He never threw a perfect game. He never won the Cy Young Award. But he dominated baseball across an improbable four decades. He was an eight-time All-Star. He remains the all-time leader in no-hitters. And he is the only player to hurl more than 5,000 strikeouts. He broke that seemingly impossible line 30 years ago this week as a member of the Texas Rangers, and he would continue to add to that gaudy total for four more years. The man in question is, of course, the legendary Nolan Ryan.
Born in 1947, Ryan took up the game at a young age and excelled in high school. He was first scouted by the Mets during a 1963 game. After graduation in 1965, the Mets took Ryan in the 12th round of the MLB draft. From 1965 through 1967, Ryan pitched for the minor league organizations of the Mets, making some Major League appearances in 1966 during late-season roster expansion. He was out for much of 1967 for a combination of Army Reserve service and illness. During his tenure in the minors, as he worked on his control, he posted more than 450 strikeouts.
By 1968, Ryan was firmly ensconced in the majors. He was part of the 1969 “Miracle Mets,” a New York line-up that reversed years of Mets frustration; since its inception in 1962, the team hadn’t had a single winning season. Thanks in large part to a murderer’s row of pitchers that included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Ron Taylor, Tug McGraw, and Ryan, the ’69 team overtook the Cubs as they made their way to 100 wins. Ryan played pivotal roles in two “Game 3” appearances in the post-season. In Game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Braves, he came on for seven relief innings and his first playoff win; he then saved Game 3 of the World Series in relief, shutting out the Orioles for 2-1/3 innings. The Mets went on to win the World Series.
However, Ryan’s tenure in New York wouldn’t last forever. After being traded to the Angels, Ryan finally got to be a starter. He responded by throwing 329 strikeouts in 1972, which was the fourth-highest total of the century at that point. This set the tone for Ryan’s career; while he was extremely prone to walking (or, on occasion, hitting) batters, his blistering speed and propensity for dominating performances made him a star. He went to the Houston Astros as a free agent in 1980, becoming the first player to earn a million dollars per season. In April of 1983, Ryan broke the all-time strikeout record by retiring his 3,509th batter; just over two years later, he recorded his 4,000th K.
Ryan signed with the Texas Rangers for 1989; he was 42. The seemingly impossible plateau of 5,000 strikeouts was in sight. On August 22, at the top of the 5th in a game with the Oakland Athletics, Ryan faced off against future Hall of Famer Ricky Henderson, whom he’d already struck out previously in the evening (he was 4,998, to be exact). Ryan retired Henderson on a blazing fastball. As the crowd went crazy, Ryan simply doffed his cap, shook hands with some teammates, and went back to work.
Over the next four years, Ryan just kept on going. He announced his retirement before the beginning of the 1993 season. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to finish as, two starts short of his expected end date, he tore a ligament in his throwing arm. He was still, at the age of 46, throwing around 98 mph. Upon his retirement, Ryan had set a Major League record for seasons played (27); he was, at the time, also the only remaining player to have made the big leagues in the 1960s.
The numbers for Ryan’s career remain extraordinary. He finished with 5,714 strikeouts; having pitched 5,386 career innings, which means he averaged 1.06 Ks per inning over the course of his entire career. He did, however, give up 2,795 walks, though his career ERA (Earned Run Average) was a rock-solid 3.19. Ryan’s career Win-Loss record was 324-292. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999, his first year of eligibility, with a landslide vote (491-6). Ryan’s number was retired by the Angels, the Astros, and the Rangers, making him one of only a handful of players to have their number retired by more than one team. In his post-playing career, Ryan has become the owner of two minor league teams, served as Texas Rangers president and CEO from 2008 to 2013, and currently acts as executive adviser to Jim Crane, owner of the Astros. Ryan’s son Reid, one of the Hall of Famer’s three children with his wife, Ruth, is the Astros’ president of business operations.
They say that no record is permanent, but Ryan’s crowning achievement might well be untouchable. Number two on the all-time strikeout list, Randy Johnson, retired at 839 pitches behind Ryan. You have to go all the way down to slots 17 and 18 to find the only active players on the list; at this writing, CC Sabathia has 3,068 (and will retire this year after 18 years), and Justin Verlander has 2,934 after 14 years. A Houston Astro, Verlander is currently averaging more strikeouts than innings pitched in his career. Sound familiar? If he continues at his current rate, Verlander might be able to eclipse Ryan . . . in 10 more years. While we wait to see if that mountain can be climbed, we can still sit back in awe and appreciate of one of the greatest to ever play the game.