The Best of 2016 on ’80s Baseball

I started this blog 364 days ago. Since then, I’ve published 64 posts, including guest posts, for which I’m very grateful.

It’s been a great year and I thought I’d take a look back at the Top 5 posts of 2016 based (unscientifically) on page views.

Number 5: George Brett’s amazing 1980

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Brett was absolutely ridiculous in 1980 and this post tells the story of his remarkable season. If you’re going to hit .400, or even have a shot, it helps to have a summer like George Brett did in 1980.

 

Number 4: Schmidt and Brett in 1971

The Reds passed on a kid in their back yard. The Phillies snapped him up

The most important day of the 1980 baseball season may very well have taken place in 1971. One decision would have put Mike Schmidt in a Royals uniform and given the 1980 World Series a completely different look.

 

 

Number 3: Missed it by That Much: The Mike Parrott Story

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Mike Parrott was the opening day starter for the Seattle Mariners in 1980. Unfortunately for him, 1980 was just a horrible year, in more ways than one.

 

 

Number 2: You Forgot How Good J.R. Richard Was

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James Rodney Richard was absolutely dominant and 1980 was shaping up to be the best year of his career. Then tragedy struck and he never pitched again.

 

 

 

Number 1: Missed it By That Much: The Drungo Hazewood Story

<a rel=Drungo Hazewood had all the talent in the world. He was a can’t miss prospect for the Baltimore Orioles. Then he missed.

 

 

 

 

Thanks so much for reading and I look forward to 2017!

-J.D.

Joe Morgan’s Mysterious Dodgers Connection

Joe Morgan made a career out of beating the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The damage varied from beating L.A. in the regular season to knocking them out of the playoffs. Over a nine year span, Morgan’s teams ended the Dodgers season five times, including two defeats on final day of the season. But one thing many don’t know is that Joe Morgan nearly became a Dodger. Twice.

Mr. Red

Joe MorganDuring his eight seasons as a member of the Cincinnati Reds Morgan was one of the top players in the game. From 1972 through 1976 he was dominant. During that time he hit 108 homers, drove in more than 400 and drew nearly 600 walks while stealing 310 bases. After Morgan won his second consecutive MVP award in 1976, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray called him, “pound for pound the best player ever to play baseball.”

“What other guy 5 feet 6 inches, 150 pounds in any sport dominates the way Joe Morgan does?” Murray wrote in an October 1976 column. “It’s like a 4-9 guard in basketball throwing in 50 points a game.”

But by 1979 it was obvious his time in Cincinnati was over. Injuries and age limited him to just a .236 batting average in 1978. In 1979 his home run total slipped from a high of 27 to just nine. He also wanted out of Cincinnati. In his 1993 autobiography, Joe Morgan, A Life in Baseball he cited the Reds firing Sparky Anderson after 1978 as a tipping point for him.

“With Tony, Pete and now Sparky gone, the heart of the Big Red Machine had all but ceased. It was… before the 1979 season was even under way that I decided to play out my contract and move on.”

Free Agency

Morgan entered the 1980 Free Agent Draft and was selected by the Rangers, Giants, Padres and the Dodgers. Morgan wanted to go to a winner and the Dodgers were at the top of his list. L.A. was set at 2nd base with Davey Lopes, who hit .265 with 28 homers the year before, but they weren’t set in center field. Derrel Thomas was the incumbent but the Dodgers weren’t sold on him offensively.

Signing Morgan would allow Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda to move Lopes to the outfield and plug a future Hall of Famer into one of the best infields in the major leagues. There was just one small snag.

Morgan’s signing was predicated on Lopes agreeing to move to center field. But Lopes balked and Morgan didn’t want to be the reason for a fracture on a pennant-contending club.

“I don’t want to be used as a scapegoat,” Lopes told the L.A. Times. “But I don’t want to throw all that work out the window.”

Joe MorganIt was clear the Dodgers longed to add Morgan to their lineup but not at the risk of upsetting Lopes and Morgan knew it. His agent, Tom Reich, did his best not to upset anyone by saying there were “no villains in  this matter, certainly not Davey Lopes. He’s the best second baseman in the league. Joe knows that.”

