Lynn Nolan Ryan was a 12th round draft choice of the New York Mets in 1965 out of high school in Alvin, Texas. “The Ryan Express” first rolled onto the Major League Baseball scene for a two-game cup of coffee in 1966 when he was still just a teenager. On September 11 of that year, Mets’ manager Wes Westrum sent the 19-year-old to the mound for the top of the 6th inning at Shea Stadium with his club trailing the visiting Atlanta Braves by 6-1.
Ryan struck out the first batter he faced, opposing pitcher Pat Jarvis. It was the first of what would become 5,714 career strikeouts. He then retired future big-league manager Felipe Alou on a fly ball and ended the frame by striking out future Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews.
On that Sunday afternoon, Ryan met another future Hall of Famer to lead off the top of the 7th inning. In fact, he would cover first base and record the putout when he got Hank Aaron to bounce out to the first baseman. The next batter then served to remind Ryan that things would not always be so easy at this level. Yet another future Hall of Famer, Joe Torre, blasted a solo home run. It would be the lone hit Ryan allowed over his two-inning stint.
Ryan returned to the big leagues to stay in 1968. Over the next four years he appeared in 103 games, making 73 starts. He was part of the World Series champion Miracle Mets in 1969. His seven strong innings of relief in Game 3 of the NLCS helped clinch a sweep of Atlanta. He made just one appearance in the five-game victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the Fall Classic, tossing 2.1 shutout innings in relief to earn a save in Game 3. This would prove to be the only World Series appearance of his career.
Believing they had plenty of pitching and looking to bolster their everyday lineup, the Mets sent Ryan to the California Angels as the featured piece of a four-player package in exchange for shortstop Jim Fregosi at the 1970 Winter Meetings. A six-time AL All-Star who had received AL MVP votes for eight straight years, Fregosi would prove a disappointment in New York and be dealt away after less than two seasons.
Ryan would not prove a disappointment to the Halos. He was an All-Star during his first year in southern California, the first of five appearances in the mid-summer classic as an Angel in the 1970’s. Runner-up in 1972 AL Cy Young Award voting, he then finished third in both 1973 and 1977. Ryan struck out well over 300 batters in five of six seasons between 1972-77 and 2,416 in total in an Angels uniform.
Following the 1979 season, Ryan became a free agent for the first time. He signed with the Houston Astros, returning to his home state of Texas to play with an emerging contender. In his first season, Houston won the NL West Division and faced the Philadelphia Phillies in the playoffs. The Phillies would ultimately win what many still consider to be the best NLCS in history. It was an improbable rally against Ryan from down 5-2 in the top of the 8th inning in Game 5 at the Astrodome that would prove pivotal.
In 1981 the Astros returned to the postseason, losing a 3-2 NLDS to the LA Dodgers. A string of losing seasons followed before the Astros returned to the postseason in 1986, where they were ushed out in a six-game NLCS by his former Mets club. During his Astros years, Ryan was twice an NL All-Star. He finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 1981 and fifth in 1987 at age 40.
Ryan again became a free agent after the 1988 season and stayed in Texas. This time he went back to the American League, signing with the Texas Rangers. He wrapped his career with five final seasons, finishing 5th in the AL Cy Young Award voting during his first season with the Rangers at age 42. In that 1991 campaign, Ryan struck out 301 opposing batters, reaching the 300+ mark in a season for a sixth time.
Known for a fastball that often reached 100 miles-per-hour during years when that was far less frequently seen than today, Ryan also possessed a devastating 12-6 curveball. He recorded an MLB record seven no-hitters, four with the Angels, one with the Astros, and a pair with the Rangers. He further registered a dozen one-hitters. His 116 scoreless starts are the most in MLB’s live ball era.
The performance numbers are the stuff of legend. That he was able to maintain that level with such durability is another part of his story. Ryan made 26 or more starts in every normal full season from 1971 through 1992. He made 30+ starts in 16 different seasons.
Want a fantastic bit of trivia? Seven players who Nolan Ryan struck out during their careers would have sons who grew up to become MLB players who were then also struck out by Nolan Ryan.
Ryan’s uniform number 30 was retired in his honor by the Angels franchise, and the number 34 that he wore with both Houston and Texas was retired in his honor. In 1999, Ryan became a first-ballot Hall of Famer, named on 491 of 497 ballots.
I first became a fan of Ryan as a young boy when he was in California in the early-mid 1970’s. Living in Philadelphia, I rarely got to see him pitch in those pre-cable TV and inter-league days. But I was well aware of his strikeout exploits by following stats and box scores in the newspapers, and his baseball card was always a treasure to pull from a pack. Nolan Ryan’s career was a joy to follow, and he is a true baseball living legend.