“He could blow that speed ball by ya’, make you look like a fool, boy”
“The Boss” could have been talking about Nolan Ryan. His “Glory Days” did eventually “pass him by”, but in his prime, Nolan’s fast ball made many major league hitters look like fools.
Lynn Nolan Ryan, Jr. was born in the small town of Refugio, Texas and was the youngest of six children. His family moved to a small suburb of Houston when he was very young. His father knew that he had a future pitcher in Ryan, as he seemed to enjoy throwing any kind of object at any available target. His father encouraged him to play baseball at a very young age. Ryan started playing in Little League Baseball when he was only nine, and pitched a no-hitter while still in Little League, a feat that eventually became commonplace.
Ryan was a great athlete in general, playing many other positions other than pitcher, and batted over .600 during his high school career. Of course, his pitching prowess was amazing even at this relatively young age, and he was considered by many to be the best high school pitcher in the state of Texas.
The New York Mets drafted Nolan upon his graduation from high school in 1965. He first pitched for the Marion Mets from the Appalachian League located in Marion, Virginia. He was called up to the big club the following season, and at that time he became the second-youngest player in the league. Pat Jarvis had the honor of being the first strikeout of many during his career.
Ryan was actually sent back down to the minors because he had a propensity of being wild and unable to find the strike zone. Ryan was bounced back and forth from the minors to the majors until he was brought back up for good in 1968. The Mets had an amazing pitching staff, led by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, so even with his incredible fastball, he was unable to crack that rotation. He was used as an occasional starter and often came in from the bullpen during the “Amazin’ Mets” season of 1969.
Nolan had a great postseason for the Mets that season. He pitched 7 innings vs the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series to earn a playoff win and pitched shutout for the final 2 1/3 innings of Game 3 of the World Series vs the Baltimore Orioles to earn a save.
On April 18 of the 1970 season, Ryan tied what was then the team record for strikeouts in a game, with 15, but the record didn’t last long… Tom Seaver struck out 16 four days later. During the 1970 season, Ryan became frustrated and disenchanted with his time with the Mets. His record was only 10-14, and he actually considered retirement, but instead asked to be traded. The Mets accommodated him, and on December 10, 1971 he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels. This would go down as the worst trade in New York Mets history and arguably the worst in MLB history. The trade sent Ryan, pitcher Don Rose, catcher Francisco Estrada and outfielder Leroy Stanton. In return, the Mets received shortstop Jim Fregosi. Fregosi had been a great player in his prime, a perennial all-star, but this had long past, and he never had a good season the rest of his career.
It did not take long for Nolan to become comfortable with his new club. Unlike his tenure with the Mets, he was immediately put in the starting rotation. He led the league in strikeouts with 329, which was almost a third more than his closest competitor. Amazingly, within only five seasons with the Angels, that total became only his fourth highest. That season he averaged giving up only 5.26 hits for every nine innings and to this date he had the second lowest ERA in team history at 2.28. His strikeout totals and multiple no-hitters wers getting attention throughout the league, despite his record being only slightly above .500.
While the Angels consistently played below .500 ball, Ryan still managed some winning seasons, with records of 19-16, 21-16, and 22-16 in the 1972-74 seasons respectively, the latter tying the franchise record for wins at that time. Ryan also had the dubious distinction of leading the league in losses in 1976, posting a 17-18 record. One of the reasons for that could be explained by the fact that during that period of time, most teams used 4-man rotations, so pitchers were asked to complete more games, thus resulting in more decisions.
Ryan became only the seventh pitcher in American League history to accomplish an amazing feat, striking out nine hitters in an inning on nine pitches. This occurred on July 9, 1972 vs the Boston Red Sox. He actually accomplished this once before, as a Met during the 1968 season vs the St Louis Cardinals. He is the only pitcher in MLB history to have accomplished this in both leagues.
Ryan’s strikeout totals continued to increase at an amazing rate. He struck out 383 hitters during the 1973 season, being the first of many MLB records that Ryan set during his career. The total was just one greater than the previous record of Sandy Koufax. Koufax was quoted as saying “Yeah, and he also surpassed my total for bases on balls in a single season by 91. I suspect half of those guys he struck out swung rather than get hit.”
Nolan through four no-hitters in the 1973-75 seasons, two in the 1973 season, and one each in the other two. During the 1974 season, he struck out 19 batters, both times tying the major league record at the time, sharing the record with future Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton.
During his final season with the Angels in 1979, the team finally made the playoff. Ryan pitched the first game of the league championship series against the Baltimore Orioles. He faced off against the ace of the Orioles staff, Jim Palmer. The game ended in the 10th inning, the Orioles winning. Ryan pitched seven strong innings, and neither pitcher got a decision.