Morgan signed with the Houston Astros and beat the Dodgers in the N.L. West in a one game playoff.  In 1982, as a San Francisco Giant, Joe Morgan’s homer off Terry Forster on the final day of the season knocked L.A. out of the playoff hunt.

1983

The following year, Morgan moved to Philadelphia. Reunited with Pete Rose and Tony Perez Morgan did what he did best: beat the Dodgers. The “Wheeze Kids” beat L.A. in the NLCS before losing to Baltimore in the World Series.

At the conclusion of the ’83 season, Lasorda decided he was due a raise. He was fresh off leading the Dodgers to their first World Series win since 1965 along with back-to-back playoff appearances and he wanted to get paid.

In his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, Fred Claire described what happened next.

“Tommy and I met for breakfast at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I made my best pitch… Still Tommy knew Peter (O’Malley) was going to have the final say when it came to the manager of the Dodgers.”

The two returned to Dodger Stadium where Lasorda met with O’Malley. According to Claire the meeting didn’t last long and when it was over he went to O’Malley’s office while Lasorda headed to his office to make some phone calls.

When Claire arrived he was informed it was time to search for a new manager. In the room was Claire, O’Malley, G.M. Al Campanis and Scouting director Ben Wade. Claire suggested Morgan and there was soon consensus.

Morgan was still technically a member of the Phillies, so Claire called Phillies owner Bill Giles to request permission to speak to Morgan.

No sooner did O’Malley hang up with Giles did the phone ring again. It was Lasorda calling from his office asking if O’Malley’s previous offer was still on the table. Informed it was, Lasorda took it.

Joe Morgan spent 1984 with the Oakland A’s and then retired. According to Claire, he never realized how close he came to becoming Lasorda’s replacement.

 

7 Reasons The 1980 Pennant Race Was Fantastic

Four teams, two spots, one weekend.

That’s what the 1980 pennant race came down to in the National League. The American League race produced some drama, but the NL pennant race was outstanding and it doesn’t get its due. It had everything, including two divisions that came down to the final weekend. Here are seven reasons the 1980 pennant race was fantastic.

The Pirates Fade

dave-parkerThe Pirates were the defending World Series champs and a consensus pick to repeat. They had their core back and held a 5 game lead in the NL East in May. By the morning of September 1st that lead was down to just a half game and they were in a tailspin.

From August 25th through September 9, the Pirates lost 13 of 15 games and were basically out of the race. The Buccos went 10-17 in September, enduring a five game losing streak at beginning of month and a six game skid to end the month, turning half game lead into an eight game deficit by the end of September.

“This is the first time in my 10 years as a big league manager that a club I managed didn’t have a good September,” said Pirates Manager Chuck Tanner. “That has been the big difference. We haven’t won like we used to in September.”

The Astros Inner Turmoil

The 1980 Houston Astros had an extremely talented roster, including one of the top pitching staffs in baseball. Then J.R. Richard went down.

That certainly would be enough to torpedo a lot of teams, but not this Astros team. There was another situation brewing under the surface, however, and it threatened to rip the team apart.

 

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Morgan and Virdon didn’t see eye to eye

In his book, Joe Morgan – A Life in Baseball, Morgan recounts how he called a players-only meeting in August after a series against the Padres in San Diego. He challenged his teammates to be less selfish and he singled people out. It worked.

Immediately following the meeting, Houston went on a tear and gained a three game lead in the NL West. Everyone was happy according to Morgan except manager Bill Virdon, who felt Morgan had overstepped his bounds. Their relationship changed after that. As the team started winning, players would talk about how much of an influence Morgan was which made the problem worse.

Virdon began benching Morgan late in games and the players noticed. It was a situation that would come back to bite them later on.

