At 70, the Houston Astros behemoth who intimidated before a stroke felled him has been to hell and back but embraces, not escapes, life and love.
Five decades ago it was to wonder how delicious it might have looked if 6’8″ Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard could have faced 6’8″ hitter Frank Howard. There was no regular-season interleague play other than the All-Star Game, and Richard didn’t make a National League All-Star team until long after Howard retired.
But picture if you will Richard, who looked as though he could reach from the mound to shake your hand without effort before piledriving you at the plate, against Howard, who looked as though he’d autograph your forehead with his bat if he didn’t hit one into orbit—around Mars. Chuck Jones himself couldn’t have sketched a better scene.
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Celebrating his 70th birthday today, Richard was once one of the two most famous Texas people going by his initials. J.R. Ewing (of television’s Dallas) was a fictitious larger-than-life scoundrel who wasn’t past anything short of murder to have his way. J.R. Richard was a real major league pitcher who looked larger than life in a Houston Astros uniform, threw like it, and sometimes, if not always comfortably, acted like it.
Between pitches, Richard looked a little like the big shy kid barely aware that the cute girl he crushed on was praying just as hard that he’d ask her to dance as he prayed for the courage to ask. Then he went into his no-windup motion, his high knee-bent kick, and delivered.
In that delivery, with his large hand almost covering the ball whole before he threw, the big shy kid turned into a behemoth who looked as though he’d crack your bat in half between two fingers if he wasn’t in the mood to throw you something one blink would make you wonder if it really came your way.
“If you beat me,” Richard once said, “I’m gonna die trying. I was willing to give my life for it.”
He damn near did give his life for it.