"Others will throw harder, but no one will throw harder for longer."—former Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House
Nolan Ryan is a former Major League Baseball pitcher who served as the CEO of the Texas Rangers until 2013 and, as of 2018, acts as special advisor to the chairman of the Houston Astros. During his twenty-seven-year career as a professional baseball player with the New York Mets, the California Angels, the Houston Astros, and the Texas Rangers, Ryan established himself as the all-time strikeout king with a career total of 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters. With a career average of 9.55 strikeouts per nine innings, Ryan also became one of only a handful of pitchers who averaged one strikeout per inning. In addition, Ryan also set a record by striking out ten batters 215 times during one game, and set an American League record by striking out nineteen batters during a nine-inning game. When he was one year away from retirement in 1992, Ryan became the oldest pitcher in Major League Baseball to strike out more than ten batters during a single game. Known for his strong arm and ability to throw a baseball 100 miles per hour, Ryan earned the nickname "Ryan Express." This ability allowed him to shatter the all-time major league strikeout record and to win 324 games.
Since his retirement in 1993, Ryan has continued to remain involved in professional baseball through various business ventures. In addition to the Texas Rangers, Ryan has been principal owner of two minor league baseball teams—the Corpus Christi Hooks and the Round Rock Express. Ryan also has owned a couple of banks, restaurants, and other businesses. He is the author of several books, including The Road to Cooperstown (1999) with Mickey Herskowitz and T.R. Sullivan. Regarded as one of Major League Baseball greats, Ryan was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.
Nolan Ryan was born on January 31, 1947, in Refugio, Texas. He was the youngest of six children of Lynn Nolan Ryan, an oil company executive, and his wife, Martha. Ryan grew up in a small town where it was difficult to find things to do. He told Sports Illustrated that he and his buddies passed the time by throwing rocks at snakes on long summer afternoons when school was out. Young Ryan had a paper route and played baseball, although he didn't consider himself a very good player. He attended Alvin High School, where he played both basketball and baseball. Basketball was his favorite sport, but as a pitcher for the baseball team, he developed a fastball that could go "through a wall," according to his high school coach, Jim Watson.
Even though he could throw the ball hard, Ryan had trouble getting it over the plate, but struck out a lot of batters who were afraid of getting hit. "He didn't have any idea where the ball was going," coach Watson told Sports Illustrated, "but he didn't have to exactly thread the needle back then. Those kids were so scared, they'd swing at anything just to get out of there."
Becomes a Met
Seeing great potential in Ryan, New York Mets scout Red Murff told the major league team about the youngster with the rocket arm. When Ryan graduated from high school, the Mets drafted him in the fourteenth round. He was disappointed to be drafted so low, but his father talked him into accepting the Mets's offer. Ryan was called up to the Mets's big-league team in 1966, but still had problems with his control. In four seasons with the Mets, Ryan went 29-28 and struck out almost a batter per inning. The problem was that he walked a lot of batters, too.
In 1969, the "Miracle Mets"—who finished second to last in the National League with 45 wins in 1968—won 100 games and the National League's East division title. Ryan contributed only six wins during the regular season, but pitched seven strong innings in the final game of the National League Championship series against the Atlanta Braves to earn the victory. Ryan pitched only once in the World Series against the highly favored Baltimore Orioles, earning a save in Game Three of a five-game Mets Series victory—one of the biggest upsets of all time. This would be the only World Series in which Ryan would pitch during his career.
Over the next two seasons, it became obvious to Ryan that he did not fit into the future plans for the Mets. Having been raised in a small town, he also found it difficult to adjust to life in New York. Following the 1971 season, Ryan asked to be traded and the Mets sent him to the California Angels, a move they eventually would regret. For the next eight seasons, Ryan ranked as one of the best pitchers in the American League, twice winning twenty games (21 in 1973 and 22 in 1974) and 19 twice (1972 and 1977). Four times, he finished with earned run averages (ERAs) under 3.00 and led the major leagues in strikeouts six times in eight seasons. (The two years he did not lead the major leagues, he finished second.) In 1973, he set a major league record with 383 strikeouts, struck out over 300 batters four times, set a record by striking out more than 300 batters in three straight seasons (1972-74), and on August 12, 1974, he struck out 19 Boston Red Sox, tying the major league record at the time for strikeouts in one game.