The Montreal Expos

As talented as the Astros were, they had nothing on the Montreal Expos. Future Hall-of-Famers Andre Dawson and Gary Carter anchored a lineup that also included Larry Parrish, Ron Leflore, Ellis Valentine, Rodney Scott and a young outfielder up from the minors named Tim Raines.

 

Steve Rogers
Rogers was a workhorse in September

The Expos went 19-9 in September, thanks in large part to outstanding pitching. The Montreal staff threw six shutouts in September and allowed a major league low 78 runs. Staff ace Steve Rogers made six starts in 24 days, going 4-2 with four complete games.

Another key for the Expos was taking two of three from Pittsburgh in mid-September. After splitting the first two, Montreal won the crucial third game to grab a one game lead in the division while pushing Pittsburgh down to third place.

“I don’t think the Pirates will give us any more trouble,” Jerry White told the media after the 4-0 win. “Philadelphia is now the team we’ve got to worry about.”

The Phillies Surge

While Expos were surging, so were the Phillies. Six games back on August 11th, they managed to crawl back into a first place tie by the end of play on September 1st. Mike Schmidt took over from there. From September 1st through the end of the season, Schmidt hit .298 with 13 homers and 28 RBI. His hot bat helped the Phillies go 19-10 in September.

 

Marty Bystrom
Bystrom was a nice surprise

On the mound, they got a big big contribution from an unexpected source. Marty Bystom came to the Phillies an an amateur free-agent in 1976. After winning 6- games in 14 starts at AAA Oklahoma City, Bystrom went 5-0 in September of 1980 pitching some of the most important innings in franchise history. His 1.50 ERA earned him NL Pitcher of the Month honors.

“How good is Marty?” Phillies manager Dallas Green asked the media after his final win of the month. “Pressure doesn’t bother Marty. He has that look in his eye. A look of confidence.”

The Expos/Phillies Showdown

Great months by both the Phillies and the Expos set up a showdown in Montreal on the final weekend of the season. There was a tie at the top of the division and whoever won two of three in the series would be off the the NLCS.

“They’ll have to take it away from us in our own park,” said Andre Dawson. “We’re loose and confident and we’d just as soon get it over in the first two days of the series.”

The Phillies sent 16-game winner Dick Ruthven to the mound while the Expos countered with their own 16-game winner, Scott Sanderson. Not surprisingly, Pete Rose got things started for the Phillies by singling to lead off the game. He advanced to 3rd on a Bake McBride double and scored on a Schmidt sac fly to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead.

In the top of the 6th, Schmidt again provided the heroics, this time with a solo home run. Dawson’s sac fly in the bottom of the inning cut the Phillies lead to one, but Tug McGraw came on in the 8th inning and struck out five of the six batters he faced to notch his 20th save and give the Phillies a one game lead in the division.

“Now it’s our advantage,” Schmidt said. “The pressure stays on us but they must be feeling a bit of it themselves.”

“It’s very simple now,” said Expos manager Dick Williams. “We win tomorrow or we have to face the winter with the knowledge that we’re only a second place ballclub.”

Montreal grabbed an early lead in game two and was clinging to a 4-3 advantage in the top of the 9th when Bob Boone‘s two-out single off Woody Fryman scored Bake McBride to tie the game.

McGraw shut out the Expos in the 9th and 10th innings and in the top of the 11th, Mike Schmidt faced Stan Bahnsen with one out and Rose on second.

Schmidt delivered perhaps the biggest home run in Phillies history since Dick Sisler‘s shot on the final day of 1950. The 2-run homer won the game for the Phillies and sent them to the NLCS.


“This will give me a heckuva lot more character for future pressure baseball,” Schmidt said. “We have a bigger hill to climb ahead of us. I’ve yet to prove myself in a playoff and World Series.”

The Astros Meltdown

So the Phillies were in but they still didn’t know who they would play.  The Astros held a three game advantage over the Dodgers heading into the final weekend of the season and the two faced off in Los Angeles for a three game series. All Houston had to do was win one game and they would qualify for their first ever post-season appearance.

