Nolan Ryan has more strikeouts and no-hitters than any other pitcher in history. Despite never winning a Cy Young Award, he started more games than anyone except Cy Young. Though he played mostly for mediocre teams, his 324 wins are as many as contemporary Don Sutton, who pitched for four pennant winners and just missed a fifth. Yet Ryan’s dominance — his 5,714 strikeouts were 2,000 more than Sutton and 1,500 better than Steve Carlton, whom he once trailed in the all-time K race — puts The Ryan Express head and shoulders above almost any other pitcher since 1970.
His longevity — winning a strikeout crown and throwing a no-hitter while being the oldest player in the game at the age of 43 — makes him the stuff of legend. And in one day in 1971, Ryan’s change of coasts became the best trade the California Angels ever made and the worst deal in New York Mets history. He may have walked more batters and thrown more wild pitches than anyone else in the game’s history, but that just proved he was human.
Born on January 31, 1947, in Refugio, Texas, Lynn Nolan Ryan was the son of Robert Ryan and Martha Lee Hancock Ryan (a descendant of John Hancock, first signer of the Declaration of Independence). The youngest of six children, he had a brother and four sisters. The Ryans moved from Refugio to Alvin, Texas, when Nolan was six weeks old because his father was transferred to the Alvin area. His father was plant supervisor at Hastings plant for Stanton Oil Company, which became Pan American Petroleum.
Nolan began playing baseball at seven with his father in their front yard. From there, the boy decided on his own that he loved playing the game and he started playing on a nearby vacant lot, where neighborhood kids built a diamond. Little League baseball had only recently come to Alvin, and it soon provided the official start to Nolan Ryan’s career at Schroeder Field, where he became an all-star for the first time.
Between the ages of 8 and 18, Nolan spent every morning between 1 and 4 a.m. with his father delivering the Houston Post to homes in the Alvin area (his father was the distributor for the paper in town). Nolan rolled the newspapers into tight cylinders and delivered them to residents long before the sun rose. The paper route instilled a sense of personal responsibility and maturity that would lead to his becoming a team leader in high school and a professional ballplayer immediately thereafter. It also didn’t hurt his arm. Nolan Ryan’s ability to throw hard and throw often was a gift, but one honed by a strong work ethic both in the quiet predawn hours in Alvin and before the dropped jaws of midday onlookers on the playing fields in town.
By the time he reached junior high, Ryan had the arm strength to stand on the goal line of a football field and throw a softball over 100 yards — 30 yards farther than any other boy in the area. In the ninth grade, he became even more focused on baseball after abandoning his short-lived football career in the aftermath of a head-on collision with future NFL running back Norm Bulaich; the impact produced a dazed and embarrassed Alvin cornerback and a La Marque Junior High touchdown.
Ryan pitched for the Alvin High School varsity as a sophomore in 1963. He started attracting major league scouts in his junior year by averaging two strikeouts per inning, including 21 in a nine-inning game against LaPorte.
Because of Alvin’s close proximity to Houston, where the Colt .45’s had recently joined the National League, scouts frequented Ryan’s Alvin starts and in the pre-radar gun days tried to gauge how fast the kid threw. New York Mets scout Red Murff remembered the first game he saw Ryan pitch: “The night before, I had seen the two fastest pitchers in the National League at that time, Jim Maloney and Turk Farrell. Nolan Ryan was already faster than both of them by far.”
The arrival of the major leagues in Houston helped Ryan in another way: it gave him the opportunity to observe first-hand the pitching performances of his baseball hero, Sandy Koufax, whose strikeout and no-hit records the Alvin teenager would later break. While watching Koufax, Ryan became so mesmerized that he would not speak to Ruth, his girlfriend, who later became his wife.
During his senior year, Ryan dominated Gulf Coast baseball, posting a 19-3 record and pitching the Alvin Yellow Jackets into the Texas high school state finals in Austin. During that 32-game season in the spring of 1965, Ryan pitched in 27 games, starting 20, and finished with 12 complete games, 211 strikeouts, and only 61 walks.
