Nolan Ryan is one of the most iconic athletes in the history of the state of Texas.
Pitching for the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers for 14 seasons, Ryan dominated the American and National Leagues with a blazing fastball and competitive spirit.
Beginning his career as a wild but hard-throwing pitcher with the New York Mets, Ryan solidified his pitching with the California Angels, becoming one of the most dominant pitchers in the game before taking his talents to his hometown of Texas.
Pitching for 27 years in the Major Leagues starting in the late 60s and ending in the early 90s, Ryan remains one of the most dominant power pitchers in baseball history.
Nolan Ryan’s record of 7 no hitters might never be broken pic.twitter.com/AgR9xM0m30
— Baseball (@mlbelites_) July 25, 2022
Lynn Nolan Ryan, Jr. was born on January 31, 1947, in the small Texas town of Refugio to parents Lynn Sr. and Martha Lee Hancock.
When he was just a few weeks old, the family moved to Alvin, Texas where Lynn worked for the Houston Post.
Ryan was the youngest of six children, and often helped his father with various odd jobs around the house and for the newspaper.
He and his father would get up at 1:00 AM nearly every day for the job.
Ryan has credited his father with urging him to play baseball given his knack as a child for throwing anything he could find at different targets.
He honed his skills playing baseball with his older brothers and the neighborhood kids before getting the chance to play organized baseball.
Shortly before turning ten years old, Ryan began playing organized baseball for the first time.
He was instantly successful, making All-Star teams and even throwing a no-hitter, the first of many he would throw in his life.
In middle school, Ryan played football and baseball but decided to focus solely on baseball shortly after.
He had an incredibly strong throwing arm and threw much harder than anyone else his age around.
A Star in High School
He entered Alvin High School as a pitcher and threw hard but was wild.
He was a strikeout machine, holding the school’s record for strikeouts in a single game (21) for 46 years.
Opposing batters were often too afraid to step into the batter’s box for fear of being hit by a Ryan fastball.
It was at Alvin High that Ryan began receiving attention from Major League scouts, notably the New York Mets.
After four great seasons at Alvin that included a trip to the state finals, Ryan was drafted by the Mets in the 12th round of the 1965 amateur draft.
While he threw hard, Ryan’s lack of control was concerning.
His natural abilities persuaded the Mets to take a chance on him.
He opted to sign with the team out of high school instead of going to college.
Ryan reported to the Appalachian League, where he continued his strikeout prowess and honed his craft.
The Mets were repeatedly impressed with the hard-throwing Ryan, and they promoted him multiple times throughout 1965 and 1966 through their farm system.
He made his Major League debut at Shea Stadium in 1966 at just 19 years old.
Many of his family and friends came out to see him make his first big league start at Houston’s Astrodome just a week later.
Ryan’s fastball baffled Major League hitters even at such a young age and he was quickly becoming one of the most talked-about young pitchers in the league.
He bounced up and down between the Mets and their minor league teams in order to gain more experience, as he was still a wild thrower and was not quite ready for full-time big league pitching.
The Big Leagues
The Mets kept Ryan up for good beginning in 1968.
In his first start against the Astros that year, Ryan threw five no-hit innings to begin the game and earned the first win of his career.
Ryan’s 1968 season propelled him to the forefront of the baseball world, earning national attention with his dominant performances against some of the best teams in the National League.
Despite the success, Ryan battled a number of injuries including multiple blisters on his throwing hand.
These injuries slowed his dominant pace and he also missed some time that year due to military service.
Injuries and missed starts aside, Ryan’s 1968 season gave him and the Mets something to look forward to moving forward.
The 1969 season was a dream come true for Ryan and the Mets, and the once-awful “Miracle Mets” made the World Series for the first time in team history.
They defeated the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles in five games, becoming the first expansion team to win a pennant and a World Series.
Ryan was on the mound when the Mets defeated the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS, and he made the only World Series appearance of his career in game three.
The 1970 and 1971 seasons were up and down years for Ryan, and he maintained his strikeout tear but continued to struggle with walking batters.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) March 5, 2022
He pitched to a respectable 3.42 and 3.97 ERA in these seasons, but the hype surrounding the flamethrower was beginning to die down.