In game one, Houston had a one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th and their closer Dave Smith ready in the bullpen, but Virdon stayed with Ken Forsch instead. The Dodgers tied it with 2-outs in the 9th and won it on Joe Ferguson‘s walk-off homer off Forsch in the 10th. A young Fernando Valenzuela pitched two scoreless innings in relief to get the win for L.A.

Game two featured Jerry Reuss against Nolan Ryan and again the Dodgers prevailed by a single run. The game was tied at one when Steve Garvey homered off Ryan. It held up and the Dodgers won 2-1.

“He started me with a curve and then came with the fastball,” Garvey told the press after the game. “I was sure it was gone when I hit it.”

That set up a Sunday showdown. A Houston win meant they won the division. A Dodgers win would force a one game playoff.

“Sunday can’t be any tougher than facing Reuss,” said Virdon. “We’re not worried about numbers or statistics. We just need one more win.”

 

Ron Cey
Cey’s homer was huge

Houston again took a lead in the third game and again the Dodgers fought back in the late innings. Ron Cey’s 8th inning, 2-run homer proved to be the difference. Don Sutton, who started the first game of the series, got the last out and earned his first save of the season.

“We don’t have the killer instinct sometimes,’ said Morgan. “We got ahead 3-0 the same way we have all year, by slapping singles, stealing bases and bunting, but then we sat back and expected our pitchers to hold them. You can’t do that.”

One of the main reasons Morgan was in Houston was to provide veteran leadership, the kind Houston was lacking. This was his biggest test.

“This team is going to grow up a lot in the next day,” he said. “It will be strong or it will die.”

The Astros/Dodgers Playoff

More than 50,000 people packed Dodger Stadium on Monday, October 6th for the one-game playoff to determine the NL West champion.

The Astros sent 19-game winner Joe Niekro to the mound, while the Dodgers countered with Dave Goltz, signed as a free-agent in the 1979 off-season. Goltz recorded double-digit wins for six straight seasons in Minnesota but his first season in Dodger Blue was a disappointment. He entered the most important game of the season with a 7-10 record.

 

Art Howe
Howe’s homer iced it

Houston took Morgan’s words to heart and scored two runs in the first inning on two singles, a stolen base and two ground outs. Art Howe hit a two-run homer in the 3rd and the Astros plated three more in the 4th to take a 7-0 lead.

Seven runs were plenty for Niekro as he allowed just six hits en route to a complete game 7-1 final.

“I was confident. I was relaxed,” said Niekro after winning his 20th game. “After the first two innings I found I had a good knuckleball.”

As the champagne flowed in the visitors clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, Virdon finally let his guard down.

“I’m probably as relaxed right now as I’ve been in the last four days,” he said.

Aftermath

Like the regular season race, the 1980 ALCS was a bit anticlimactic, but the NLCS continued the regular season excitement. The Phillies beat the Astros in five thrilling games with the last four going to extra innings. In the end, the Phillies prevailed and went on to win their first ever World Series championship.

 

 

 

 

That Time I Met Nolan Ryan

Note: This is a guest post from Scott Ottenweller

In the late 70’s my family moved from New York to Columbus, Ohio. The Yankees had finally returned to prominence, winning the World Series in ‘77 and ‘78, I naturally became a Yankee fan. And I still am to this day. I was still relatively young at the time, so I didn’t get to watch many baseball games back then (except the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week!) but I remember “stealing” my Dad’s Sports Illustrated magazines and plastering my bedroom walls with pictures of my favorite Yankee players- especially Graig Nettles, my all-time favorite Yankee. When I was playing Little League I ALWAYS wanted to play third base, like my idol. I was officially hooked on baseball.

At that point, I also became an avid baseball card collector. I couldn’t get my hands on enough cards! I would try to collect all of the Yankee players of course, but I then became fixated on collecting an entire set of cards. As I would work on building a set, two things would happen. I would collect as many all-stars player cards as possible (like everyone else), but I would study the cards. I became fascinated with reading the player’s career stats, which led to learning more about the history of baseball, records that were broken and milestones hit. It was then that I realized that Nolan Ryan was in a class by himself when it came to starting pitching.

