Years after his retirement, pitcher Nolan Ryan still inspires awe.
Those who got to see him pitch count themselves lucky. Those who didn’t still have video and statistics that they can look at and wonder at Ryan’s jaw-dropping accomplishments.
Part of Ryan’s legacy is that he did everything with such power and flair. He is the greatest strikeout pitcher in history, by a long shot. He threw seven no-hitters. He pitched for 27 years on four different teams. He is also only one of four pitchers inducted in the baseball Hall of Fame with more strikeouts than innings pitched.
In addition to his statistical accomplishments, Ryan is known for his grit and determination. He maintained excellent command of his pitches until his retirement at age 46. His last pitch was clocked at 98 miles per hour.
As player Dale Murphy said of Ryan, “He’s the only pitcher you start thinking about two days before you face him.”
Small Town Texas
Nolan Ryan was born Jan. 31, 1947 in Refugio, Texas. The small community of less than 2,000 people sits south of San Antonio, about 20 miles north of Copano Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. But when Ryan was just six weeks old, his family moved to Alvin, a community south of Houston.
Ryan started playing baseball in Alvin almost immediately. By the time he reached nine years old, he was playing Little League, where he threw a no-hitter. Not surprising considering what was ahead of him.
The New York Mets ended up drafting Ryan out of high school in 1965. He made his first appearance in the majors in the 1966 season, pitching in two games for the Mets. He then sat out much of the 1967 season with an injury and also served six months in the Army Reserve.
But he sprang to prominence in the 1969 season, when he played as a relief pitcher on the “Miracle Mets” team that won the World Series. In that series against the Baltimore Orioles, Ryan pitched well, especially in Game 3. It earned him the nickname “Ryan Express” from the New York media.
But it was in California that the Texan truly blossomed into a pitching legend.
Nolan Ryan Traded To Angels
After the 1971 season, the Mets traded Nolan Ryan to the California Angels. Part of the reason was that while Ryan pitched with great velocity, he struggled to command his pitches. That changed in California.
For eight seasons with the Angels, Ryan emerged as one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. His first season with the Angels, Ryan had 19 wins and an ERA of 2.28. He won more than 20 games in each of the next two seasons. He also had more than 300 strike outs in five of his seasons in California.
Most remarkably, he threw four no-hitters between 1973 and 1975.
Starting in 1980, Ryan’s career would take him back home to Texas. At the time, he was 33. He still had 14 seasons ahead of him.
Home to Houston
After the 1979 season, Ryan became a free agent. He ended up signing a contract with the Houston Astros that made him the first Major League Baseball player to earn more than $1 million a year.
Back home in Texas, he continued to shine. Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter in 1981 against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Houston Astrodome. That season he finished the year with an amazing 1.69 ERA.
In 1983, he recorded his 3,509th strikeout, breaking the record of Walter Johnson. He turned 40 in 1987, and led the league in strikeouts (270) and ERA (2.76).
In 1988, Ryan again became a free agent. Rather than stay in Houston, he signed with state rival the Texas Rangers, who play in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Record-Setting End to Career
Although 42 years old when he arrived in Dallas – Fort Worth, Ryan continued to pitching a blazing fastball.
In 1989, he had 301 strikeouts, topping the 300 mark for the sixth time in a season. In 1991, he had an ERA of 2.91 at the age of 44. That same season, he threw his seventh no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays at Arlington Stadium.
At the end of the 1993 season, Ryan retired. He was 46 years old. He could no longer consistently pitch with the blazing fastball he had his whole career.
His records include seven no-hitters, 12 one-hitters, 5,714 strikeouts and the fewest hits allowed per 9 innings. Ryan’s 773 starts and 27 seasons also are records in the modern era, which began in 1900. He also set the record for 2,795 walks, an indication of his wildness, particularly in his younger years.
He also is the only player to have his number retired by three different teams – the Angels, Astros and Rangers. Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the majors, has had his number 42 retired by every team.
Nolan Ryan was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. He chose to have a Rangers hat on his plaque, because he set the strikeout record and won 300 games as a Ranger. He also said the hat reflected his Texas heritage.