Lynn Nolan Ryan, Jr. (born January 31, 1947) is a former pitcher in Major League Baseball who played for 27 years and still holds many major league pitching records, some of which are so far beyond previous marks that they are likely to stand for years to come, if not forever. He was most noted for his blazing fastball and his longevity, routinely throwing pitches exceeding 100 mph, even into his forties. The media tagged him with the nickname "The Ryan Express", referencing a 1965 action-adventure film called Von Ryan's Express.
As a Met
Ryan was born in Refugio, Texas, but his family moved to the Houston suburb of Alvin when he was six weeks old; he has lived there to this day. He developed his dazzling fastball as a high school pitcher in Texas, which impressed the New York Mets enough to draft him in 1965 and promote him to the major leagues late in 1966.
However, Ryan struggled for a number of years and was even sent back to the minor leagues a few times because of his inability to find the strike zone. He didn't make the majors for good until the 1968 season, and even then was unable to crack an outstanding Mets pitching staff led by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.
Ryan did, however, give people a taste of what was to come in the 1969 World Series, when he entered Game 3 in relief of a struggling starter and shut down the powerful Baltimore Orioles for nearly three innings. Ryan's work enabled the Mets to hang on to win that game, and they went on to upset the Orioles in five games. A videotape of that game, which has occasionally been played on ESPN Classic, reveals that Ryan's motion, with the trademark high trailing leg kick, was already firmly established at that young age.
As an Angel
Ryan truly blossomed as a pitcher after being traded to the California Angels in 1972. Even though the Angels were a sub-.500 team and remained one for most of his time there, he began winning between 19 and 22 games a season regularly. In 1973, he set his first record when he struck out 383 batters in one season, eclipsing Sandy Koufax' old mark by one. This record was made even more impressive by the fact that he achieved it in the first year of the designated hitter in the American League; if AL pitchers had still been hitting, Ryan would almost certainly have topped 400 strikeouts that season.
He threw two no-hitters in 1973, added a third in 1974 and a fourth in 1975, tying another of Koufax' records. He led the league in strikeouts seven times in the 1970s. In 1974 he twice struck out 19 batters, a record which wasn't broken until Roger Clemens struck out 20 in a 1986 game. Fans, researchers, historians and even the players argue all the time about who was the fastest pitcher of all-time. The most widely quoted response is Nolan Ryan. His fastball was "officially" clocked by the Guinness Book of World Records at 100.9 miles per hour in a game played on August 20, 1974 versus the Chicago White Sox.
As an Astro
Ryan signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Houston Astros after the 1979 season, in which he became the first player to make $1 million a year. The normally light-hitting Ryan got his 'Stros years started with a bang in a nationally televised game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 12, 1980, in which he hit a 3-run home run off future fellow Hall of Famer Don Sutton. It was the first home run of his career (he only hit one more), and garnered 3 of the 6 RBI's he would get that year. He got his second taste of postseason play in 1980, but the Astros were stopped one game short of the World Series.
After that, Ryan then settled into having a long string of good, but not great seasons, highlighted by his breaking Walter Johnson's all-time strikeout record on April 27, 1983, with his 3,509th whiff.
In 1987, Ryan had one of the most bizarre seasons in baseball history. He was by far the most dominant pitcher in the National League, leading the league in ERA (2.76) and strikeouts (270) at the age of 40. However, Ryan received horrendous offensive support all season, and finished with a record of 8-16. The poor record most likely cost him the Cy Young Award, an honor he contended for many times but never won.
As a Ranger
He left Houston in a contract dispute after the 1988 season and joined the Texas Rangers, back in the American League. Many observers, keeping in mind that the aging Ryan had been pitching home games in the air-conditioned Astrodome, thought he would struggle by having to pitch outdoors in the oppressive Texas heat. Others predicted he would do well as American League batters hadn't faced "The Express" since 1979. With more run support than he had in 1987, Ryan had a number of fine seasons for the Rangers.
In 1989, he won 16 games and led the league with 301 strikeouts. Against the Oakland Athletics on August 22, Ryan struck out Rickey Henderson in the fifth inning to become the first pitcher ever to record 5,000 career strikeouts.
Two years later, at 44, he finished fifth in the league in ERA (2.91) and third in strikeouts (203), to again earn Cy Young Award votes.