In the early 80’s, Nolan Ryan was THE strikeout king. No one came close to his stuff. In 1973 he set a record with 383 strikeouts in one season! By 1980, Ryan already had five seasons with 300+ strikeouts and had amassed nearly 3,000 career strikeouts. He had a legitimate chance of breaking Walter Johnson‘s record of 3,509 strikeouts, a mark that had stood since 1927. In 1983, he did indeed pass Johnson to become the all-time leader in career strikeouts (he ended his career with an astonishing 5,714 career strikeouts).

It was also 1983 when my family went to St. Petersburg, Florida for Spring Break. While the beach and sun was great, I was most excited to see a spring training game. The Cardinals’ spring training was held in St. Petersburg so my brother and I ventured over there one afternoon to watch a game and see if we could get some autographs. Before the game we managed to get a ton of autographs- guys like Dickie Thon, Denny Walling and Vern Ruhle among others. We then watched a rather boring affair as the Cardinals rolled to victory.

After the game, my brother and I stalked some players and coming out of the clubhouse we met Ozzie Smith! He was holding his son yet was still gracious enough to sign autographs for us as well as others. I was so pumped to meet “The Wizard”! But that wasn’t the highlight of the day.

As we were leaving the stadium, we noticed that the Astros players were out doing practice drills (batting, fielding, etc). I chalked it up to the coach being upset at the poor play of the day, but I was curious. So my brother and I walked around the stadium to a gate where we could look onto left field. We watched batting practice for a bit (ran down a BP homerun ball from Dickie Thon!) but then I saw a player doing calisthenics with the trainer. At first from a distance I couldn’t tell who it was but then I saw the number: ‘Ole #34. It was Nolan Ryan! My brother and I just watched- mesmerized. After a while, he finished up and started to come over. Nolan Ryan was coming our way!

Nolan Ryan Autograph
Ryan’s signature. The reward for their patience

It was just my brother and I and our patience was about to pay off. No one else was with us; other kids had taken off by then. Ryan gets to the gate and asks, “How are you boys doing today?” I could only muster one word: ”Good”. He then asks if we want him to sign the piece of paper we had in our hands. Another well thought out response: “Yes”. So I watched in amazement at the very moment I was getting Nolan Ryan’s autograph. Nolan-flipping-Ryan! A sure-fire Hall of Famer! One of the premier players in the league! And he was right in front of me. Just me and my brother. As he signed our papers, said goodbye to us and walked away, my brother and I looked at each other in astonishment. We just got Nolan Ryan’s autograph!! We gave each other a high-five and with huge smiles on our faces, took off to tell our parents and whomever else might be interested in our story. It was a moment I’ll cherish forever and is still my favorite autograph that I own to this day. Even better than the Derek Jeter autograph my Mom bought me for Christmas one year. That’s saying something…

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Scott Ottenweller lives in Columbus, OH where he roots for the OSU Buckeyes, Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Yankees.

 

Have you met one of your baseball heroes from the 1980s? I want to hear about it! Click here for details and tell me your story.

Schmidt, Carlton and the 1980 Phillies

 

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The poster hung on the wall of my bedroom in southwest Ohio for years. MVP and CY. Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. My guys. I was far from unique in worshiping the two future Hall-of-Famers, but to this day the site of this poster still makes me smile.

The Phillies were considered underachievers entering 1980 because they hadn’t been able to reach the World Series. NL East crowns in 1976, ’77 and ’78 had resulted in being bounced from the playoffs by the Reds (1976) and Dodgers (1977 & 78). Signing Pete Rose for the 1979 season was thought to be the answer but injuries decimated the roster. It was do or die in 1980 and the Phils struggled out of the gate, going 6-9 in late March and into April. Then MVP and CY took over.

Schmidt earned Player of the Month honors in May by hitting .305 with 12 home runs and 29 RBI to pace the offense, while Carlton earned the Pitcher of the Month award, turning in a 6-1 record with an E.R.A. of just 1.66. Carlton flirted with a no-hitter against Atlanta on May 5th, going seven and a third before yielding his first hit.