Alvin head coach Jim Watson and the other players on the ’65 team described Ryan’s senior year performance with the same term: “wheel horse.” That meant the horse closest to the wagon who pulls the heaviest share of the load — and Ryan’s statistics proved it. On March 25, 1965, Ryan pitched a seven-inning, complete-game shutout. The next day, in a doubleheader, he appeared as a reliever in the opener and threw three innings, giving up one run and striking out five. In the nightcap, he started the game, pitched five innings, gave up one hit, and struck out 10 in a 9-2 victory. On April 1 and 3, in a space of 48 hours, Ryan pitched back-to-back complete-game victories. Then he kicked it up a notch.
To reach the state playoffs, Ryan pitched a no-hitter against Brenham on June 10, striking out 12. His inside fastballs caused opposing hitters’ bats to break with such frequency that fans complained, genuinely believing his pitches had razor blades attached to them. Five days later, in the state semifinals, Ryan threw a two-hit shutout against Snyder, striking out nine.
The stories behind Nolan Ryan’s senior year exceeded his statistics. In the first inning of a March 20 game against Deer Park, after he cracked the batting helmet of the leadoff hitter, then hit and broke the next batter’s arm, the third hitter decided he had seen enough, and refused to enter the batter’s box until his coach finally shamed him into an at-bat that produced the season’s quickest three-pitch strikeout.
As the 1965 season progressed, Alvin catcher Jerry Spinks observed a tear that soon developed into a sizeable hole in his mitt caused by the force of receiving Ryan’s fastball. The sound of ball, glove, and Ryan force led scout Red Murff to compare it to a “muffled rifle shot.” The bullet-holed mitt produced a side effect — Spinks’s underwhelming batting average during his senior year. “No matter how much padding I put in my glove, as each game wore on, I had fewer fingers on my left hand capable of gripping a bat,” he recalled.
The only blemish on Nolan Ryan’s senior year proved to be costly. New York Mets scouting director Bing Devine finally responded to Red Murff’s pleas by making an unexpected appearance to see Ryan pitch against Channelview on May 20, 1965. Murff’s top prospect reluctantly took the mound that afternoon, less than a day after Coach Watson had death-marched the Yellow Jacket team through endless windsprints over a perceived lack of concentration in practice. With his strength depleted, Ryan simply could not perform with distinction in front of his most important audience, causing his stock to plunge on the eve of the baseball draft.
In the spring of 1965, at the insistence of scout Murff, the Mets selected 18-year-old Nolan Ryan in the 12th round, the 295th player in baseball’s first major league amateur draft. Ryan left Alvin that summer, taking the first airplane trip of his life, on the way to Marion, Virginia, where he began his professional career in the Appalachian League. Ryan fanned 313 at three stops in 1966, including his debut at Shea Stadium on September 11. He made his first major league start a week later in front of his hometown folks at the Astrodome on September 18. He struck out the side in the first, but he also allowed four runs and four hits, plus two walks, in the only inning of his first decision in the big leagues, a 9-2 loss.
He was a little green for the majors, but as per Murff’s prediction, Ryan’s fastball overpowered minor league hitters as if they were Texas high schoolers. In 291 innings, he struck out 445 batters from 1965 through 1967, an average of 14 per nine innings.
Aside from his staggering power numbers, Ryan demonstrated unusual maturity during his brief time in the minors. In 1967, he suffered an arm injury. Though the team doctor recommended surgery, Ryan refused, preferring to rehabilitate the arm on his own. The 20-year-old pitcher already knew enough to realize that no one should cut prematurely on what Murff had already described in his Mets scouting report as “the BEST arm I ever saw ANYWHERE in my life!”
By 1968, the Mets could no longer hold Nolan Ryan down on the farm. In spring training, his fastball earned him a spot in new manager Gil Hodges’s starting rotation. In Ryan’s first start of the year, on April 14, 1968 — again in Houston — the young right-hander got his first major league win by holding the Astros hitless for the first five innings. He left the game because of a blister on his pitching hand after 6 2/3 shutout innings.
In the first six weeks of the 1968 season, Ryan pitched a shutout for seven innings against the Philadelphia Phillies, threw his first complete game to beat the world champion St. Louis Cardinals, and hurled a four-hitter while striking out 14 Cincinnati Reds. The national news media took immediate notice of the rookie sensation, highlighted by Life magazine’s feature on him in its May 31, 1968 issue. The National League’s best hitters already rated Ryan ahead of Sandy Koufax in the speed of his fastball, and 1967 MVP Orlando Cepeda observed, “Nolan Ryan is the best young pitcher I’ve ever seen in the major leagues.”
