Baseball’s all-time strikeout leader and author of a major-league record seven no-hitters, Ryan was in many ways the most remarkable pitcher ever to play the game. He was often maligned as a “.500 pitcher” despite his high strikeout totals, and he walked over 4.5 batters per nine innings each year until 1980, his 14th major-league season. But at the age of 42, Ryan — still overwhelming hitters with a 95-mph fastball — reached the unbelievable milestone of 5,000 strikeouts.
Growing up in little Alvin, Texas, Ryan was a high schooler with an awesome fastball but almost no control. The New York Mets selected him in the tenth round of the 1965 free-agent draft. In 1966, he blazed his way to 272 strikeouts, 127 walks, and 17 wins (all Carolina League highs at the time) at Greenville, frightening batters and catchers alike with his velocity. He missed most of 1967 in military service, and in 1968 the raw right-hander was rushed to the Mets.
Despite a chronic blister problem (he tried several remedies, including soaking his fingers in pickle brine) and a month on the disabled list, Ryan went 6-9 in 1968 with a 3.09 ERA and struck out 133 batters in 134 innings. Ryan also walked 75 batters, displaying a lack of control that plagued him early in his career. Ryan led his league in strikeouts six times in his first twelve major league seasons; each season, he was also the league leader in walks.
If Ryan’s wildness made his coaching staff nervous, it scared the daylights out of opposing players. In a high-school playoff game, Ryan had thrown a fastball that fractured a hitter’s arm. His next pitch broke the following batter’s helmet. The third batter appealed to his coach for mercy, but eventually mustered the nerve to stand in and strike out on three pitches.
Major leaguers were often similarly humbled (or injured). One player was said to have incurred a concussion after being hit with a Ryan changeup, and even the great Reggie Jackson was quoted as saying he was “scared” to face Ryan.
In 1969 the pitching-rich Mets used the young flamethrower both as a starter and in relief. Ryan won the deciding game of the League Championship Series with seven innings of relief, and saved Game Three of the World Series as the Miracle Mets beat the mighty Orioles in five games. After opening the 1970 season with a one-hitter, Ryan struggled, and he grew unhappy with the big-city atmosphere of New York. In 1971 he requested a trade and the Mets obliged, sending him to the California Angels with three other players to obtain Jim Fregosi, arguably the worst deal in Mets history.
In California, Ryan enjoyed the tutelage of pitching coach Tom Morgan and veteran catcher Jeff Torborg, and the Ryan Express arrived. Pitching with a more compact motion in 1972, Ryan became the first righthander since Bob Feller to fan 300 batters in a season and won 19 games with a 2.28 ERA. In 1973 Ryan was even more overpowering, and became the fifth pitcher to toss two no-hitters in one season. He no-hit the Royals on May 15, and on July 15 he repeated against the Tigers, fanning 17 Detroit batters in the process. The final out came against first baseman Norm Cash, who originally entered the batter’s box holding a wooden piano leg for a bat, expressing his awareness of the futility of his task. The usually stoic Ryan cracked a smile, and then got (a re-equipped) Cash to pop out.
In his next start, he was six outs from back-to-back no-hitters when Mark Belanger spoiled the bid. Ryan entered the final week of the season in striking distance of Sandy Koufax‘s all-time single-season strikeout record of 382, and in his last start he fanned 16 Twins in 11 innings to eclipse the record by one. He struck out Rich Reese for the record 383rd strikeout. In 39 starts that year, Ryan struck out 10 or more batters 23 times, yet he finished second to Jim Palmer for the Cy Young Award.
Already Ryan was the first pitcher with back-to-back 300-strikeout seasons, and he made it three in a row in 1974. He also threw his third no-hitter in his last start of the season, September 28, against the Twins. On August 20 that year, a sophisticated timing device clocked a Ryan fastball at 100.9 mph, putting him in the Guinness Book of World Records. An off-year in 1975 was highlighted by a fourth no-hitter (Ryan fooled Bobby Grich with a changeup to end it), and on August 23, 1975, Ryan underwent elbow surgery. He came back throwing as hard as ever, with 327 strikeouts in 1976, and was The Sporting News AL Pitcher of the Year in 1977, finishing 19-16, 2.77, with 341 strikeouts. Injuries hindered him again in 1978, but he was selected for his first All-Star Game start in 1979, before becoming a free agent at the end of the season.
Grabbing the chance to return to his native Texas, Ryan signed a three-year contract with the Houston Astros, and became baseball’s first $1-million-per-year player. Ryan’s performance fell off in his first season back in the NL, although he struck out Cesar Geronimo for his 3,000th career strikeout on July 4, 1980. He returned to form in the strike-shortened 1981 season. He led the NL with a 1.69 ERA and pitched his fifth no-hitter September 26 against the Dodgers. Although he was no longer an annual cinch to lead his league in strikeouts, Ryan still fanned nearly a batter an inning. When he struck out Montreal’s Brad Mills on April 27, 1983, he broke Walter Johnson‘s all-time strikeout record. On July 11, 1985, the Mets’ Danny Heep became his 4,000th strikeout victim.
The 1984 and 1985 seasons were filled with injuries and frustrations for Ryan, but 1986 marked a remarkable return to dominance for him, with 194 strikeouts in 178 innings, his best ratio since 1978. In the 1986 LCS, his two-hit, 12-strikeout effort in Game Five against the Mets earned no decision. In 1987 the forty-year-old Ryan continued to defy the calendar with 270 strikeouts in 212 innings and his second ERA title while becoming the only pitcher with 2,000 strikeouts in each league. Unfortunately, the Astros’ dismal offense left him with an 8-16 record that cost him the Cy Young Award.
Ryan added yet another strikeout title with 228 in 1988, and in the off-season he signed with the Texas Rangers. In 1989 the forty-two-year-old struck out an AL-leading 301 batters, by far the most ever for a man his age, and had several near-no-hitters. Rickey Henderson‘s whiff on August 22nd became the 5,000th of Ryan’s career. His sixth no-hitter came the following year, when he mowed down the defending world champion Oakland A’s. Ryan threw yet another no-hitter on May 1, 1991 at the age of 44.
Over the years, Ryan’s reputation as a tough, quiet country boy had always brought him a strong following. He was seen as a throwback to a simpler, grittier era. After a Ryan pitch grazed Chicago’s Robin Ventura’s arm during a game in 1993, the White Sox third baseman charged Ryan, hoping to knock the 46-year-old pitcher off of his feet. But Ryan stood his ground and caught his assailant in a headlock before subsequently delivering several blows to Ventura’s head.
As it turned out, 1993 was Ryan’s final season in the majors. He exited with an incredible array of accomplishments. Ryan is the only man to have struck out both Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr., as well as both Roger Maris and Mark McGwire. He not only whiffed both Sandy Alomar, Sr. and Roberto Alomar but also whiffed another four father-son duos, along with 21 Hall of Famers and 47 Most Valuable Players. Yet perhaps the most telling story of Ryan’s legacy is the lasting impact he has had on his fans. In 1993, the Texas Rangers hosted a special event at Arlington Stadium. All fans named either “Nolan” or “Ryan” in honor of the beloved pitcher were invited to participate in a parade around the field prior to an evening game. More than 1,000 fans turned out for the event.
His playing days over, Ryan turned his attention to running his ranches and becoming the main shareholder in a Double-A franchise, the Jackson Generals of the Texas League. Relocating the club to Round Rock, Ryan and his son Reid (who would become club president) saw a month-long vote among the townspeople result in the selection of the name “Express” for the team’s moniker, yet another testament to the pitcher’s popularity. In January 1999, Ryan was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with 98.79% of the vote.