Nolan’s problems with wildness continued throughout his career. During his time with the Angels, while leading the league seven out of the eight years with the team, he also led the league in walks six of those seasons and was second the other two. This, combined with his win-loss percentage close to .500 led to disenchantment by Angels’ management, despite the glamour of his other records.
Ryan became a free agent after the 1979 season, and signed a very lucrative contract with the Houston Astros. He made an amazing debut with his new team. On opening day on April 12, Ryan hit a 3-run home run off Dodger ace Don Sutton, an amazing feat considering his reputation as a very poor hitter, even for a pitcher. Ryan reached the 3000 strikeout plateau on the 4th of July in Cincinnati, the victim being Pedro Geronimo. (An interesting oddity is that Geronimo was also the 3000th strikeout of Bob Gibson.)
The Astros made the playoffs in both the 1979 and 1980 seasons, but the team fell short of the World Series both times. During the 1980 NLCS vs the Phillies, Ryan pitched well in Game 2, leaving in the seventh inning of a 2-2 game, but got a no-decision in a game that went extra innings. In the decisive Game 5, Ryan got another no-decision, and this time was lucky to do so. He gave up 3 runs in the 8th inning to tie the game at 5, and the Phillies went on take a 7-5 lead. While Houston rallied to tie the game in the 9th, they went on to lose the game and the series.
In the opening round of the playoffs in the 1981 season, Ryan went up against the Dodgers’ rookie star Fernando Valenzuela with a complete game 2-hitter. This was only the second post-season victory of his career. He got the loss in the decisive game 5, leaving after falling behind 3-0.
Toward the end of the 1982 season, both Ryan and Steve Carlton were getting close to surpassing the all-time career strikeout record of Walter Johnson, often trading each other’s place in the race during consecutive starts. Ryan managed to get there first, striking out 3509th hitter on April 27, 1983. Carlton managed the feat 2 weeks later.
Ryan again made the playoffs with the Astros in 1986. He had one poor starts vs the Mets in the NLCS, but pitched well in Game 5, striking out 12 while allowing only 2 hits and one run. Unfortunately, the run came off the bat of Daryll Strawberry, tying the game at one. He also had the misfortune of going up against Mets’ ace Dwight Gooden. The Astros went on to lose the game in extra innings, and the series.
In 1987, Ryan’s penultimate season with the Astros and at the age of 40, he led the league in both strikeouts (270) and ERA (2.76), but due to poor run support, he had a very disappointing record of 8-16.
Ryan left the Astros at the end of the 1988 season, but remained in his home state by joining the Texas Rangers. During the season he had a more than adequate record of 16-10 and again led the league in strikeout with 301. On August 22 he reached the amazing strikeout plateau of 5000, the victim being Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics.
Both 1990 and 1991 were historic seasons for Ryan. On June 11, 1990 he threw his sixth no-hitter vs the Oakland Athletics. Later that season he earned his 300th win. During the 1991 season, Nolan was part of an amazing day in baseball history. Rickey Henderson of the Athletics set the all-time stolen base record at 939, but later that same day Ryan through his seventh no-hitter at the incredible age of 44, somewhat overshadowing Henderson’s feat.
At the beginning of the 1993 season, Ryan announced that it was to be his last. He did not quite get to finish the season however, missing his last two starts due to a torn ligament. Amazingly, his final pitch was measured at 98 mph.
Nolan Ryan left the game with an amazing legacy. He played in 27 seasons, the most in baseball history. He holds the record for all-time strikeouts (5714), fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.56), and the most career no-hitters (7). Hitters had only a .204 batting average, but due to the high-number of walks he gave up, they had a .302 on-base percentage. Ryan had 15 or more strikeouts 27 times in his career, which is second only to Randy Johnson. Maybe the most amazing fact during this amazing career is that Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young award. It also an unfortunate truth at Ryan also two negative records, including all-time walks (2795) and wild pitches (277).
Ryan is the only player to have his jersey retired by three teams, the Angels, Astros, and Rangers. In his first year of eligibility, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999. He decided to use the Rangers cap for the plaque as a tribute to his home state, and also because he set two of his greatest milestones occurred as a Ranger, his 5000th strikeout and 300th win. And the last two no-hitters of his career.
While there is no doubt that Nolan Ryan’s career was a dichotomy, considering his mediocre career won-loss record and his propensity for wildness, his place in the history in the game is unquestioned. He was one of the most feared pitchers ever, with one of the greatest fastballs ever, routinely reaching over 100 mph. As stated earlier, he pitched during an era where complete games were more common, hence there were more losses as well as wins. He was also one of the most durable players in history, pitching for 27 seasons.
I would say that 27 years of “Glory Days” was worth something!