Injuries, finger blisters, and a continuing military obligation prevented Ryan from maintaining his dominant pace for the remainder of 1968 and most of 1969. Because of his military obligation, the 1969 season was the only time until his final year in the major leagues — in 1993 — that he failed to reach 100 strikeouts. And he still had 92 in 89 1/3 innings, along with his first winning season at 6-3.
The ’69 season, of course, ended on a happy note for both Ryan and his club. Ryan got the win to clinch the first National League Championship Series with seven innings of relief in Game Three against the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium. Fellow Texan Jerry Grote, whom Ryan would later name as a key influence in his Hall of Fame speech, rushed into Ryan’s arms as the Mets became the first expansion team to ever win a pennant. Ryan followed that with what would prove to be the only World Series appearance of his career, helping the Amazin’ Mets win a championship over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles by saving Game Three with 2 1/3 innings of shutout relief pitching. The first batter he faced, Paul Blair, blasted a drive to right-center with the bases loaded that turned into Tommie Agee’s second remarkable catch of the game.
Ryan made some strides in 1970 with a 7-11 record and a 3.42 ERA. The next year, despite reaching 10 wins for the first of what would be 16 straight seasons, his walk numbers — always high — reached 116, compared with 137 strikeouts in 152 innings. There was plenty of frustration to go around.
By the end of the 1971 season, Ryan had fulfilled his early career goal of pitching long enough in the majors to earn a pension, but he had not fulfilled the many predictions of greatness due largely to inconsistent control. After four years with the Mets, his career record stood at 29-38, and he had struck out almost a batter an inning for over 500 innings, but had also averaged six walks per game.
Three factors hindered Nolan Ryan’s development in New York:
–His Army Reserve commitment disrupted each season, sometimes causing him to go more than a week between starts. Manager Hodges exacerbated the situation by refusing to adjust his pitching rotation to accommodate Ryan’s schedule.
–Despite throwing the National League’s hardest fastball, Ryan got no special treatment from Hodges because the Mets had several pitchers who were more effective. Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Gary Gentry were already complete pitchers with good control and a more versatile repertoire of pitches. Seaver and Gentry, coming from top college programs, had benefited from sound college coaching. Ryan, on the other hand, received no significant pitching help before reaching the major leagues at the age of 19.
–Ryan received no meaningful instruction from the Mets coaching staff. Pitching coach Rube Walker described his simple (unsuccessful) strategy for working with Ryan: “We tell him to throw as hard as he can for as long as he can.” This combination of circumstances appeared to be leading toward a dead end to a once promising baseball career. The young pitcher told his wife, Ruth, after the close of the 1971 season that if the Mets failed to trade him over the winter, he would quit the game.
On December 10, 1971, in what would prove to be one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history, the Mets traded Ryan and three marginal players (Don Rose, Leroy Stanton, and Frank Estrada) to the California Angels for former All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi. The trade did nothing to help the club’s continued fruitless search for a third baseman — Fregosi, who’d never played the position in the majors before becoming a Met, was out of New York by July 1973 — but it allowed baseball’s most awesome thrower to grow into a consistently dominating pitcher. Nolan Ryan wouldn’t be quitting the game for quite some time.
Ryan spent the most productive eight seasons of his career with the Angels. In Anaheim, all obstacles that had prevented his achieving greatness in New York seemingly disappeared. With his Army Reserve duty completed, Ryan could develop a better rhythm by getting to pitch every four days. He eliminated the blister problem on his pitching hand — failed attempts to do so in New York had included bathing his fingers in pickle brine — by using a surgeon’s scalpel to remove scar tissue and calluses on his fingers before every start. Sports Illustrated compared the process to “peeling grapes, causing the baseball clutched in his right hand to feel as smooth as a bullet.”
More important, Ryan got his first exposure to a coach who could actually teach him how to be a complete pitcher. Angels pitching coach Tom Morgan broke down and overhauled Ryan’s delivery, taught him how to throw a sharp breaking curveball, and provided the moral support the young right-hander had never received with the Mets.
