J.R. Richard, a two-time National League strikeout champion with the Houston Astros whose career was cut short in 1980 by a stroke, died Thursday at the age of 71, the team announced.
The Astros did not provide any further details.
In 10 seasons with the Astros, Richard was 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA and 1,493 strikeouts — including 313 in 1979, which stood as the team’s single-season record until Gerrit Cole surpassed it in 2019. He still ranks tied for second in team history for career ERA, third in strikeouts — behind only Nolan Ryan and Roy Oswalt — and fifth in wins and shutouts (19).
“Today is a sad day for the Houston Astros as we mourn the loss of one of our franchise icons, J.R. Richard,” the team said in a statement. “J.R. will forever be remembered as an intimidating figure on the mound and as one of the greatest pitchers in club history. He stood shoulder to shoulder with club icons Larry Dierker, Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan, to form a few of the best rotations in club history.”
Astros Hall of Fame starting pitcher J.R. Richard, one of the greatest players to don an Astros uniform, has passed away. He was 71 years old. pic.twitter.com/ylqq2nPQMi
— Houston Astros (@astros) August 5, 2021
The 6-foot-8 Richard intimidated hitters with an effectively wild delivery, a fastball that often touched 100 mph and an almost unhittable breaking ball. He was selected by the Astros with the second overall pick in the 1969 draft and struck out 15 batters in a complete-game win over the Giants in his major league debut on Sept. 5, 1971.
He pitched for Houston from 1971-80, throwing 76 complete games. Richard won a career-best 20 games in 1976, the first of four straight seasons with at least 18 wins.
In 1978, he became the first Astros pitcher to strike out 300 batters in a season when he led the majors with 303. The next year, he led the National League with a 2.71 ERA and fanned 313 to again lead the majors as he went 18-13 and had a 3.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 292⅓ innings over 38 starts.
“He was one of the greatest Astros ever,” former teammate Jose Cruz said. “When he was pitching, we knew that we were going to get a ‘W.’ I didn’t get too many balls hit to me in the outfield when he pitched because he was so dominating.”
Richard was having a great season in 1980, posting a 10-4 record with a 1.96 ERA in the first half of the season and starting for the NL in the All-Star Game.
“He had the greatest stuff I have ever seen,” Hall of Famer Joe Morgan once said, “and it still gives me goose bumps to think of what he might have become.”
Less than a month after starting the All-Star Game, Richard was playing catch during pregame drills inside the Astrodome when he suffered the stroke that ended his career at age 30.
Richard attempted a comeback, but was never able to make it back to the majors and was released by the Astros in 1984.
“He was one of the greatest pitchers we ever had and probably would have been in the Hall of Fame if his career was not cut short,” said former teammate Enos Cabell, who played six seasons with Richard. “On the mound, he was devastating and intimidating. Nobody wanted to face him. Guys on the other team would say that they were sick to avoid facing him. This is very sad news. He will be missed.”
Richard fell on hard times after his career ended. A series of bad investments, failed businesses and a divorce left him penniless, and he was briefly homeless in the mid-1990s.
He eventually got his life back on track and worked as a minister in his later years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.