Ryan credited his newfound success to Angels pitching coach Tom Morgan. His fastball still hummed at close to one hundred miles per hour, and Ryan had learned better control. He also learned how to throw a slow breaking pitch—a throw that is almost impossible for a batter to hit if he's expecting the "Ryan Express" fastball. His improved control was most obvious in the four no-hitters he threw while with the Angels. On May 15, 1973, he beat the Kansas City Royals, 3-0, and two months later, on July 15, he beat the Detroit Tigers, 6-0, striking out 17 batters. In his third no-hitter he walked eight batters, but beat the Minnesota Twins, 4-0, and in his fourth, a 1-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles on June 5, 1975, Ryan's catcher, Ellie Rodriguez, told Sports Illustrated that Ryan didn't have "his good stuff." His fourth no-hitter tied the major-league record set by Hall-of-Famer Sandy Koufax.
But even with Ryan, the Angels were not performing well as a team—they finished last twice, and next-to-last three times. Finally in 1979, the Angels won the weak American League West division. For only the second time in his career, Ryan pitched in the playoffs, this time against the East division champion Baltimore Orioles. Ryan started game one, pitching seven innings and leaving with the game tied 3-3. The Angels lost the game in the 10th inning and lost the series, three games to one. This would be the last time Ryan would pitch for the Angels.
After the 1979 season, Ryan became a free agent and was able to play with the team of his choice. Not surprisingly, Ryan signed with the Houston Astros and was able to move his family back to his home town of Alvin, less than fifty miles from Houston. Ryan pitched nine seasons for Houston, but never won more than 16 games in a season. He did lead the major leagues in strikeouts (270) and ERA (2.79) in 1987, even though he finished with an 8-16 record. On September 6, 1981, Ryan again made history when he pitched his fifth no-hitter, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-0.
On August 27, 1983, Ryan broke his most important record of all. When he struck out Brad Mills of the Montreal Expos, Ryan moved ahead of the legendary Walter "Big Train" Johnson and into first place on the all-time strikeout list. Then, on July 11, 1985, he struck out Danny Heep of the Mets to become the first major-league pitcher with more than 4,000 career strikeouts. Well past the age of thirty—when most hard-throwing pitchers begin to lose their speed—Ryan was still overpowering, with his fastball clocked regularly at 95 miles per hour. "I don't know why I've been able to maintain my velocity [speed] this long," Ryan told the Philadelphia Daily News. "I think people think I do something different than anybody else has done. But it's not true.... Believe me, I'm as surprised as everybody else."
In his first year with Houston (1980), Ryan finished 11-10 and the Astros won the National League West division title. He started Game Two and Game Five of the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. He didn't get a decision (win or loss) in either game, but lost a 7-2 lead in the eighth inning of the fifth and deciding game—a game the Astros lost, 8-7, in ten innings. The 1981 season was interrupted by a player's strike, and each division had a champion for the first and second half of the season. The Astros won the National League West second half title, and played the Los Angeles Dodgers in a first-ever divisional playoff series. Ryan won game one of the series, going the whole nine innings in a 3-1 win. He started—and lost—game five, 4-0, as the Astros once again fell just short.
Ryan's final playoff appearance came in 1986. He went 12-8 and the Astros won the National League West division by 10 games. The Astros faced the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, and the two teams played an incredible series. Four games were decided by one run, and two were decided in extra innings. Ryan started and lost Game Two, giving up five runs in five innings. In game five—with the teams tied at two games apiece—Ryan pitched the best game of his playoff career, going nine innings, giving up only one run and two hits, while striking out 12. But the Astros could score only one run for him, and Houston lost the game, 2-1, in 12 innings. Game six turned out to be one of the most exciting games, with the teams tied through 15 innings. Then in the top of the 16th, the Mets scored three runs. But the Astros wouldn't quit, and scored two in their half of the 16th, with the tying and winning run on base and two outs. Mets reliever Jesse Orosco, exhausted after the long night, struck out Kevin Bass to give the Mets the pennant and deny Ryan a return trip to the World Series.