Inclined initially as a young pitcher toward the use of homespun remedies, Ryan tried treating a sore right elbow in his first year as an Angel by rubbing rattlesnake oil on the joint. What proved to be more successful than the snake oil, however, was the weight conditioning program he started in California to build up his arm and entire body. Before 1972, baseball “experts” had concluded that weight training made a player too muscle bound, causing him to lose the smooth movement necessary for arm speed in a pitcher and bat speed in a hitter. Nolan Ryan became the first big league pitcher to enhance his performance through the use of weights. “It’s weight conditioning, not weight lifting,” he later explained. “I was not trying to see how much weight I could lift. I was trying to lift the right weights in the right way.”
As an Angel, Ryan threw four no-hitters to tie Sandy Koufax’s career record, broke Koufax’s single-season mark with 383 strikeouts in 1973, had four other 300-strikeout seasons, led the league in strikeouts in all but one season as an Angel (teammate Frank Tanana won the crown the one year Ryan didn’t, in 1975), established the world record for a timed fastball at 100.9 miles per hour, averaged 7 1/3 innings per start with an ERA slightly above 3.00 in his 288 California starts, won 20 or more games twice, and had 19 victories two other times.
Ryan never won the Cy Young Award as an Angel, though a strong argument can be made for his entitlement to it in the 1972, 1973, 1974, or 1977 seasons. What prevented him from having the sensational won-loss record in any one year necessary to win baseball’s most prestigious pitching award was the Angels’ inability to score runs. (Though his friend Tom Seaver suffered the same lack of support with the Mets, Seaver did win three Cy Youngs with Ryan’s former team.)
In Ryan’s first five years with the Angels, they finished last in the American League in runs scored four times and next-to-last the other year. Billy Martin said of those California teams, “They could take batting practice in a hotel lobby and never break anything.”
Ryan once described the difficulty of pitching for the weak-hitting Angels: “I feel like I have to pitch a shutout every night or lose. If I throw one bad pitch, I’ll be beaten.” Ryan’s first year with the Angels proved the point. Six times in 1972 he pitched games allowing two runs or less and still lost because California could not score a single run.
California’s inability to score did help Ryan break Koufax’s modern strikeout mark in 1973. Through seven innings of what would be last start of 1973, Ryan fanned 14 Minnesota Twins and stood one strikeout shy of Koufax’s 382 of 1965, set when Ryan was still in high school and avidly following the Dodgers ace. In the eighth inning in the ’73 finale, he fanned Steve Brye to tie Koufax. The Angels got the leadoff man on base in both the eighth and ninth and failed to score. Meanwhile, Ryan endured severe leg cramps requiring almost constant massages when not on the mound. He did not fan a Twin in the ninth or 10th, pitching out of jams with the winning run in scoring position in each of his last two innings of work. He finally fanned Rich Reese, who’d earlier replaced slugger Harmon Killebrew in the lineup, to set the record and strand Rod Carew at second base in the 11th. Angel Richie Scheinblum doubled home the deciding run in the bottom of the inning to give Ryan his 21st win.
Though Cy Young voters failed to recognize Ryan’s greatness, hitters knew which pitcher they least wanted to face. When Ryan’s night to pitch arrived, the opposing team’s regulars often came down with a disease known as “Ryanitis,” a one-day malady that prevented them from playing. One victim of the epidemic commented, “A good night against Nolan Ryan is going 0 for 4 and you don’t get hit in the head.” Oakland catcher Dave Duncan, who’d later spend more than three decades as a pitching coach in the major leagues, put it this way: “Ryan doesn’t just get you out. He embarrasses you.”
Nolan Ryan’s confidence grew to the point where he would advise league MVPs Dick Allen and Reggie Jackson that in his next start against them, he would throw only fastballs, daring them to match his power. Neither managed a hit in those confrontations.
Jackson gave his own unique account of facing Ryan: “I love to bat against Nolan Ryan and I hate to bat against Nolan Ryan. It’s like ice cream. You may love it, but you don’t want it shoveled down your throat by the gallon. I’ve never been afraid at the plate but Mr. Ryan makes me uncomfortable. He’s the only pitcher who’s ever made me consider wearing a helmet with an ear flap.”
The ultimate in-game tribute was made by Detroit’s Norm Cash at Tiger Stadium in the ninth inning of Ryan’s second no-hitter, on July 15, 1973. (Ryan had completed his first no-hitter exactly two months earlier in Kansas City.) Cash, who’d already struck out twice, came up with two outs in the ninth wielding a piano leg at the plate. Umpire Ron Luciano, laughing hysterically, made him go back for a regulation bat. Cash did make contact: a popup to shortstop.
