May 15, 1973: 'Just a matter of time': Nolan Ryan's first no-hitter

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf

“I felt the pressure building on a no-hitter,” said Nolan Ryan. “I didn’t really feel it tonight until the ninth inning and then I was nervous.”1 Ever since the hard-throwing right-hander broke into the majors with the New York Mets in 1968 (after a cup of coffee two years earlier), sportswriters and fans thought it was just a matter of time before the mild-mannered Texan authored a no-hitter. Few expected it would take five years. Ryan had moments of brilliance with the Mets, including a one-hitter with 15 punchouts against Philadelphia in his first start of the 1970 season, but more often he was plagued by control problems and was reduced primarily to a spot starter. The Mets finally gave up on the flamethrower with a disappointing 29-38 record, shipping him and three others to the California Angels after the 1971 season in exchange for former All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi in what is often considered among the worst trades in baseball history.

Ryan blossomed in his first season with the Angels, going 19-16 and leading the majors with 329 strikeouts and nine shutouts. “[The Angels] let me do the thing I wanted to do most,” said Ryan bluntly. “They let me pitch.”2 Within a six-start stretch in July, he tossed a one-hitter against Boston, held Texas hitless for 7⅔ innings, and kept Kansas City hitless for seven frames, but the no-hitter proved elusive. The self-effacing Ryan deflected questions about when he would finally achieve what many thought he should have already accomplished. “I’ve never felt like I was the type of pitcher to throw a no-hitter,” he said. “My curveball isn’t overpowering and, after you’ve gone through the lineup once or twice, the hitters can get on the fastball better.”3

That changed on May 15, 1973, when the 26-year-old Ryan, aided by a spectacular defensive gem in the eighth, tossed the first of his record seven no-hitters. “[Ryan] smothered Kansas City in a heat wave last night,” gushed Royals beat writer Sid Borman about the aptly named Express’s overpowering 12-strikeout performance.4 The Royals agreed with that assessment. “That man can bring it,” said All-Star John Mayberry. “[He] throws the ball harder than anyone I ever saw.”5 Lou Piniella was even more effusive in his praise: “[Ryan] has the best stuff in the league. He throws so hard and his curve is just about impossible to hit.”6

Despite the contention that Ryan was a threat to toss a no-hitter every time he took the mound, a no-no on this evening in Kansas City seemed unlikely. “In the bullpen [warming up], I was terrible,” said Ryan.7 Ryan had recently been struggling with mechanics after a 4-1 start to the season. In his last two starts, he walked seven in 6⅔ innings in a loss to Baltimore, then threw only 17 pitches against Chicago, recording just one out and surrendering five runs. “I think the shelling Friday night helped me bear down,” claimed Ryan. “Something like that really aggravates me ’cause I think I really have good stuff.” The next night he tossed two scoreless innings of relief to work out some kinks.

The Thursday night game between American League West rivals drew a modest crowd of 12,205 to Royals Stadium. The visiting Angels (16-13) and the Royals (20-13) trailed the division-leading White Sox; both clubs were led by rookie skippers, Bobby Winkles and Jack McKeon, respectively.

The light-hitting Angels came out swinging against 32-year-old right-handed spotstarter Bruce Dal Canton, who had a 36-21 career record, including 2-1 thus far in ’73. Vada Pinson led off with a single and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt and fly ball. After offseason acquisition Frank Robinson walked, Bob Oliver and Al Gallagher followed with RBI-singles for a 2-0 lead. The Angels chipped Dal Canton (5⅔ innings) and reliever Gene Garber (3⅓ innings) for eight more hits, all singles, save for Oliver’s one-out blast in the sixth which accounted for the game’s third and final run.

The story of the game was Ryan.

After fanning leadoff hitter Freddie Patek, Ryan walked Steve Hovley, who had coincidentally ended Ryan’s bid for a no-hitter with a leadoff single in the eighth the previous season. Ryan had two bugaboos: walks and holding runners on base. In 1972 he led the majors with 157 walks; opponents stole a big-league most 40 bases off Ryan, whose high leg kick runners could time easily. Hovley stole second, but it proved the last time a Royal got that far in the game. Armed with what sportswriter Fred Down called “the most breath-taking fastball in baseball history,” Ryan punched out Amos Otis and Mayberry.8

A brouhaha erupted in the third inning. Home-plate umpire Jim Evans supposedly alerted Royals skipper McKeon that Ryan was illegally lifting his leg in his delivery. The game was interrupted when McKeon subsequently lodged a formal protest seeking a review from the AL office. This kind of gamesmanship was nothing new to Ryan, a notoriously quick worker on the mound. Managers and players often searched for ways to disrupt his rhythm. “Jack did me a favor causing all that commotion,” said Ryan after the game. “When I bring my foot off the rubber, it usually means that I am rocking too far and I get wild high. He didn’t shake me up, he settled me down.”9