Following the 1988 season, Ryan was a free agent again. Wanting to stay in Texas but disappointed in the salary offered by Houston, Ryan went to the Texas Rangers. By that time—at age forty-two—many experts believed Ryan was washed up. Once again he proved the experts wrong, going 16-10 and again exceeding the 300 strikeout mark (301). On June 11, 1990, Ryan pitched his sixth no-hitter, a 5-0 win over the Oakland A's. He became the oldest player (at age forty-three) to pitch a no-hitter and the first to pitch no-hitters in three different decades. In August of that year, Ryan won his 300th game (one of only 20 pitchers to accomplish this feat), and struck out his 5,000th batter—the only pitcher to ever reach this milestone. Finally on May 1, 1991, Ryan pitched his seventh and last no-hitter, striking out Toronto Blue Jay's second baseman Roberto Alomar to win the game, 3-0. Making Ryan's seven no-hitters even more remarkable is the fact that he also has 12 career one -hitters—another major league record.
Ryan announced that the 1993 season would be his last. Although he was planned to retire, the end came sooner than expected when he tore a ligament in his right elbow on September 22 of that year. When he left the game after 27 seasons, Ryan held or shared 53 major-league records. He had won 324 games, lost 292, pitched 5,319 innings, and recorded 5,714 strike outs (by 1,175 different batters), a record average of 9.7 every nine innings. (He also held the major league record with 2,795 walks.) Ryan's hard work, great physical shape, and near-perfect pitching motion no doubt helped him to pitch as long as he did.
In 1999—his first year of eligibility—Ryan was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. That same year, The Sporting News ranked him number forty-one on its list of 100 Greatest Baseball Players. In 1999, baseball fans all over the country also voted Nolan to the All-Century Team. Then in 2003, Ryan was inducted into the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame. In 2004, Ryan rejoined the Houston Astros franchise as a consultant. Two years later, the Astros named Ryan their Hometown Hero.
Though he retired from professional baseball in 1993, Ryan has remained heavily involved in the sport through his various business interests. In 2011, Ryan became CEO of the Texas Rangers, a post he held until 2013. The financially strapped team was in federal bankruptcy court when Ryan and a few other investors bought the team.
Ryan has also been principal owner of two minor league baseball teams, the Corpus Christi Hooks and the Round Rock Express. The Corpus Christi Hooks is a Double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. The Round Rock Express is a Triple-A team affiliated with the Texas Rangers in Round Rock, Texas. The team management also includes Ryan's son Reid. As of 2018, Nolan Ryan also acts as special advisor to the chair of the Houston Astros.
In addition to these ventures, Ryan also has owned two banks since his retirement, as well a handful of restaurants. He also is an investor in Nolan Ryan's Tender Aged Beef, which is sold as a concession item at Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi. Ryan also owns and operates several cattle ranches in southern Texas. Despite his many business ventures, Ryan has found the time to stay actively involved in a variety of civic organizations. In addition to sitting on the board of directors for the Nolan Ryan Foundation, Ryan also has served on the boards of other organizations like the Texas Water Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Texas, and the Alvin Community College Baseball Fund. He also served on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission from 1995 to 2001. Ryan's celebrity status also has made him a popular spokesperson for Advil and other products. Following his retirement, Ryan helped promote physical fitness for the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition in the mid-1990s. Rumors have circulated in the past that Ryan might run for public office, but he has always dispelled these.
Over the years, Ryan has written several autobiographical books, including Throwing Heat (1988) with Harvey Frommer; Miracle Man (1992) with Jerry Jenkins; Kings of the Hill (1992) with Mickey Herskowitz; and The Road to Cooperstown (1999) with Mickey Herskowitz and T.R. Sullivan. In 1977, he penned an instructional book called Pitching and Hitting with Joe Torre and Joel Cohen. He also wrote Nolan Ryan's Pitcher's Bible (1991) with Tom House.
Ryan married his high school sweetheart, Ruth, in 1967, and they live in a suburb of Austin, Texas. Together, they have three children: Reid, Reese, and Wendy.