Ryan’s other two no-hitters for the Angels both came in Anaheim. He beat the Twins, 4-0, on September 28, 1974. It was his career-high 22nd win of the season, despite eight walks. He fanned 15. Ryan’s fourth no-hitter came against the Baltimore Orioles, winners of five division titles in the previous six years, in a 1-0 win on June 1, 1975. And ’75 was Ryan’s down year. It’s worth noting that those four no-hitters came after the advent of the designated hitter, so he threw the four no-hitters in less than a 100-start span against teams that did not send a pitcher to bat. Pitcher batting or no, Ryan made plenty of hitters look like easy outs.
In 1976, Ryan went from 186 strikeouts to 327. He increased that number to 341 in ’77, though he also surpassed the 200-walk plateau for the second time. His 204 walks — in 299 innings — gave him the highest total since Bob Feller in 1938.
After a lackluster 1978 season, Ryan roared back in 1979, posting a record of 12-6 in the first half of the year, leading to his being named the American League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game. In early August, however, he strained a muscle near his right elbow, causing him to finish that year with an underwhelming 16-14 record. Still, he started the first postseason game in Angels history, throwing seven innings against Baltimore’s Jim Palmer in the ALCS opener. The eventual AL champion Orioles won in 10 innings.
When the 1979 season ended, the Angels decided to abandon their top star, as California general manager Buzzie Bavasi justified his decision by saying, “Nolan Ryan can be replaced by two 8-7 pitchers.” California figured Ryan’s effectiveness as a power pitcher had to be in its final stages at the age of 32. Like the Mets before them, the Angels soon came to regret their decision. History would show that when he left the Angels, Nolan Ryan had not yet reached the halfway point in his career.
In the early years of free agency, Ryan fulfilled a lifelong dream in November 1979 by signing to pitch for his hometown team, the Houston Astros. Many years before, he had remarked, “I’d buy my own bus ticket to get to Houston if I could pitch for the Astros.” New owner John McMullen provided his new pitcher with a lot more than a bus ticket, signing Ryan to a three-year contract that allowed him to become the first athlete on a professional sports team to be paid $1 million per year.
Initially, the biggest part of the Ryan media story in Houston was the money. In his first two years with the Astros, he made more than he had in his 12 seasons with the Mets and Angels combined. As more major league stars became millionaires in baseball’s lucrative free-agent market during the early 1980s, attention finally focused on the mound performance of the game’s premier power pitcher.
Ryan’s nine years in Houston became a time for achieving career milestones. On July 4, 1980, he recorded career strikeout number 3,000. On September 26, 1981, on a Saturday Game of the Week, he no-hit the Los Angeles Dodgers, the eventual World Series champions. That established the major-league record with five-hitters, breaking another Koufax mark — and doing it against Koufax’s old team to boot. At the time, Ryan called it his favorite no-hitter because his family was all there and it came in the heat of a division race. He finished the year with a 1.69 ERA, nearly half a run per game better than runner-up and teammate Bob Knepper. Likewise, his mark of 5.98 hits per game was 0.51 better than runner-up and old friend Tom Seaver.
On April 27, 1983, Ryan broke Walter Johnson’s career strikeout record of 3,509, which had stood since 1927. Number 4,000 came on July 11, 1985, against the Mets, of all teams. Ryan and Steve Carlton went back and forth for the all-time strikeout mark before Ryan outlasted Lefty. Ryan outlasted everybody.
In 1987, Ryan became the first pitcher in major league history to lead his league in both strikeouts and ERA and not receive the still elusive Cy Young Award. His 8-16 record, clearly the result of no run support, was the worst mark of his career. It ruined an otherwise brilliant season and relegated him to fifth in the Cy Young voting. In 1987, and again in 1988, Ryan became the oldest pitcher ever to lead his league in strikeouts.
More important than the records in Houston, Nolan Ryan came into his own as a complete pitcher. Though he put up amazing numbers as an Angel, Ryan was every bit as effective during his nine years with the Astros. His Houston ERA was almost identical to what it had been in California, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was far better. His increased control culminated in his winning the 1987 National League Control Pitcher of the Year Award, in recognition of having the league’s lowest ERA, giving up the fewest hits, and recording the most strikeouts and the least walks per nine innings.