Ryan plowed through the potent Royals lineup, the league’s second highest-scoring team in 1973. With two outs in the eighth he issued his third and last walk, to Paul Schaal, setting up the most dramatic moment of the contest. Rookie Rudy Meoli was making just his 10th career start at shortstop. The job had fallen to him when the Angels had unexpectedly traded starter Leo Cárdenas at the end of spring training. Gail Hopkins hit what appeared to be a seeing-eye blooper to left-center field, much too shallow for either achy-knee leftfielder Vada Pinson or centerfielder Bobby Valentine. According to Dick Miller of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Meoli went deep on the Astroturf to make an acrobatic “over-the-shoulder catch” with his back to the infield to end the inning.10 “Sandy (Alomar) told me to back up a couple of steps,” said Meoli. “If I hadn’t, I don’t know whether I would have been able to reach it.”11

After dispatching Patek on a popup and striking out Hovley in the ninth, Ryan faced Otis. En route to his fourth consecutive All-Star berth, Otis connected on a Ryan fastball. According to the Kansas City Times, it looked as if it would hit the right-field wall.12 Former Gold Glove rightfielder Ken Berry, who had replaced Oliver for defensive purposes in the seventh, drifted to the warning track to make a routine catch. It was a “chilling ending” to the no-hitter, opined sportswriter Sid Borman.13

Ryan made 132 pitches, including 80 for strikes, to complete the no-hitter in 2 hours and 20 minutes.14 “[He] was so rapid,” wrote Dick Miller, “that the left side of the California defense could have taken the night off.”15 Leftfielder Pinson did not touch a ball in the field and third baseman Gallagher had just one assist; save for his no-hit saving catch, Meoli had only one routine assist.

Of all the players involved in the game, Ryan seemed the least excited and displayed the humble personality characteristic throughout his 27-year big-league career. “I’m not record-conscious and I don’t have any special career goals,” responded the pitcher when asked how many no-hitters he would throw. “I must take the wins and losses as they come.”16 Pushed to reveal his impressions, Ryan finally admitted, “I knew I had it but I had to put it out of my mind. I wasn’t thinking about making this pitch or that pitch.”17

Jeff Torborg, Ryan’s batterymate and a career backup pressed into starting duty in his 10th and final big-league season, might have been the calmest player on the field. “He makes that little difference,” said Ryan.18 As a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Torborg caught Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965 and Bill Singer’s no-no in 1970. “Nolan has thrown this hard before,” said Torborg. “But you get to the point where it is humanly impossible to throw any harder. He was very fast, really great, and his curve was excellent.”19

Ryan’s performance was not lost on the Royals skipper, who dropped his protest the next day. “He threw a great game, a tremendous one,” said McKeon, whose own staff ace, Steve Busby, tossed the season’s first no-hitter on April 27 against Detroit at Royals Stadium.20

Ryan waited only two months to fashion his second no-hitter, overpowering Detroit with 17 strikeouts at Tiger Stadium on July 15. Another no-hitter followed in 1974, against Minnesota in his final start of the season, and in 1975, against Baltimore, giving him four no-hitters in a span of just 84 starts.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also accessed Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com, SABR.org, and The Sporting News archive via Paper of Record.

 

Notes

1 Don Merry, “Ryan Does It! 1st No-hitter,” Independent (Long Beach, California), May 16, 1973: C1.

2 Fred Down, United Press International, “Ryan Regarded as a Kook With Mets,” Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, May 16, 1973: C4.

3 Dick Miller, “All About Ryan Express in No-Hit Ride,” Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, May 16, 1973: C1.

4 Sid Borman, “Ryan Deals Royals No Hits,” Kansas City Times, May 16, 1973: 2B.

5 Ibid.

6Merry.

7 Dick Miller, “Ryan’s No-No Spikes Royals’ Blues,” The Sporting News, June 2, 1973: 7.

8 Down.

9 Bud Furillo, “Ryan Got Boost From Jack McKeon,” Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, May 16, 1973: C3.

10 Dick Miller, “All About Ryan Express in No-Hit Ride.”

11Merry.

12 Mike DeArmond, “Near-Misses Cool Ryan’s Ardor,” Kansas City Times, May 16, 1973: 2B.

13Borman.

14 Dick Miller, “All About Ryan Express in No-Hit Ride.”

15 Dick Miller, “Ryan’s No-No Spikes Royals’ Blues.”

16 Down.

17 Dick Miller, “All About Ryan Express in No-Hit Ride.”

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Borman.