SABR

Gary Nolan

This article was written by Richard Miller.

At age 18, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Gary Nolan, in his first major league start, defeated the Houston Astros 7-3 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field on April 15, 1967. In the first inning he struck out Sonny Jackson, Jim Landis, and Jimmy Wynn en route to a 7-3 victory.   Later in the season, on June 7 with the bases loaded with San Francisco Giants he used his fireball pitches to strike out Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Jim Ray Hart. At game’s end he had struck out Mays four times. Mays pointed out, “Nobody’s ever done that to me before.” By the end of his stellar first major league season he had set modern day records for a pitcher who began the season at the age of 18 or younger with a 14-8 win/loss record, a 2.58 ERA, four shutouts and 206 strikeouts in 227 innings.

The Reds had expected Nolan, born May 27, 1948, in Herlong, California, but living and going to school in Oroville, an old gold rush town, to succeed. And Nolan knew he would succeed. At age ten, Gary sat next to his father, Ray, a switchman for the Union Pacific, listening to Russ Hodges broadcast a San Francisco Giants game. Ray did not care for baseball, but it was obvious that Gary planned to play major league baseball. In high school he became such a good pitcher that baseball scouts, sometimes twenty-five of them, drove to Oroville to see the new boy wonder. 

He was the Reds, number one choice in the 1966 amateur draft, and the team sent their top negotiator, Jim McLaughlin, to Oroville to cut a deal with Gary’s father. Ray said, “Talk to Gary. He’s a grown man.” Gary negotiated his own deal and signed for $40,000.

The Reds assigned him to their Sioux Falls, South Dakota (Northern League) club for his first professional season in 1966. There he fulfilled his predicted success, pitching in 12 games, going 7-3 with a 1.82 ERA. His fastball was overpowering. In 104 innings he struck out 163. Above all, he had that best gift of all--control. He walked only 30 batters.   

At 6-foot 3-inches, 190 pounds, the handsome Nolan was an immediate favorite of Reds fans, especially the young women. But, alas for them, Gary had married high school sweetheart Carole Widener in February 1965. He became a father at age 17. The family grew to six with Gary Jr., Tim, Mark, and Kathy.

Hopes were high for another strong year for Nolan in 1968, but at spring training dark clouds began forming. Nolan strained his shoulder and walked off the mound after throwing two pitches in the second inning of his first start in an exhibition game. It was a cold, blustery day, and Nolan apparently had extended himself too fast, too soon for a first outing.

Nolan was shocked when he heard general manager Bob Howsam observe, “We just may send him to the minors to get in shape.” No mention of the pain Nolan was suffering, just the implication that he was out of shape and just a kid who didn’t know about pain.

A week later he was in the minor leagues with the Reds’ farm team, Tampa in the Florida State League. His sore arm remained as he attempted to pitch five innings in two games. Tampa manager George Scherger called the Reds’ home office to report that Gary was completely demoralized. Ironically, it was after his great game against the Giants the previous season that Giants pitching coach Larry Jansen remarked, ”With his motion he’s sure to hurt his arm.”

The Reds, however, needed pitching help, still had visions of Nolan’s strong 1967 season, and recalled him from Tampa in mid-May. On May 31, he pitched five innings in an exhibition game, and five days later lasted only five minutes pitching batting practice. “I wouldn’t say I’m disgusted,” Nolan remarked. “The word is impatient. Either that or I’m fouled up.”

Despite the sore arm he continued to pitch, and rebounded with a seven-game winning streak and finished the season at 9-4, with a team-leading 2.40 ERA. His best game was a 5-0 shutout over the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park on June 29; he helped himself with his only major league home run, a three-run shot against Ray Sadecki. Unfortunately, his sore arm problems would plague him throughout a career that ended before his reached his 30th birthday. 

The Reds’ Opening Day pitcher in 1969, he struck out 12 Dodgers but lost 3-2. In his next start at Atlanta he pulled a muscle in his right forearm while delivering a pitch to Henry Aaron in the sixth inning. He was the winning pitcher, but the injury cost him three months of major league action.

Those three months with the Reds’ minor league club in Indianapolis turned out to be a blessing. Under the tutelage of Indianapolis manager Vern Rapp and Reds minor league instructor Scott Breeden, Nolan developed an outstanding off-speed pitch.

Meanwhile, his family, now with two children, moved back to Oroville, where he worked hard physically to get a good start for 1970.

