had, but instead of working at a job, they wanted to drink wine on Saturday nights. They thought that was the in thing to do, and consequently our lives went in different directions. For some people it takes that to make a world. It does not for me.

Pursue Excellence


Richard entered Major League Baseball with the Astros in 1971 as a September call-up. On September 5, Richard made his major league debut at just 21 years of age, in the second game of a doubleheader against the San Francisco Giants.[13] Richard used his fastball–slider combination to pick up the win and tied Karl Spooner‘s 17-year-old major league record for striking out 15 batters in his first major league start.[14] Richard was charged with two earned runs and seven hits in the 5–3 Astros win but struck out Willie Mays and Dick Dietz three times.[15]

Richard made his next start, after five days rest, against the Cincinnati Reds,[16] who would later finish the NL West season in a tie for fourth place with the Astros.[17] Richard gave up a lead-off home run to Pete Rose in the first inning and pitched five innings of the two-hit, one-run game. He struck out five batters but walked six.[18] Richard struggled in his two following starts. In a September 16 match-up against the Astros’ division rival, the third-place Atlanta Braves, Richard pitched seven innings and surrendered four runs on seven hits. He struck out nine batters and even struck out the side in the first inning but also walked four batters. Furthermore, he threw two wild pitches in the first and fifth innings.[19] In his final game of the season, against the Giants, Richard was replaced in the first inning after pitching to only four batters.[20]

In and out of the minors

During the next few seasons, Richard split time between the minors and majors and did not become a regular starter with the Astros until 1975. After his “cup of coffee” with the Astros in 1971, Richard was sent back down to Class-AAA baseball to work on his pitching with the Oklahoma City 89ers for the 1972 season. He started 19 games with the 89ers before being called back up to the Astros. In Triple-A baseball in the American Association, Richard finished with 10 wins and eight losses in 128 innings of work.[9] His 3.02 ERA was slightly higher than that of the previous season, though he maintained approximately the same walks per nine innings ratio (BB/9IP) that he had the previous year. He recorded six complete games and finished with 169 strikeouts, for a ratio of 11.88 strikeouts per 9 innings. Richard re-entered the majors, starting a day game of a day-night doubleheader for the Astros against the San Diego Padres on July 30, 1972.[21] He struggled and took the 10–7 loss.[22] Richard did not pitch again until two weeks later, when he entered in relief for Ken Forsch in the fifth inning to keep the Giants limited to a one-run lead. In two innings of relief, Richard gave up one hit, struck out three batters and garnered the win.[23] In his two final relief appearances of the season, Richard gave up five earned runs in just over one inning of work.[21] He finished the season with a 13.50 ERA in only six innings of work and was again sent back down to Triple-A, this time with the Astros-affiliated Denver Bears.[24]

Richard started eight games with the Bears in 1973 and posted minor league career-worsts in ERA and hits allowed per nine innings. Despite his poor performance with the Bears, Richard was again called up by the Astros. Richard entered in the fourth inning of a June 16 game against the St. Louis Cardinals and his idol Bob Gibson. He pitched four innings of one-run ball and three innings of a two-hit game in his next relief outing. Afterwards, the Astros placed Richard in the starting rotation, and he made his first major league start since July 30 of the previous year. He pitched six solid innings of a one-run ballgame and struck out six while walking three batters. Richard would make his next start four days later.[25] Richard again pitched more than six innings but earned no decision after the Astros’ bullpen gave up nine runs during the top of the ninth inning.[26]

After starting a July 4 game against the Atlanta Braves, which he won, Richard was sent into the bullpen in order to add Tom Griffin into the Astros’ starting rotation. He made three relief appearances against the Montreal Expos before making a start against the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 27.[25] Four days later, Richard threw his first shutout against the Dodgers, in which he gave up just five hits and struck out nine batters.[27] Nineteen days later, Richard pitched another complete game, this time giving up two runs while striking out nine and walking three batters.[25] He concluded the season with six wins and two losses in 16 total games, 10 of which he started. He finished with a 4.00 ERA, and struck out 75 batters in 72 innings. He walked 38 batters, giving him a ratio of 4.75 walks per nine innings, which was lower than the ratio he had in his two previous minor league seasons.[9]

Despite his improved performance in the 1973 season, Richard was sent down to work on his pitching mechanics and ball control in Class-AA baseball with the Columbus Astros of the Southern League. He started 13 games with Columbus before being moved back up to Class-AAA with the Denver Bears. In four starts with the Bears, Richard threw three shutouts and pitched 33 scoreless innings with a 4–0 record and 26 strikeouts.[9] He was called back up to the majors on July 13 and stayed with the Astros for the remainder of that season. He first pitched 14 innings of baseball in six relief appearances before being placed back in the starting rotation.[28] He then started in all nine of the games he pitched during the remainder of the season. Richard finished with a 4.18 ERA in just over 64 innings of work during the 15 pitching appearances he made during the season.[2]

