- Still Throwing Heat: Strikeouts, the Streets, and a Second Chance by J. R. Richard an Lew Freedma
On July 30, 1980, James Rodney Richard, the ace of the Houston Astros pitching staff at age thirty, collapsed on the floor of the Houston Astrodome during a light workout. Only a few weeks earlier, Richard started the All-Star Game for the National League. During the second half of the season in which the Astros were in the heat of a pennant race, however, the six-foot, eight-inch pitcher with a blazing fastball began to complain of fatigue and numbness in his pitching arm. The immediate response by some in the Houston organization was that their young star, and somewhat of a loner, was malingering; perhaps upset that free agent Nolan Ryan was receiving more attention. After a hospital visit, Richard was diagnosed with a blood clot, but the doctors did not perceive the situation as overly serious, and the pitcher was allowed to continue with workouts while on the disabled list. Then Richard suffered a life-threatening stroke which ended his baseball career. Distressed from the lingering effects of the stroke and depression, Richard experienced divorce, financial losses, and unemployment that finally left him homeless, living under a bridge near the Astrodome where he used to pitch. Throwing Heat is the story of Richard's descent into homelessness and his eventual redemption.
Curious about how Richard was able to survive this ordeal and maintain such a positive attitude, sportswriter Lew Freedman contacted the former pitcher and offered to tell his story. The result of this collaboration is a biography told primarily in Richard's own words, supplemented by numerous newspaper clippings from Richard's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Research Library in Cooperstown as well as interviews with Richard's former teammates Enos Cabell, Jose Cruz, Larry Dierker, and Johnny Edwards. Nolan Ryan provided an introduction, and Freedman conducted additional conversations with Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, who became a good friend with Richard as he made his way out of homelessness; Ralph Garr of the Atlanta Braves, who also grew up in Richard's hometown of Ruston, Louisiana; Robert Smith, who was Richard's high school coach; Buddy Davis, a white Louisiana sportswriter who followed Richard's career; and Lula, Richard's third wife. In many ways, Still Throwing Heat is a conventional sports biography with the first part of the book focusing upon the rise of Richard from rags to riches, but the far more interesting story concerns Richard's stroke and descent into homelessness before attaining redemption. Richard is a religious man and considerable time and attention is devoted to praising [End Page 215] God for blessing Richard and allowing him to survive his ordeal. While teammate and friend Enos Cabell suggested that race may have played a role in the failure of Houston management to take more seriously the complaints of Richard before his stroke, Richard never directly confronts the issue of race—an oversight that a more critical biography with an emphasis upon historical and cultural context might address.
Richard was born March 7, 1950, in Vienna, Louisiana, but grew up in nearby Ruston, where he was an outstanding high school athlete in football, basketball, and baseball. The family was poor, and his strict father ran a saw mill. Religion was a focal point for the family, and Richard also enjoyed hunting and fishing when he was not playing organized sport. Although he grew up when the Civil Rights Movement was challenging Southern segregation, Richard maintained, "Racism did not really show itself to me. It was not an issue I heard discussed at my house. It was not an issue in my neighborhood. It was not an issue at my school as a student even if we were all African Americans and the other school was all white" (44).
Although he had college scholarship offers in football and basketball, Richard signed with the Astros who made him their number one draft pick...