He threw his sixth no-hitter and earned his 300th win in 1990. He pitched his seventh no-hitter on May 1, 1991, striking out Roberto Alomar for the final out. Coincidentally, Ryan's second baseman in his first two no-hitters was Alomar's father, Sandy Sr. Earlier in the same day Rickey Henderson broke Lou Brock's career stolen base record with his 939th stolen base.
Before the 1993 season, Ryan announced his retirement, effective at the end of that season. His seemingly bionic arm finally gave out in Seattle on September 22, 1993, when he tore a tendon, ending his career two starts prematurely.
However, on August 4, just before the end, Ryan confirmed his reputation as a strong, competitive Texan in one bizarre moment. He had just hit Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox with a slow moving curveball. The normally unflappable Ventura angrily charged the pitching mound in order to fight Ryan, who was twenty years his senior. Ryan famously defended himself, perhaps better than any other known pitcher in a similar situation. The 46-year-old Ryan – a rancher in the offseason and highly dedicated to workouts during the season – promptly subdued the 26-year-old Ventura in a headlock with his left arm, pummelling Ventura's head with his right fist seven times before catcher Iván Rodríguez was able to pull Ventura away from Ryan. Videos of the confrontation were played on sports highlight reels that evening throughout the country. Ryan was widely credited as coming out ahead in the fight, planting those "noogies" on Ventura.
Given that he broke many of Sandy Koufax's records previously thought to be untouchable, Ryan is frequently compared to him much in the way that Hank Aaron is to Babe Ruth or Pete Rose to Ted Williams and Ty Cobb. There are many similarities; both started in the majors at a very young age and struggled early in their careers, both were primarily "extreme fastball" pitchers noted for achieving previously unprecedented strikeout totals and multiple no-hitters, and both were very closed and private away from the game (though Koufax more so than Ryan). It was said of Ryan that he started every game with the intention of striking everyone out. Koufax once admitted that he began every game with the intention of throwing a perfect game, and failing that, a shutout. They were also both very conscious of their value, and had occasional contract disputes with their owners. An astute businessman, Ryan readily admitted that the money was a large part of the reason he played as long as he did. Ryan would also would be remembered by many players and fan as a rough neck pitcher that did not take failure lightly. The numerous times he would try to beanball a player would be a unique part of his legacy. But this really defined him as a hard Texan who would take nothing from anybody.
But there are many differences too: Koufax pitched left-handed and Ryan right-handed; despite his early troubles, Koufax played his entire career with one team whereas Ryan played for several. Koufax was blessed to play on some championship Dodgers teams, whereas Ryan found himself on mostly mediocre teams. Most importantly, thanks to a strong arm that could handle a lot of work, Ryan had one of the longest careers of any player, whereas Koufax's sterling career was cut short in its prime by arthritis and arm trouble. Nonetheless, both stand out as the premier "power pitchers" of their time, if not all-time.
Ryan ranks first all-time in strikeouts (5714), fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.56), fifth in innings pitched (5386), second in games started (773), seventh in shutouts (61) and tied for 13th in wins (324). He also ranks high on the list for four "negative" records; because he was wild as a young pitcher, he piled up the walks and ranks first all-time in walks allowed with 2795, in wild pitches with 277, and he also ranks third all-time in losses, with 292. Also he is ninth all-time in hit batsmen. Obviously manyof these were intentional because of his extremely aggresive style of play. Many of these batters were hit after he surrenders a home run to them. Of all his accomplishments, Ryan never won the Cy Young Award. With all his mind-boggling stats, fans wondered what more he might have accomplished had he been able to play on one or more of the premier teams of his era.
His current business interests include ownership of two minor league teams – the Corpus Christi Hooks, which play in the Class AA Texas League, and the Round Rock Express, a Class AAA team in the Pacific Coast League. Both teams are affiliates of the Houston Astros. He also appeared in TV ads for Advil for a number of years, a pain medication that he recommended for his own arm, and perhaps also for many opposing batters who found his pitching to be a headache.
He threw out the first pitch of Game 3 of the 2005 World Series, the first World Series game ever played in Texas, and ultimately the longest in terms of time. The wags at ESPN suggested that the Astros might have needed to pull Nolan out of retirement if the game went much longer.
Every hitter likes fastballs just like everybody likes ice cream. But you don't like it when someone's stuffing it into you by the gallon. That's how you feel when Ryan's throwing balls by you.
-Reggie Jackson, Hall of Fame slugger
If he would act his age, there might be a few records left for me.
-Roger Clemens, pitcher