Life Before Superstations: A Story about J.R. Richard

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!

Author: Rusty S.

Rusty S. is a Braves Journal reader since 2005 and an occasional innings-eater. It was my understanding that there would be no expectations.

12 thoughts on “Life Before Superstations: A Story about J.R. Richard”

  1. I vaguely remember when that happened. His name was still appearing on the “Speed Ball” game that would show up at our county fair every year until the 90’s. That was the game where you would throw two pitches with a radar gun and if you correctly guess the speed of the third pitch you would win one of the plastic MLB helmets. Anyway, his name was up there (as were other MLB hard throwers) with his fastest clocked fastball at like 102 mph or 104 mph or something like that. I remember thinking that nobody could ever throw that hard but it happens all of the time now. I still think the radar guns are juiced but that’s an argument for another time…

  2. A very interesting story about a tremendous man cut down in his prime. JR was accused of malingering after he took himself out of his final game against our Braves, because his right arm was numb. If I remember right he was keeping us off the scoreboard despite pitching with the numb arm.
    And FWIW, you weren’t alone in western NC following baseball on the clear channel radio stations at night. Even in NYC where we had three (later two) teams, my friends and I also listened to WLW, KDKA, KMOX, WTOP (Washington) and about five other stations so we were up to date on the pennant races and standings all the time. It seems primitive compared to today, but I still remember listening to Bo Belinsky’s 1962 no-hitter at 2 AM on the Baltimore radio station. A different time, but like you, we made the most out of what there was given our love for baseball.

  3. Does someone who has a subscription to BA know who he is talking about?

    “Baseball America’s Ben Badler (subscription required) looks at five prospects who are lined up to join Major League teams when the international signing window opens on July 2. The Padres, Brewers, Braves, Indians, and Rangers have already been respectively connected to each of the five youngsters, with Atlanta and Cleveland each prepared to give out bonuses in the $1MM range.”

  4. On Clear Channel Stations:
    Also, WLAC (for Life and Casualty Company of Tennessee) out of Nashville

    WLS out of Chicago. I can still remember going to school before dark in winter daylight savings time (a response to the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo) and listening to WLS. “It is 4 degrees at O’Hare, 6 degrees at the Loop, and 2 degrees in Joliet.”

    I think WBAM in Montgomery may have been clear channel. They and WLAC both played rock and black music way before most stations.

  5. In Asheville, we got cable in early 1974 just in time to See Hank take the record. I had been part of “the knothole gang” at McCormick Field for the final AA Orioles team in town the summer before and gotten the baseball bug, so getting Channel 17 in ATL was BIG news to me. I still remember previous summers at scout camp listening to WOWO (strangely, the only clear channel station we got there) and their coverage of the Indianapolis Redlegs.

  6. @9 – I’m about 35 miles southwest. Had no idea there was cable in Asheville that early.

  7. I remember reading the newspaper when I was a kid and I can tell you the size of the article and the spot on the page where it said WTCG was going to televise Braves games. They were televising 146 games in 1974. That seemed to make the whole new invention of cable worth it. It was certainly better than watching reruns of Australian rules football on the Entertainment and Sports Network.

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