J.R. Richard, Ruston’s legendary MLB All-Star, dies at 71

One of the most phenomenal hometown heroes in the rich sports history of Lincoln Parish, Houston Astros All-Star baseball pitcher James Rodney “J.R.” Richard, died Thursday at age 71.

Richard passed in Houston, where he became the most dominant pitcher in Major League Baseball in 1980, and where he lived under a highway overpass, destitute, in 1994-95 after failed business ventures and two broken marriages until a church played a key role in helping him put his world back together.

He found a construction job, became a pastor, remarried, taught baseball to kids and became an advocate for the indigent. He was enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1988, before he hit rocky times, and in the Houston Astros Hall of Fame as one of 16 inaugural members in 2019.

Raised in Vienna, Richard was a dominant three-sport athlete at all-black Lincoln High School. His exploits and skill set made him the No. 2 overall MLB Draft pick by Houston in 1969. An imposing 6-foot-8, he owned a 100-mph fastball and a devastating slider that overwhelmed batters.

In one of his no-hitters, he struck out 19 of 21 batters and hit four consecutive home runs, three grand slams, in a 48-0 victory over Jackson High. That earned him a place in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd.”

“Everybody expected him to be good and he would then go out and try to live up to those expectations,” said his Lincoln High coach, Robert Smith. “He hated to fail.”

Richard had a perfect 0.00 earned run average as a senior, 11-0 on the mound, and his statistics in other sports were equally impressive.

As Lincoln’s quarterback, he completed 65 percent of his passes and had a 48-yard punting average. Once, he threw the ball from his 20-yard-line to the opponents’ goalline. In basketball, he averaged 35 points and 22 rebounds and was considered one of the top five college prospects in the state.

The legendary sportswriter and broadcaster Heywood Hale Broun came to Ruston to do a feature on Richard – and followed it up in the early years of his pro career.

Two years later, Richard made his first major league start in 1971 and struck out 15 San Francisco Giants, including Willie Mays, in a complete game victory.

He posted a 107-71 record in the big leagues over parts of 10 seasons, halted by a life-threatening stroke in July 1980 as he had just emerged as the most fearsome pitcher in MLB. He started the 1980 All-Star Game and struck out three American League stars in two innings.

He had just hit his prime when he collapsed while working out a couple weeks later at the Astrodome, after he had complained of fatigue for over a month.

Richard went 20-15 in 1976, then had at least 18 wins in three straight seasons. He led the National League in strikeouts in 1978 (303), and in ERA a year later (2.71). He fanned 1,489 batters in the 1,606 innings he pitched in the big leagues, posting a career 3.15 ERA.

“He was the toughest guy I ever faced,” said his friend, current Astros manager Dusty Baker, who played 19 years of major league baseball.

“I used to drive from California to Ruston, Louisiana, pick up my roommate Ralph Garr, and J.R. was from Ruston, too. We’d hang around in Grambling,” said Baker, quoted by Jake Kaplan of The Athletic. “We became friends although we were adversaries on the mound … I got him a couple times, but he got me a whole bunch of times.”

Baker spoke of Richard’s intimidating frame and demeanor.

“The plate is 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound, but J.R. was only throwing from about 50 feet so you didn’t really have that much time to make up your mind. Plus, he was a little bit wild, and you really didn’t feel comfortable in the box. There was such a thing called J.R.-itis. It’s an incurable disease when you’re afraid of J.R. There were a lot of guys who would take a day off when J.R. was pitching.”

Visit https://www.mlb.com/news/j-r-richard-dies for more information and video highlights and an interview with the legendary Lincoln Parish native.

PHOTO:  Courtesy MLB.com

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