#CardCorner: 1981 Topps J.R. Richard
Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling and Rube Waddell would make virtually any compendium of baseball’s top strikeout masters.
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But the sixth pitcher with consecutive 300-strikeout seasons may have – for a time – been as good as any of them. A tragic stroke, however, left J.R. Richard confined to baseball’s greatest “what if” lists.
James Rodney Richard struck out 303 batters for the Astros in 1978, becoming just the third post-1900 National League pitcher – after Koufax and Steve Carlton – to reach the 300 mark. He did it in just 275.1 innings, the fewest in NL history for such a season.
Then in 1979, Richard fanned 313 batters in 292.1 innings. In both seasons, he struck out 26.6 percent of the batters he faced, a mark to that point topped by only one National Leaguer: Koufax, who reached a strikeout rate of 29.5 percent in 1965.
Entering his age-30 season in 1980, Richard appeared to be poised for a historic run. A few months later, it was all but over.
Born March 7, 1950, in Vienna, La., Richard excelled in baseball and basketball in high school. At 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, Richard received dozens of scholarship offers to play college basketball. But when the Houston Astros tabbed Richard with the second overall pick in the 1969 MLB Draft, Richard decided his future was on the diamond.
After just three seasons in the minors, the Astros summoned Richard to Houston late in the 1971 campaign. In his first big league appearance on Sept. 5, Richard struck out 15 San Francisco Giants over nine innings in a 5-3 win, tying Karl Spooner’s big league record for most strikeouts in a big league debut.
In 1983, a calf injury cost Richard almost the entire season, as he pitched in just nine games for the Gulf Coast League Astros. He became a free agent following the season and the Astros re-signed him in February of 1984. But two months later, on April 27, he was released – ending his playing career.
It was a quiet finale to a journey that saw J.R. Richard become one of baseball’s most fearsome pitchers. And while his career did not reach its full potential, his legacy as one of the game’s best – for a brilliantly brief period of time – remains secure.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum