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Houston Astros legend J.R. Richard has passed away, the team announced Thursday. He was 71. Mark Berman of Fox 26 reports Richard passed away Wednesday night at a Houston hospital.

"Today is a sad day for the Houston Astros as we mourn the loss of one of our franchise icons, J.R. Richard," the Astros said in a statement. "J.R. will forever be remembered as an intimidating figure on the mound and as one of the greatest pitchers in club history. He stood shoulder to shoulder with club icons Larry Dierker, Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan, to form a few of the best rotations in club history. Sadly, his playing career was cut short by health issues, but his 10 years in an Astros uniform stand out as a decade of excellence. We send our heartfelt condolences to J.R.'s wife, Lula, his family, friends and countless fans and admirers."

"J.R. was one of my good friends," longtime Astros teammate Jose Cruz said in a statement. "This is very sad to hear. I have great memories of J.R. He was one of the greatest Astros ever. When he was pitching, we knew that we were going to get a 'W.' I didn't get too many balls hit to me in the outfield when he pitched because he was so dominating. He was a great friend and a great teammate. I send my condolences to his wife and kids".   

Richard, a right-handed pitcher, was raised in Louisiana and he turned down multiple college basketball scholarships offers to pursue baseball after the Astros selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 1969 amateur draft. He reached the big leagues in 1971 and made a great first impression, striking out 15 batters in a complete game win over the Giants in his first MLB game on Sept. 5. The 15 strikeouts are tied with Karl Spooner for the most in an MLB debut.

It wasn't until 1974 that Richard joined the rotation full-time and stuck in the big leagues for good. From 1975-80, he was simply one of the best pitchers in baseball. Richard had a 3.01 ERA in over 1,400 innings those seasons, and during his peak from 1976-79, Richard pitched to a 2.88 ERA and averaged 18.5 wins with 261 strikeouts and more than 280 innings per season. Richard is one of the last pitchers to post consecutive 300-strikeout seasons (303 in 1978 and 313 in 1979).

Richard was an All-Star in 1981 and he finished top 10 in the Cy Young voting in 1976 (seventh), 1978 (fourth), and 1979 (third). He also received MVP votes in 1976 and 1979.

At age 30, Richard's career came to a premature end when he suffered a massive stroke during pregame warmups in the outfield in late July. He missed time earlier in the season with a blockage in an artery that caused his arm to go numb. Richard attempted several comebacks from 1981-83 but never did make it back to the big leagues.

By any measure Richard is one of the greatest pitchers in Astros history. He ranks among the franchise's top 10 in just about every meaningful pitching category, including innings (1,606), wins (107), strikeouts (1,493), and WAR (23.1). Richard spent one year on the Hall of Fame ballot, receiving 1.6 percent of the vote in 1985, and he was inducted into the Astros Hall of Fame in 2019.

Following his playing career, Richard lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in a business scam, and also had to pay close to $1 million in a divorce settlement. He was homeless in 1994 and 1995, and lived under a highway overpass in Houston. In 1995, Richard became eligible to receive his MLB pension, and he became involved with a local church and other community endeavors.