After his recall by the Reds in early August, Nolan finished the season with six games won in eight starts, helped by his new change-up pitch. After facing Nolan in mid-September, Dodger catcher Tom Haller praised him by commenting, “He’s smart enough to realize he can’t overpower hitters any longer. He’s changing speed more and his change-up is a great pitch.” 

Under manager Dave Bristol, the Reds of the late 1960s were competitive but couldn’t make it to the top. In an interview, Nolan recalls, “With guys like Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Pete Rose we obviously had the talent. Injuries and bad breaks kept us from winning consistently. We all knew there would be a change of managers after 1969.”

The new manager was the unknown Sparky Anderson, under whom the team had immediate success in the 1970s with Nolan an important cog in what became the Big Red Machine.

In 1970 Nolan posted his best won-lost record ever, winning 18 games, losing only 7 with 181 strikeouts and a 3.26 ERA, helping the Reds to a NL pennant. He pitched even better than his record indicates. In one stretch in July and August he allowed no more than three runs in any one contest, but had only four wins and a loss. Six times he was not involved in the decision, but his 2.78 ERA indicated his effectiveness in the season’s second half.

On September 19 Nolan beat the Houston Astros in a 3-2 game, clinching a tie for the Western Division crown. Against Pittsburgh in Game One of the championship series, he pitched nine innings of shutout ball, but the Reds didn’t score until a three-run 10th inning, and reliever Clay Carroll got the win. The Reds won the National League title in a three-game sweep.

Along with the entire Reds team, he did not perform as well in the World Series, won by the Baltimore Orioles four games to one. He lost Game One to Jim Palmer, allowing four runs in 6 1/3 innings and was relieved in game four after three innings with the Reds behind 4-2. The Reds rallied to win the game 6-5 on the back of Lee May’s three-run homer in the eighth inning.  

After a disappointing 12-15 record (but with a slightly better ERA of 3.16 and a career-best nine complete games) in 1971, in 1972 Nolan posted 13 victories before the All-Star Game. Selected for the NL team, he was withdrawn from the team when Reds manager Sparky Anderson called All-Star manager Danny Murtaugh without telling Nolan. Suffering from neck and shoulder pains, Nolan went on the disabled list. When he returned to the team, he finished the season with a 15-5 record and 1.99 ERA, leading the league in winning percentage (.750), his ERA just behind Steve Carlton’s league-best 1.97. 

Nolan appeared only twice for the Reds in 1973 and missed the entire 1974 season after the surgical removal of a calcium spur from his shoulder by Dr. Frank Jobe, who told him, “I have no idea how you pitched in that sort of pain. You must have been in agony.” Finally someone believed him, and Gary felt like a man again. Jobe was also seeing Dodger pitcher Tommy John and had a long-shot idea. He replaced John’s damaged ligament with a ligament taken from another part of his body. Tommy John did pitch again, and “Tommy John surgery” would save countless pitchers’ careers. 

Nolan recalled, “ The hardest part was that many people, including some of my teammates, didn’t think there was anything the matter with me. That was one of the reasons I moved out of Cincinnati and sold our home after the 1972 season. Back in Oroville, people didn’t doubt my word.”

Manager Sparky Anderson told him constantly, “Pitchers have to throw in pain. Bob Gibson says every pitch he’s ever thrown cut through him like a knife. You gotta pitch with pain, kid.”

He reported back to Indianapolis near the end of the 1974 season, hurled six innings in two games, and found his pain had disappeared. For the remainder of his career, his great off-speed pitch compensated for his loss of velocity on his fastball. He never lost his excellent control.

After the 1974 season, Gary went to the Instructional League and pitched 45 innings, which helped build up his shoulder so that he was ready to try the big leagues again. 

He returned to the Reds in 1975 in good form with a new attitude. He had inwardly turned to God as a practicing Christian, and developed a sense of humor and new philosophy that reflected the inner turmoil he had survived.

On May 3 he beat the Atlanta Braves, 6-1, in a complete game, his first victory in twenty months. For the year he was 15-9 with a 3.16 ERA. He zipped through the season, walking only 29 batters, and led the club in innings pitched with 211. With his on-the-road roommate Don Gullett, he spent many days going over the other club’s hitters, a probing that helped both pitchers. 

The Reds again won the NL championship defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates in a three- game sweep of the playoff series. Nolan was the starting pitcher for game three, pitched the first six innings, allowing two runs and five hits with five strikeouts. He struck out Willie Stargell twice, and with two runners on in the fifth inning got Ed Kirkpatrick on a harmless pop-up. “You’re pitching your ass off,” Pete Rose shouted happily. After his stint the Reds came back from a 2-1 Pittsburgh lead to win the game, scoring two runs in the tenth inning for a 5-3 victory. Relief pitcher Rawley Eastwick got the win.