Having surpassed 40, Ryan lost essentially no velocity on his fastball and still had the big breaking curve he had learned from Tom Morgan in California. In addition, as an Astro he added to his repertoire a more effective changeup taught him by former Cincinnati pitcher Joe Nuxhall; Ryan later put a circle change learned from scout Red Murff into the mix.
Unlike the hapless Angels, the Astros were a first-division team in the Ryan years, getting into postseason play in 1980, 1981, and 1986. The most dramatic game in his playoff career came in Game Five of the 1986 National League Championship Series. Though he had lost to the Mets at the Astrodome in Game Two, he was superb in his first postseason game at Shea Stadium since 1969. He had a no-hitter into the fifth inning, when Darryl Strawberry hit a line drive that just cleared the fence. Ryan was dominant, fanning 12, walking one, and allowing just one other hit in nine innings, although the Mets won in 12. And Ryan did it all with a sore elbow and a stress fracture in his right foot.
As Ryan had conquered the American League’s best hitters in the 1970s, he did the same to the top National League stars in the 1980s. Two-time MVP Dale Murphy commented on Ryan’s dominance: “He is the only pitcher you start thinking about two days before you face him.” Going into Ryan’s final season in Houston, Pete Rose made a stronger statement: “At the age of 41, Nolan Ryan is the top power pitcher in the league. You can talk about Dwight Gooden, you can talk about Mike Scott, you can talk about whoever you want, but none of them throw as consistently hard as Ryan does.”
Ryan continued smoking pitches past hitters years after his contemporaries had retired thanks to a training regimen developed by Gene Coleman, Houston’s strength and conditioning adviser. Adhering to the doctor’s weightlifting, running, exercise, and stationary bicycling program, Ryan maintained the body of a man 20 years younger.
After the 1988 season, Houston owner John McMullen ignored the facts that Ryan had come within two outs of throwing a no-hitter that year and had also led the league in strikeouts the previous two years, and decided a pay cut was in order for his theoretically aging pitcher. Knowing his value, Ryan left his hometown team, but he didn’t go far. Arlington, to be precise.
Texas Rangers ownership welcomed Ryan with open arms and a sizeable raise. Veteran Houston sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz accurately expressed his city’s sorrow after Ryan left the Astros: “In Houston, the fans had mixed feelings about Nolan. Some miss him every day of their lives, and some just miss him every fifth day.”
After spending a career being ultimately rejected by the Mets, Angels, and Astros, Nolan Ryan finally found a team that wanted to embrace him on a permanent basis. The Rangers had long been a floundering organization, having relocated from Washington, playing in an expanded minor league ball park, and never participating in postseason play.
With the signing of Ryan on December 7, 1988, the Rangers gained something they never had before: national credibility. Texas general manager Tom Grieve put it in perspective: “To get a player of his caliber, all those statistics, and the kind of guy he is, well, you don’t want to get up on a podium and start bubbling over, but that’s how we felt.”
Motivated by the challenge of continuing to succeed on a power level with younger competition, Ryan proceeded to have three full-blown years of greatness with Texas, from 1989 to 1991. In those years, he compiled a record of 41-25 with a 3.16 ERA, struck out more batters than anyone else in the American League (736), had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3-to-1, and pitched through the fifth inning in 54 of his 59 starts.
As a Ranger, Ryan’s continual racking up of milestones overshadowed his contributions every fifth day in the rotation. On August 22, 1989, he achieved career strikeout number 5,000. That same year, at the age of 42, he had his sixth 300-K season. Only former Astros teammates J.R. Richard and Mike Scott had managed the feat since Ryan had last done it in 1977. But he was just warming up.
On June 11, 1990, Ryan pitched his sixth no-hitter, beating the defending world champion Athletics at Oakland. He suffered for most of the game with constant pain in his lower back (later discovered to be a stress fracture), the significance of which he tried to minimize after the game. “It wasn’t all that bad,” he said. “It only hurt when I threw the ball.”
On July 31, 1990, he won his 300th game in the major leagues, beating the Brewers in Milwaukee. On May 1, 1991, Ryan shut down Toronto, the league’s best hitting team, to record his seventh no-hitter. He fanned 16 that night with a sore Achilles tendon, constant back pain, and a cracked-skinned, bloody right middle finger, all of which went with the territory of power pitching into his mid-forties. Earlier that day in Oakland, Rickey Henderson had shattered Lou Brock’s all-time stolen-base record, but that legendary feat was pushed down on nearly every front sports page in the country in honor of the Ryan Express. He made the front page of plenty of news sections, too. But nowhere was he bigger news than in Texas.