Ryan had a great arm, but he wasn’t able to put it all together while in New York.
After the 1971 season, the Mets traded Ryan to the California Angels in a deal with other players for shortstop Jim Fregosi.
This is now considered one of the most lopsided trades in Major League history.
Ryan would go on to play eight fantastic seasons with the Angels while Fregosi stayed in New York for just two years.
In 1972, his first season with the Angels, Ryan led the American League in strikeouts with 329 and pitched to a remarkable 2.28 ERA.
He was selected to his first All-Star team and threw 284 innings, 130 more than his previous career-high.
Ryan’s change of scenery and the chance to pitch on a consistent schedule (something he never had in New York) did wonders for him, leading to a dominant season.
In addition to a change of scenery, Ryan also received more support from Angels’ pitching coach Tom Morgan.
Ryan began a weight-lifting program, hoping building strength in his upper body would help reduce the chance of injury.
Everything was coming together for him in Anaheim, where he had the most productive stretch of his entire career.
An Impressive Record
Ryan threw four no-hitters in an Angels uniform, routinely tallied more than 300 strikeouts, and threw 100 miles per hour.
From 1972 to 1979, Ryan was one of the most dominant pitchers in the American League, being named to five All-Star teams.
In 1973, Ryan broke his idol Sandy Koufax’s season strikeout by one with 383.
Ryan never won a Cy Young Award during his time with the Angels, though there is an argument to be made he would have won it multiple times if the decision-makers had not focused so much on wins.
Ryan’s final season with the Angels came in 1979.
The Angels were largely uncompetitive during Ryan’s tenure in Anaheim but found themselves facing the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS.
The Angels had won 88 games to finish first in the Al West, thanks in part to Ryan’s All-Star campaign.
Ryan started Game One against the Orioles’ ace Jim Palmer, receiving a no-decision in a game Baltimore went on to win.
He would never get the chance to pitch in the series again as the Orioles defeated the Angels in just four games to win the AL pennant.
It would be his last start in an Angels uniform.
Coming off eight dominant seasons in Anaheim, Ryan was now a free agent for the first time in his career at the age of 32.
The Angels’ front office believed that Ryan could not continue to throw that hard as he aged and would become less and less effective, so they made no effort to re-sign him.
Ryan became the first professional athlete to make $1 million playing on a team when he signed with his hometown Astros late in 1979.
With a three-year contract, Ryan had fulfilled his dream of playing for the Astros and was going to make more money than he had in his entire career up to that point.
Ryan’s first season in Houston was remarkable.
He beat Koufax’s no-hitter record when he threw the fifth of his career against the Dodgers.
He also struck out his 3,000th batter, Cesar Geronimo of the Cincinnati Reds.
The Astros made it to the postseason but fell short of the World Series, losing the NLCS to Mike Schmidt’s Philadelphia Phillies in five games.
In his first Astros season, Ryan pitched to a 3.35 ERA with 200 strikeouts.
The following year, voters selected Ryan for his sixth All-Star game and had an astounding 1.69 ERA.
Much like the Mets before them, the Angels must have realized they had made a grave mistake by letting Ryan go.
Ryan and the Astros made it to the postseason again in 1981 but would lose to the eventual World Series champion Dodgers.
After 15 big league seasons, Ryan began to encroach on some of baseball’s most prestigious pitching records.
Having already broken Koufax’s records for no-hitters and strikeouts in a season, Ryan bested Walter Johnson’s career strikeout record in 1983 against the Montreal Expos with his 3,510th strikeout.
He had been battling Phillies’ ace Steve Carlton to see who could break Johnson’s record first, but Ryan beat him to the punch.
Despite a decade and a half of dominance, Ryan had still not won the coveted Cy Young Award.
In 1987, Ryan led the National League in both ERA and strikeouts, losing the award to the Phillies’ Steve Bedrosian.
In 1987 Nolan Ryan led his league in Strikeouts….he was 40
He then repeated the feat at age 41….42….and 43 pic.twitter.com/etXNwCvuqO
— OldTimeHardball (@OleTimeHardball) February 21, 2022
Ryan had his chance to get revenge on the Mets, the team who had traded him 14 years prior when the Astros faced off against them in the 1986 NLCS.