There was one game that served as a microcosm of the month for the Phillies. On May 23rd, Carlton was just dominant against Nolan Ryan and the Houston Astros, throwing a complete game, four-hit shutout. The only runs he needed came in the 3rd inning when Schmidt homered with Rose and Bake McBride aboard.

Philadelphia went 17-9 in May and their 144 runs scored led the National League. It wasn’t enough to get them to the top of the division, but it was a much-needed step in the right direction. Another rough month early in the season coupled with strong play by the Pirates and the Montreal Expos could have spelled doom for the Phillies.

The NL East race went down to the final weekend of the season and the Phillies ultimately prevailed and went on to win their first World Series. But it may not have happened had their two best players not stepped up early in the year to get them back on track.

 

 

Joe Morgan and J.R. Richard’s (not so ) Secret Mission

On April 1st, 1980, members of the Major League Baseball Players Association voted to walk out of the final week of spring training. The move was a warning shot intended to get the attention of the team owners who were longing for the good old days before free-agency.

Some teams stayed at their spring training sites and hosted informal workouts. Some teams disbanded and went home for a quick break before opening day.

But the most bizarre incident took place in the Orlando airport when Houston Astros third baseman Enos Cabell decided to head home after the strike vote. Teamates Joe Morgan and J.R. Richard wanted Cabell to stay in camp and continue to work out with the team. Their desire for team unity was so great that the two of them, 5 foot 8 Morgan and 6 foot 8 Richard, were seen sprinting through the airport in full uniform trying to track down Cabell before he boarded his 12:40 p.m. flight to California.

“We didn’t know which airline,” said Morgan. So we had to run around the airport looking for a flight that left at that time for Los Angeles.”

“It tripped me out,” said Cabell. “When I saw Joe and J – man, I couldn’t believe it. Neither could anyone at the airport.”

“We thought he should stay along with the rest of us,” said Morgan. “I told him if I’d done all that running around the airport, making a spectacle of myself with my uniform on and found out he wouldn’t come back, there was gonna be a fight right there on the spot.”

You Forgot How Good J.R. Richard Was

In December of 1979 the Houston Astros made Nolan Ryan the first million-dollar man history. Ryan won 324 games, threw 7 no-hitters and would lead his league in strikeouts eleven times en route to amassing more strikeouts than any other pitcher who ever player. But in 1980 he wasn’t even the best pitcher on his own team.

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in 1980, Richard and Ryan gave the Astros both reigning strikeout champs.

That honor belonged to James Rodney Richard. He stood 6 foot 8 inches tall and regularly hit 100 miles per hour with his fastball. If that wasn’t enough, he also possessed one of the league’s most devastating sliders. As a senior in high school, he allowed ZERO runs and was selected in the first round of the draft by the Astros in 1969. The 1971 Astros Media guide listed him as a “giant youngster who has an overpowering fast ball, but who obviously lacks control.”

J.R. Richard made his debut against Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants in September of 1971. Apparently he wasn’t intimidated as he threw a complete game shutout and struck out 15, including Mays three times.

As his career progressed, control was still an issue. He led the league in walks three times and set a major league record in 1979 by throwing six wild pitches in an April 10th game against the Dodgers. He also struck out 13 Dodgers that day, allowing just six hits in a complete game 2-1 win.

From 1976 through 1979, he was one of the top pitchers in the National League, amassing a 74-51 record with 1,044 strikeouts in 1,125 and two-thirds innings and a 2.89 ERA. Only Steve Carlton won more games during that four year period in the N.L.

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Richard was dominant in 1980

In 1980, he was even better. Richard got the nod on Opening Day against the Dodgers and was perfect through six and a third innings before Rudy Law singled in the seventh. J.R. went eight and struck out 13 before giving way to Joe Sambito who earned his first save.

