This story is part of Only A Game’s “Time Show” which examines how the passage of time influences sports.
When J.R. Richard was scheduled to pitch, batters sometimes came up with suddenly sore arms, headaches, or flu-like symptoms. At the peak of his career in the late ‘70’s, when the 6-foot-8 right-hander was striking out more than 300 batters a season with a fastball that exceeded 100 mph, the Houston Astros pitcher was among the most intimidating figures in baseball.
That chapter in his life ended suddenly in the summer of 1980, when Richard was felled by a stroke. In the recent book "Still Throwing Heat: Strikeouts, the Streets, and a Second Chance," Richard reviews his career and discusses the life he has built beyond the success he enjoyed and the difficulties he has endured. The former All-Star spoke with Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.
Highlights from Bill's Conversation with J.R. Richard
BL: In your first start with Houston in 1971, you beat the Giants. In doing so, I understand that you made quite an impression on the man I consider the greatest player ever, Willie Mays. Tell us about that.
JRR: Well, matter a fact, I was totally surprised that I got a chance to pitch that day because I had just come up at the end of the year with the Astros. And I didn't really think about Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, or Bobby Bonds, or any of those guys — superstars — being in the lineup. My thing was just to become the best that I could be and do the best job that I could do. And he told the first baseman, the reason I didn't strike him out four times cause he took himself out of the game.
See you have to realize this: Sports is a business. Nothing more or nothing less.J.R. Richard
BL: But you did strike him out three times.
JRR: He'd rather struck out three times than be dead once.
BL: In 1980 mid-season, you collapsed during a workout. Please tell me about what happened.
JRR: Well, as far as back as I can remember, I would hear a lot of high-pitched ringing in my left ear, which I didn't think nothing about it at that time. I kind of just shook it off and kept on throwing a few more. Then I threw a couple more, then I became real nauseated, and I lay down on the Astrodome floor. And the next thing I remember I was waking up in the hospital. I had been complaining to the Astros for almost a month or two about something was wrong. And if I'm such a valuable asset to the ballclub, why wasn't I immediately rushed to the doctors from Chicago when it first started? Again, if I was such a valuable asset to the company?
BL: During an interview in 1984, four years after your Major League career ended, you said, “I call what happened to me the Big Trade. I traded baseball for the life of God.” But 10 years later, after losing $1 million and a home in a business scam and two divorce settlements, you were homeless and sleeping under a bridge. What happened?
JRR: That was the only way he could really get my attention is to get me away from everybody and everything. So he could sit down and talk to me one-on-one. God did not make me to become homeless. He cared more about me than being homeless, and I know I was better than that.
BL: I'm curious about the time that you were homeless. You're 6-foot-8. You were a star in Houston, no doubt about that, a very recognizable figure. Did people who were in that homeless community of sorts know who you were?
JRR: Some did, some didn't. People'd see you. First of all they can't believe it and then no one would really want to bother you. They'd probably look at you and say, 'OK, he don't look like he's a happy camper.' I looked like I wasn't a man to be messed with at that time.
BL: Your homelessness stretched from late 1994 into 1995, but you got some help from Houston's Now Testament Church. You found a job with an asphalt company and then returned to the church as a minister. But you say in the book that even with the outside help, you helped yourself. How so?
JRR: Well, I changed my thinking, which changed my attitude. I'm not going to do the same old things and act old way cause God is right here, so — and I just simply changed my thinking and didn't accept the negativity.
BL: Did any of your ex-teammates or maybe some of the guys against whom you played in the big leagues help you out at that point?
JRR: No, they did not. Not a one. Not even [the] ballclub at that time.
BL: When you look back at your baseball career now, and I know you must have in order to go through what you went through to write this book. Are you bitter?
JRR: Not at all. Never have been bitter. It's always been the other way around. See when people don't understand who you are, when people can't control you, they have a tendency to want to destroy you. But see, you got to realize this: Sports is a business. Nothing more or nothing less.
BL: You occasionally speak at various churches and at baseball camps and now you're promoting a book. How have those activities kept you busy?
JRR: Well, I'm standing here talking to you right now. And these days, everything is real well. I'm staying close to the ministry right now because my main concern right now is God.
BL: You also have helped Houston's homeless through your ministry, right?
JRR: Yes, I have. What I'm trying to do is change their mind. They've got to have a different mindset. You see a man could eat a whole whale, but it takes one bite at a time. Or he can walk a mile, but it takes one step at a time. So if you're willing to take that step, he will make a way out of no way. See God is the only one I know who can take a mess, go in a mess, clean up a mess and come back out and don't be messy. Now you figure that out.
Bill's Thoughts On "Still Throwing Heat"
J.R. Richard was a terrific pitcher for the Houston Astros. His fastball came in at about 100 miles an hour, and from 1975 through 1979, he rarely missed a start. Then, in 1980, he began experiencing odd symptoms: a tired arm, numbness in his fingers, and occasional blurred vision. According to Richard, nobody in the Astros organization took his complaints seriously. Some of them thought he was malingering.
Then he suffered a stroke.
[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'Still Throwing Heat'" align="right"] Read an excerpt from "Still Throwing Heat: Strikeouts, the Streets, and a Second Chance."[/sidebar]
"Still Throwing Heat," which Richard produced with the assistance of sportswriter Lew Freedman, recounts the story of Richard’s life, with an emphasis on how he has managed to put various hardships, some of them self-imposed, behind him.
As a result of bad business decisions, two divorces, and the repercussions of his illness, Richard lost his home. At one point during the mid-90’s, he was living under a bridge. Of that experience he says, “So often you hear the phrase that we live in the richest country in the world, but if you are homeless, that doesn’t make any difference.”
Richard credits his faith and the love of a good woman with the recovery he describes in "Still Throwing Heat." The refrain in the book is “God was the only one to turn to for me.”
This segment aired on August 22, 2015.