Ryan pitched in two games, Games Two and Five.
After a less-than-stellar Game Two start, Ryan bounced back in Game Five, pitching nine innings of two-hit baseball.
The Astros would go on to lose the game and the series, ending Ryan’s World Series chances.
Ryan played two more seasons in Houston, never getting close to another World Series appearance.
By the time his stint came to an end after the 1988 season, Ryan was a sure-fire Hall of Fame pitcher.
While not as dominant in Houston as in Anaheim, Ryan’s time in Houston is most notable for his record-breaking feats and solidifying his place as one of the game’s greatest pitchers of the previous two decades.
After nine seasons in Houston, Ryan became a free agent for the second time in his career at the age of 42.
Though he was now in his 40s, Ryan had improved his pitching repertoire, adding a changeup and gaining more control over his pitches.
Not Done Yet
The velocity on his fastball had not diminished, and he was still a quality Major League pitcher.
Pete Rose once commented:
“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.”
After the Astros wanted to dock his pay, Ryan decided to sign with another Texas team, the Texas Rangers.
In his first season in Arlington, Ryan became the only pitcher in the history of baseball to reach 5,000 strikeouts, doing so against Rickey Henderson.
Ryan’s time in Texas also included his sixth and seventh no-hitters, his 300th career win, and the first ejection of his long career.
His most infamous moment with the Rangers came on August 4, 1993, in a game against the Chicago White Sox.
Ryan hit White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura with a fastball, prompting Ventura to charge the mound.
At 46 years old, 20 years older than Ventura at the time, Nolan Ryan immediately put Ventura in a headlock and landed multiple punches to his head before the two were broken up in a bench-clearing brawl between the two teams.
Umpires ejected Ventura and White Sox manager Gene Lamont, but Ryan remained in the game to pitch with a blood-stained uniform.
Before the 1993 season, Ryan had announced that he was going to retire after the year, citing his age, family, and injuries.
“I’d rather be premature in leaving baseball than stay too long and have to retire in an awkward situation,” he said.
At the time of his retirement after the 1993 season, Ryan had pitched 27 seasons, throwing 5,386 innings.
He finished with 81 WAR (Wins above Replacement), 324 wins, a 3.19 ERA, and most impressive of all, 5,714 strikeouts, a Major League record.
He holds numerous records for pitchers.
Life After Baseball
In the years after he retired from baseball, Ryan went into business with a number of endeavors.
He served as a spokesman for Advil, was on the Presidential Commission for physical fitness, and owned various restaurants around Texas.
In 2008, Ryan became the Rangers’ team President, and the following year, he purchased a controlling stake in the franchise.
He remained in this position until stepping down after the conclusion of the 2013 season.
After his tenure with the Rangers, Ryan joined the Astros as a special assistant.
He remained in this role through the 2019 season but oversaw the team winning its first-ever World Series in 2017.
Ryan was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999 on the first ballot.
He chose to wear a Rangers hat on his plaque, despite having played for the Angels and Astros for longer periods of time, partly because many of his records came while he played in Arlington.
He was elected as part of one of the most elite induction classes ever, which included Robin Yount and George Brett.
It was the first time that three players were elected on their first ballot since the inaugural class in 1936.
Nolan Ryan had a career unlike any other player in the history of baseball.
To play for 27 years is one thing, to play for 27 years as a power pitcher is another.
Ryan’s hard work maintaining his physical fitness has remained influential today.
He did more than perhaps anyone else to promote weight training, as prior knowledge had been to forgo weights as a baseball player.
Throughout Ryan’s 27 seasons, he played in parts of four different decades and through seven different presidential administrations.
Playing for four teams over the years, Ryan never lost his competitive spirit and broke records easily, many of them still standing today, unlikely to ever be broken.
In an era of pitch counts and a more analytical approach to the game, we will likely never see another pitcher like Nolan Ryan, a power pitcher routinely throwing 120-plus pitches a game, still throwing 100 mph on his 120th pitch.
As time moves forward, Ryan’s illustrious career will only continue to look more and more impressive.