“It was coming out of a cannon,” said Law. “I’ve never faced anybody who can throw the ball like that, it was unbelievable. He’s one of the greatest pitchers in the major leagues. I don’t look forward to facing too many more like him.”

What made his Opening Day start different was that the 98 MPH fastball and the 13 strikeouts went with zero walks, something he was able to do just three times in 1979. To begin the season that way was a big boost for him.

“I think this was the best night I’ve had since I was in the major leagues,” said Richard. “Just getting the ball over the plate was my secret.”

On April 19th, more than 50,000 fans packed the Astrodome to watch Richard outduel Bob Welch in a 2-0 Astros win. Two starts later, Richard beat Tom Seaver 5-1 in Cincinnati to run his record to a perfect 4-0. But the undefeated record doesn’t pay justice to how dominant he was. In 37 and two-thirds innings, the big right hander surrendered just 13 hits while striking out 48 and recording a 1.67 ERA. Perhaps most impressive was the paltry .104 batting average the National League posted against him. The dominance continued through May and June and at the All-Star break his record stood at 10-4 with a 1.96 E.R.A.

1980 was shaping up to be his finest season. But Richard had also been plagued by health problems all year. He left his April 14th start against Atlanta with shoulder stiffness. The same issue kept him from finishing his April 25th start against the Mets. He left his June 17th start against Chicago due to a “dead arm.” Forearm trouble chased him early from his July 3rd start against the Braves. Obviously, something was wrong.

A Sporting News article on Richard’s situation trumpeted, “Houston has own JR Mystery,” a play on the “Who shot JR?” mystery of the popular TV show, Dallas.

In the Sporting News piece, Harry Shattuck wrote, “Pardon us Dallasites, but our JR saga may be as intriguing as yours… and Houston’s JR is real. Hard to believe, perhaps, but real”

On July 11th while the Astros were in Los Angeles, Richard was examined by renowned surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe who didn’t find anything wrong. On the morning of July 14th, Richard called Astros team doctor Harold Brelsford and told him he was ready to go that night against the Braves but on the mound he had trouble seeing the signs from the catcher. He lasted just three and a third before leaving with what the Astros called an upset stomach.

The fans and Astros General Manager Tal Smith were growing impatient and the rumors and accusations began to swirl. J.R. was accused of everything from being jealous of Ryan’s $1 million contract to just being lazy.

After the July 14th start, Richard was placed on the disabled list and underwent a series of tests at Methodist Hospital in Houston which uncovered arterial blockage in his right arm. The blockage was not considered serious however and no surgery was recommended.

Richard was released from the hospital and cleared for supervised workouts on July 26th. Four days later, during a workout at the Astrodome, he collapsed in the outfield. He was rushed to Methodist Hospital where tests revealed he had suffered a stroke. Apologies rained down from media members who had criticized Richard for asking out of games.

Richard being put into an ambulance after his stroke
Richard being put into an ambulance after his stroke

“Guilt has seized a lot of people in this town who believed in the weeks before his problem was diagnosed,…that Richard was playing his own kind of game.” wrote columnist Mickey Herskowitz of The Houston Post on August 3rd.

“Some wrote or said as much, and if anyone expressed any sympathy, or offered him the benefit of the doubt, no real notice was paid…. Our concern and shock were mixed with embarrassment and we ought to admit it.”

Richard never pitched in the big leagues again.

The Courtship of Nolan Ryan

The Houston Astros had one of the best pitching staffs in the National League in 1979, finishing second in the league with a 3.20 team E.R.A. Joe Niekro won 21 games, Ken Forsch threw the major league’s only no-hitter and 6 foot 8 fireballer James Rodney Richard led league in strikeouts. But new owner John McMullen wasn’t satisfied. In November he shook up the baseball world, and angered his fellow owners, by signing Nolan Ryan for the unheard of price of $1 million per season.

Ryan had established himself as one of the top pitchers in the game in his eight seasons as a member of the California Angels. He won 138 games and recorded nearly 2,500 strikeouts, leading the American League every year but one (1975). But a rift developed between Ryan and Angels General Manager Buzzie Bavasi in 1979 and that rift grew to a chasm as the season progressed.