Even though Richard’s statistics showed he bounced between Houston and the minors during his first four years with the Astros due to his wildness, he often told reporters that racism played a role in keeping him from becoming a regular with the big club sooner.[29]

Mainstay with the Astros

In the off-season, the Astros traded starting pitcher Claude Osteen to the Cardinals, and lost pitching ace Don Wilson, who died from carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 29 on January 5, 1975.[30] As a result, Richard entered the 1975 season as the third starter of the Astros’ pitching rotation, behind veterans Larry Dierker and Dave Roberts. Richard was scheduled to start on April 9 versus the Braves.[31] He was removed from the game in the fifth inning after jamming his toe on the first base bag but gave up no earned runs in his start.[32] Richard continued to exhibit wildness, as shown when he issued eight walks in both his third and fourth starts of the season.[31] He followed by pitching a complete game win against the San Diego Padres on April 29.[33] In his following start, he walked a career-high 11 batters in just six innings of pitching and also gave up seven runs in the Astros’ 12–8 win over the Giants.[34] By the All-Star break, Richard had six wins and four losses with a 4.93 ERA in just over 98 innings of work.[35]

In an August 10 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Richard yielded just one hit in six innings, although he walked 10 batters.[36] He rebounded with a complete game shutout against the New York Mets eight days later. Richard ended the season on a strong note by winning three of his last four starts, including his final two games against the Dodgers.[31] He finished the year with a 12–10 record for the Astros, who finished with a franchise-worst 64–97 record.[37] Richard was the only starter on the Astros’ pitching staff who had a winning record for the season. He led the team with 176 strikeouts, which was also the fifth highest number in the National League. Richard also led the league in walks allowed and wild pitches thrown, with 138 and 20, respectively.[2]

Breakout season

Richard entered the 1976 season as the pitching staff ace and took over Larry Dierker’s position as the Opening Day starter for the Astros. On April 8, in (it goes without saying) his first start of the season, Richard gave up four runs in four innings against the defending World Series champion Cincinnati Reds.[38] He followed this inauspicious beginning with wins in five of his next six decisions. One of them included a 10-inning shutout effort that led to a 16-inning 1–0 Astros victory against the Dodgers.[39] By the end of May, however, Richard was sitting even with a 5–5 record and as the loser of four straight decisions. He closed the first half of the season by winning a 10-inning shutout against the Mets on July 6,[40][41] and an eight-inning start against the Montreal Expos four days later.[42] At the All-Star break, Richard had a 9–9 record with a 2.88 ERA in over 153 innings of work.[43] From July 10 to August 31, Richard racked up eight complete games, including one shutout, and improved his record from 9–9 to 16–13.[44] He pitched 98 innings and yielded only 22 earned runs, which gave him an ERA of 2.02 during the approximately 50-day span.[45] On August 26, Richard hit his first home run of the season during the second inning of the game.[46] In his last game of the season on October 2, Richard pitched a complete game 13-strikeout performance and also hit a two-run home run in the sixth inning.[47]

Richard finished the season with a 20–15 record, 14 complete games, three shutouts, and 214 strikeouts in 291 innings of work. At age 26, Richard became only the second pitcher in Astros’ history (after Dierker in 1969[48]) to record 20 wins in a season, tying him for fourth in the NL that year.[2] Richard also became the ninth member of the Black Aces, an organization founded by Mudcat Grant that consists of all African American pitchers who have won at least 20 major league games in a season.[49] He was named the most valuable player (MVP) of the Astros by the Houston chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).[9] Richard finished 17th in MVP Award voting and seventh in the NL’s Cy Young Award voting.[2] His 2.75 ERA was the seventh-best among the league’s starting pitchers, and he held hitters to a 0.212 batting average.[8] He led the league in lowest number of hits allowed per nine innings and in walks allowed; Richard also finished the season second in batters faced, innings pitched, and games started. In addition, he led all NL pitchers with 14 hits, two home runs, and nine runs batted in as a hitter.[9] However, during the year he committed ten errors and finished with an 0.853 fielding percentage, nearly 0.100 lower than the league average.




Richard became involved in the Houston community, working with local financial donors to help establish baseball programs for children.[9] A small-budget 2005 movie, Resurrection: The J. R. Richard Story, depicted Richard’s baseball career as well as his life after baseball.[93] Along with former major leaguers Dick AllenMudcat GrantKenny Lofton, and Eddie Murray, Richard was honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as a 2018 member of the “Hall of Game.”[94] Richard was inducted into the Baseball Reliquary‘s Shrine of the Eternals in 2019.[95]