In his first season as a Ranger, the team drew over 2 million fans for the first time in franchise history. When he pitched, average attendance was 8,000 more than on other nights. Texas continued to top the 2 million mark every year after 1989, making the ownership’s decision to build The Ballpark in Arlington — and the opportunity for public funding — as easy as a 1-2-3 inning from Ryan. Construction commenced in 1991.
Fans knew that every time Nolan Ryan took the mound, it might be a no-hitter. In his first three years with the Rangers, on top of the two no-hitters, Ryan also pitched six one-hitters, eight two-hitters, and 12 three-hitters.
The most enduring memory of Texas Rangers fans who witnessed the Ryan Express during his five glorious years in Arlington, from 1989 to 1993, was not a statistic but a sound. Every time the 40-something power pitcher delivered his heat, he threw the ball with such total passion that a bellowing grunt could be heard throughout the ballpark. When he wasn’t pitching, he was pushing it as well. The game’s oldest player devised daily offseason workouts that lasted up to five hours. During the season, on nights he pitched, Ryan rode a stationary bicycle for at least 45 minutes after the game. Between starts, baseball’s bionic man spent more than two hours every day lifting weights, running, and biking. Rangers pitching coach Tom House said of his star pupil, “He’s still throwing hard because he does what it takes to prepare himself. He’s like the mailman. Nothing keeps him from making his rounds in the weight room.”
Ryan completed his final season as a Ranger in 1993 hampered by injuries to his knee, rib cage, and elbow. Pitching in between stays on the disabled list, he gave Texas fans one final lasting memory. On August 4, 1993, in the third inning of a game against Chicago, a Ryan fastball hit Robin Ventura in the arm. The young White Sox third baseman stormed the mound and tried to attack a man 20 years his senior. Ryan had been in this situation once before when Dave Winfield charged him at Houston. In that incident, Ryan followed his coaches’ instructions and simply ducked Winfield’s punches, and coiled up to protect his pitching arm.
Rejecting the Winfield defensive strategy that had bothered him for 13 years, Ryan responded to Ventura’s attack with force of his own — putting the Chicago third baseman in a headlock, and punching the top of his head, making the batter pay for his overaggressive tactics. Ryan said later that night, “All you can do is react. You don’t have time to figure your options.” After the fight, the umpires ejected Ventura and allowed Ryan to stay in the game. Unfazed by the altercation, he lasted seven innings, allowing three hits and retiring 12 of the last 13 men he faced to get the victory. It spurred a three-game winning streak. But the Ryan Express, believe it or not, was finally pulling into the station.
The end came on September 22, 1993, at Seattle. In his last career start, while throwing a fastball in the first inning, Ryan tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Later that night in the clubhouse, he described his final game. “I heard the ligament pop like a rubber band. There’s no way I’ll ever be able to throw again. My body is telling me it’s time to move on and do something else.”
The Rangers years established that Nolan Ryan was more than a major league superstar. In Texas, he became a baseball legend whose final career records were light years ahead of those of his nearest rivals. In the words of 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter, “There’s always one guy who defies the odds. In baseball, Nolan Ryan is that guy.”
To the surprise of no one, Ryan became a first-ballot inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was joined in Cooperstown on July 25, 1999, by George Brett, Robin Yount, and Orlando Cepeda. Their respective fan clubs generated the biggest attendance for a Hall of Fame induction ceremony that the village had ever witnessed until July 29, 2007, when Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn were initiated into the game’s most hallowed fraternity.
To the surprise of many, in his acceptance speech, Ryan paid tribute to Marvin Miller, leader of the players union in its early years, who caused player salaries to increase exponentially by getting arbitration, free agency, and a strong pension plan into the compensation mix, allowing the ballplayers of Ryan’s era to obtain lifetime financial security before their playing days ended.
Missing the thrill of pitching competitive baseball, Nolan Ryan kept finding ways to stay active in the game. While sons Reid and Reese pitched in college in the mid-1990s for Texas Christian University, their dad served as volunteer pitching coach for the Horned Frogs and donned a uniform for games.
