By Glen Sparks
Nolan Ryan put in some time as a paper boy while growing up in southeast Texas. That leads to all sorts of speculation.
How hard do you think young Nolan could fling a copy of the Houston Chronicle? Did he always throw the fastball, or did he like to mix in a 12-6 curveball?
Ryan started delivering newspapers at the age of eight. That was one way to build up arm strength. Supposedly, Ryan could hurl a softball 100 yards by time he was in junior high, 30 yards or so farther than any other kid in Alvin.
Not surprisingly, just a few years later, scouts crowded into Alvin High School to check out the Yellow Jackets’ right-hander. The kid went 19-3 as a senior. He pitched in 27 games and struck out 211 batters, many of whom were likely afraid for their lives.
That was in the pre-radar gun days. So, the argument began: Just how hard was this teenager throwing?
The New York Mets selected Ryan in the 12th round of the 1965 major league amateur draft, the first one ever held. So, 294 players were chosen before Ryan. What happened? The story goes that the Alvin baseball coach, upset at the team’s mental mistakes, put his players through one wind sprint after another. The next day, he told Ryan to take the mound. Still tired, the pitcher suffered through a bad day. Teams took notice; Ryan’s draft position plunged.
But, boy, did Ryan rebound to his old form. From 1965-67, he struck out 445 hitters in 291 minor-league innings. New York brought the kid with the golden right arm up to the majors in April 1968. In his first major-league start on April 14, 1968, against (appropriately enough) the Astros, Ryan tossed no-hit ball for five innings and left the game after 6.2 innings and eight strikeouts. In another early start, he struck out 14 Cincinnati Reds. The rookie was good, very good. Orlando Cepeda even declared that Ryan was the best young pitcher he’d ever seen.
Ryan spent five seasons in New York. He missed the 1967 season due to a military commitment and also suffered from finger blisters. Oh, and he walked a lot of batters. Nolan Ryan, with a fearsome fastball and no real control over it, was the very definition of an “uncomfortable at-bat.”
Over his Mets career, Ryan pitched 510 innings and struck out 493 hitters. He also gave up 344 walks. But, he only surrendered 244 hits. All that led to a 29-38 won-loss mark and a 3.58 ERA (98 ERA+). What exactly did the Mets have in Lynn Nolan Ryan? Would he ever join an outstanding Mets rotation that already included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry?
In the end, the Mets decided they couldn’t control Ryan’s wild side. On Dec. 10, 1971, they sent him all the way across the country, to the California Angels, along with Frank Estrada, Don Rose and Leroy Stanton, for Jim Fregosi.
Fregosi, a six-time All-Star in Orange County, didn’t do a whole lot in Flushing, Queens. He lasted a season and a half, battled some injuries and got into just 146 games. He hit five homers and batted .233 before being shipped to the Texas Rangers.
Ryan, meanwhile, came into his own in southern California, playing just one freeway exit away from Disneyland. He made 39 starts in 1972 and finished 19-16. Over 284 innings, Ryan struck out 329 hitters. And, despite walking a league-high 157 hitters, he posted a 2.28 ERA (128 ERA+). It helped that he gave up just 166 hits.
In 1973, the Ryan Express went 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA (123 ERA+). He also struck out 383 hitters, beating Sandy Koufax’s single-season record by one and doing it Sept. 27 against the Minnesota Twins in memorable fashion. He punched out Steve Brye for No. 382 in the eighth inning. Tied 4-4 after nine innings, the game went into extra innings. Ryan fanned Rich Reese in the 11th inning for the record, and the Angels won 5-4.
On May 15, 1973, at Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Ryan did what everyone probably thought he would do one day. He tossed a no-hitter. Ryan struck out 12 Royals and walked three. And, he wasn’t done.
The man with a 100 mph heater tossed a second no-hitter in 1973, on July 15 at Tiger Stadium. That time, he fanned 17 and walked four. Ryan retired after the 1993 season with seven no-nos, three more than Koufax. Ryan also threw 12 one-hitters, tied with Bob Feller for the most.
In his epic 27-year career (with the Mets, Angels, Astros and Texas Rangers), Ryan went 324-292. He struck out 5,714 batters, more than anyone in baseball history and almost 1,000 more than No. 2 Randy Johnson. (Ryan also is No. 1 on the all-time walks list with 2,795, nearly 1,000 in front of runner-up Steve Carlton.) The writers elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1999 with 98.8 percent of the vote.
He put together one of the most spectacular careers in the history of baseball.