In the 1975 World Series against the Boston Red Sox, a Series long remembered for Game Six when Carlton Fisk “waved” his 12th inning hit for a winning home run just inside the left field foul pole. Nolan started that game and left after two innings with the Sox ahead by two runs. His start in Game Three was better when he gave up just one run in four innings, but had to leave with a stiff neck.

The major league broadcasters and players awarded Gary the Hutch Award presented to a player who had overcome major adversity. The award was named in honor of the late Fred Hutchinson, manager of the Reds from 1959 to1964 when he died of cancer. Nolan brought his family back to Ohio and purchased a new home.

He duplicated his 15-9 record in 1976 and finally got his first World Series victory over the New York Yankees in the last game of a four-game Reds sweep. He held the Yankees to two runs in his 6 plus innings to earn the 7-2 Reds win in the final game.

While sipping his victory champagne he told reporter Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News, “We’ve got an underrated pitching staff, no Tom Seaver or Cy Young, but we get the job done. This was my first World Series victory and I’m glad I got it in the house the Ruth built. I didn’t set the world on fire out there but I got them out. Some day when I’m telling my grandson about tonight, I might stretch things a bit.”

While Nolan was with the team and healthy, the Reds won divisional titles in 1970, 1972, 1973, 1975, and 1976 to go with World Championships in 1975 and 1976.      

Nolan’s arm problems returned with a vengeance in 1977, and he was traded to the California Angels in June, where he made only five appearances, compiled an 0-3 record, and was placed once more on the disabled list. He was released in January 1978. He recalled, “I saw Dr. Frank Jobe while out there, but I pretty much knew I was done. All of a sudden my career was over.”

Nolan found a second career as a blackjack dealer at the Las Vegas Golden Nugget in 1978. In 1989 he became executive casino host at the Mirage, where he left any interest in baseball behind him. He wanted nothing to do with the Reds, never wore his championship rings, and even snubbed the team when he was elected to the Reds Hall of Fame in 1983.

Cincinnati sports writer John Erardi made a special trip to Las Vegas in 1986 to interview Nolan. When asked if his memories with the Reds were fond ones, Nolan answered he did enjoy pitching and the relationships he formed with his teammates, and the people of Cincinnati. Then he added, “The Reds organization left a bad taste in my mouth by not believing my arm was hurt and thinking it was probably in my head. I know they did and they know I did.”

He continued, “I was blessed. I played in the big leagues, I was fortunate. But I have learned to separate my baseball life and my life in Los Vegas. Most people in the casino probably don’t even know I played ball.”

Nolan was visiting Cincinnati in 2006 and decided to visit the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. The building was closed because it was a Monday, but a Reds attendant called the Museum. Fortunately, museum curator Chris Eckes was there, welcomed Nolan, and guided him through the building to the Hall of Fame room with Nolan’s HOF plaque. The result was a new relationship with the Reds organization and Nolan’s subsequent return to several Reds Hall of Fame annual induction ceremonies.

Over his nine-year career, Nolan was 110-70 with a stellar 3.03 ERA. He struck out 1,039 batters and gave up only 413 walks in 1,675 innings pitched. With his time lost to arm injuries, his career was more like six years.

Nolan now resides in Oroville, where a sign on the highway proclaims it the hometown of Gary Nolan. He’s keeping his hand in the game coaching and preparing the Oroville High School pitchers for college ball.

Sources

Statistics verified by Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet.

Cincinnati Reds Yearbooks, 1968-1970.

Collett, Ritter. Men of the Reds Machine, Landfall Press, 1977.

Erardi, John. Nolan buries his baseball past, Cincinnati Enquirer, August 13, 1986.

Hertzel, Bob. The Big Red Machine: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Best Team. Prentice-Hall, 1976.

McCoy, Hal. The Relentless Reds, PressCo.Inc,. 1976.

 ____.            The Royal Reds, PressCo, Inc., 1977.

Miller, Richard D. “Gary Lynn Nolan” in David L. Porter, ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball. Revised and expanded edition. 3 vols. Westport, CT, and London, 2000.

Posnanski, Joe. The Machine: Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. William Morrow, 2009.

Smith, Daryl. Making the Big Red Machine. McFarland & Company. 2009.

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