After the boys graduated, Nolan Ryan joined with longtime colleague Don Sanders to form Ryan-Sanders Baseball, and purchased the Jackson Generals, the Houston Astros’ Double-A farm team in the Texas League. They decided the team needed to move from Mississippi to Texas, and with the help of chief executive officer Reid Ryan and chief financial officer Reese Ryan, the baseball enterprise started its search for the best possible location in the Lone Star State.
Knowing North Texas already had the Rangers and the Gulf Coast had the Astros, Ryan approached Austin about bringing his ballclub there. City leaders rejected his proposal, not wanting competition with Texas Longhorns baseball. Then Ryan had another idea. He called the mayor of Round Rock, north of Austin, to explore the possibility of locating his Jackson team there. The mayor instantly thought of an available piece of land with frontage on Highway 79 that for years had been a cornfield, and invited Ryan to take a look. A few weeks later, the deal was made, and the city of Round Rock held a groundbreaking ceremony. There, in the middle of the field, after walking over a path cut through rows of stalks, Nolan Ryan smiled, and giving his best Kevin Costner imitation, announced to the crowd, “If we build it, they will come.”
Dell Diamond hosted its first game on Opening Day of the 2000 Texas League season…and the people came. Over the Round Rock Express’s first four seasons, they shattered all league attendance records, and their success motivated the Ryan-Sanders ownership group to purchase the Triple-A Edmonton Trappers in the Pacific Coast League, move the Edmonton franchise to Round Rock in time for the 2005 season (where it became the Astros’ Triple-A team), and transfer the Houston’s Double-A franchise from Round Rock to Corpus Christi. The Corpus Christi Hooks proceeded to maintain a Round Rock pace of record-breaking Texas League attendance, averaging a higher level of game ticket sales than the team’s new Whataburger Field had seats, due to a grassy berm in left field that attracted hundreds of fans every game. Overall, Round Rock and Corpus Christi attracted more than 6 million fans in their first seven years.
In February 2008, Ryan was named president of the Texas Rangers, becoming the first Hall of Fame player to be the top executive at a major league franchise since Christy Mathewson with the Boston Braves some 85 years earlier. Ryan was not content to have a title and do things as other had done them. Taking over a team in a hitter’s ballpark with thin pitching in past years, he decided to try to take the young pitchers the Rangers had and try to make them throw deeper into games. “I haven’t been pleased with the direction baseball’s taken pitching over the last 15 or 20 years, and I felt like we needed to regain some of what we had lost,” Ryan told the New York Times in 2009. “I felt like we had a lot of pitchers that have been on pitch limits ever since Little League, and we don’t know what their genetic potential is as far as the number of pitches and workload they can handle.”
Ryan’s career as an executive is yet to be determined, but his legacy as a pitcher is etched in stone. Though several pitchers were considered better in their prime, no pitcher’s prime ever lasted as long as Ryan’s. What helped him break so many baseball records was the application of old-fashioned common sense to his daily regimen. He never risked wearing out his arm by pitching in winter ball. The offseason physical activities Ryan pursued did not include bowling, volleyball, skiing, or any other sport that might result in a hand or leg injury. Adding to his prudent exercise decisions, he maintained a calm lifestyle sustained by a balanced moderate diet, no smoking, and no excessive drinking, celebrating his no-hitters drinking orange juice instead of the traditional champagne.
The science behind the artistry of Nolan Ryan involved the full utilization of his body and mind, knowing when to accept instruction and when to follow his own instincts. The late Newsweek sportswriter Pete Axthelm summarized the total commitment to pitching that drove Ryan’s unprecedented career. “Other pitchers are satisfied in getting a win after a routine outing,” Axthelm wrote. “Nolan Ryan spent over two decades using everything he had to be Picasso.”
Last revised: January 10, 2011
Boston, Talmage. Baseball and the Baby Boomer: A History, Commentary, and Memoir with a foreword by Frank Deford (Houston: Bright Sky Press, 2009). The Nolan Ryan biography is excerpted from this book.
Kepner, Tyler. “Ryan Instills His Toughness in the Rangers, New York Times, May 27, 2009.
Ryan, Nolan, with Frommer, Harvey, Throwing Heat (New York: Doubleday, 1988).
Sports Illustrated, selected issues.