On July 30th, 1980, WLW radio in Cincinnati announced Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard had collapsed during a pre-game workout, and had been rushed to a Houston hospital. I was 16 years old.

I was not an Astros fan, but I’d followed J.R. since 1974, because I thought he had a cool baseball card.  Richard was 6′ 8″, one of the hardest throwers in baseball, and I’ve always been attracted to the extremes – the tall and the short, the old and the young, the Manute Bol’s and the Phil Niekro‘s. 

J.R. Richard, Effectively Wild?

Richard had a lot of problems with control, leading the league in walks and wild pitches 3 times in 5 years, but had started to turn the corner in 1979 at age 29.  1980 was shaping up to be his best season.  He had led the majors in strikeouts the previous 2 seasons, topping 300 both times, and by July 30th, he had a 1.94 ERA, 0.924 WHIP, and had started the All-Star game.

But, tonight he’d had a stroke, and was in life-threatening condition, and I needed information.

Scouring Radio for J.R. Richard

I was listening to WLW because that was how baseball was followed in western North Carolina 40 years ago.  Today I would turn on ESPN, log on to Twitter, and let the 24 hour news cycle tell me if J.R. Richard was alive or dead. But it would be 1983 before cable TV would come to my community. No TBS or WGN Superstations. No information super-highway. 

Let’s take a trip down the information gravel road.

That night I started with the radio.  It was going to be a couple of hours yet before the local TV news came on at 11:00, but due to some sort of science, it was possible to pick up all kinds of AM radio stations after dark.  In addition to WLW, I regularly listened to WSB in Atlanta, KDKA in Pittsburgh, WWWE in Cleveland, WWL in New Orleans, and KMOX in St. Louis.  WHO in Des Moines was good for some Twins games.  There were others. 

Couldn’t pick up Houston though. I went up and down the dial, as one does with Cincinnati radio, but nobody had any real information, if the topic even came up at all.

At 11:00 p.m. I turned on the local news. Nothing was reported during the “news” news, which I hoped was a good sign. Of course, the sports news was always last, starting around 11:25. The episode was reported, but there was no update on Richard’s condition. I could stay up and watch a relatively new news show called “Nightline,” but its focus at that time was still on its raison d’être, the event we knew as the Iran hostage crisis. I didn’t see the point.

I don’t remember if I woke up the next day at 8 o’clock or 11. Such are teenage summers. I do know the first thing I did was to look for the morning paper for an update. It was useless. In the mid-80’s I would find something called “USA Today” which, due to some sort of science, was able to print newspapers with box scores of west coast ballgames and other late news, and have them distributed to paper boxes around the country before breakfast. There was no such science or magic in the local paper that morning. They had probably gone to press about the time that I had gone to bed.

But we had one secret weapon remaining, unknown to today’s generations. I’m talking about something we called “the evening paper.” Newspapers were so popular back then, in some places you could get them twice a day. One problem – we didn’t subscribe to the evening paper. I would have to hunt it down.

I counted down the hours. The nearest paper box was at the new grocery store a mile away. It was a little unpredictable what time the boxes got repopulated but it was usually between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. I borrowed mom’s car (I still hadn’t mastered dad’s manual transmission,) and put my newly acquired driver’s license to work.

James Rodney Richard turned 70 March 7th. He never played in the majors again. You can learn more about his story from here and here. Happy birthday, big guy.

Thanks for reading on J.R. Richard. If you enjoyed this piece, check out our Braves History piece on looking back at the 2010’s!

Long Live Braves Journal!