Nolan Ryan with Angels
Ryan won 138 games as an Angel

Ryan’s contract was up at the end of the year and after a 1978 season in which he went 10-13, Bavasi was in no hurry to sign him to a big money, long-term contract. Things got more contentious as the summer wore on. Ryan and his agent Dick Moss gave Bavasi permission to seek a trade to Texas or Houston but a proposed swap involving Al Oliver was turned down by the Rangers and Houston’s offer of Bob Watson and Joe Sambito was rejected by Bavasi.

Ryan finished 1979 at 16-14 with a league-leading 223 strikeouts and a 3.60 ERA while helping the Angels win their first ever division title. His 16 wins tied for the team lead, but Bavasi wasn’t impressed, telling the media he could simply replace Ryan with two 8-7 pitchers.  “Buzzie did not understand,” said Don Baylor in his 1989 biography, Nothing but the Truth: A Baseball Life

“They could replace the win total, but they could not replace the pitcher, the wear and tear he saved the bullpen, the fear he put in the opposition. He was the only pitcher in the majors capable of pitching a no-hitter any time he took the mound.”

So Ryan entered the free-agent draft and had multiple suitors. George Steinbrenner and the Yankees offered $1 million per season but after beginning his career with the Mets, Ryan had little interest in returning to New York. He told Moss that if the Astros would match the Yankees’ offer he would sign.

Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan at the Astrodome

His three-year, $3 million deal was the richest in team sports history and gave Houston both defending strikeout champions in Ryan and Richard. They became even more devastating as bookends to the knuckleballing Niekro.

“Can you imagine this?” joked Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell. “Hitting Niekro is like chasing a butterfly with the hiccups. Now they can sandwich him in there with Ryan and Richard. The commissioner should tie up the deal for the next five years. By then, I’ll be out of baseball.”

Joe Morgan Comes Home

joe-morgan-photoAfter eight seasons in Cincinnati, second-baseman Joe Morgan was looking to prove he could still contribute as he entered his age 36 season. He won back-to-back MVP awards and two World Series with the Reds in 1975 & ‘76 but his offensive numbers fell sharply after that. He hit just .236 in 1978 and .250 in ’79 while his home run total slipped from a high of 27 in 1976 to just nine in 1979. He also wanted out of Cincinnati. In his 1993 autobiography, Joe Morgan, A Life in Baseball, he cited the Reds firing Sparky Anderson after 1978 as a tipping point for him.

End of an Era

“With Tony, Pete and now Sparky gone, the heart of the Big Red Machine had all but ceased. It was… before the 1979 season was even under way that I decided to play out my contract and move on.”

Morgan entered the Free-Agent draft and was selected by the Dodgers, his preferred destination. His signing with Cincinnati’s long-time rival was predicated on incumbent second baseman Davey Lopes agreeing to move to center field.  But Lopes balked and Morgan didn’t want to be the reason for a fracture on a pennant-contending club so he announced he wouldn’t be signing with anyone and went back into the secondary phase of the draft.

This time he was selected by the Yankees and the Astros. As was the case with Nolan Ryan, George Steinbrenner’s Yankees lost out to Houston.

Morgan_Joe_113

On January 31st, Joe Morgan agreed to a deal to return to the city where he began his career in 1963.

“The Astros already have a winning attitude,” Morgan said at his introductory news conference. “With a starting rotation of Joe Niekro, J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan and Ken Forsch and Joe Sambito in the bullpen, I’d rather be playing behind them than trying to hit against them.”

The additions of Ryan and Morgan and a talented young outfield of Jose Cruz, Jeoffrey Leonard, and Terry Puhl had Astros manager Bill Virdon feeling good about the upcoming season.

“We made great strides during the 1979 season and the pennant race provided some experience for us,” Virdon told reporters in Cocoa, FL that spring. “That should make us a better club in 1980. If we can get good offensive production and pitching we’ll be legitimate contenders.”