COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Any career that lasts 27 seasons is bound to have a few milestones along the way.
For Nolan Ryan, milestones came around more frequently.
On July 11, 1985 - 27 years ago this week - the 38-year-old hurler struck out New York Mets outfielder Danny Heep to become the first pitcher to record 4,000 strikeouts.
As he was then, Ryan is still baseball’s all-time strikeout leader with 5,714 career punch outs. His 383 strikeouts in 1973 remains a single season record and his seven no-hitters also tops the all-time list.
“I don’t want to sound like the Nolan Ryan Fan Club,” said all-time hits leader Pete Rose. “I could go on all night about him. Nobody will ever break his strikeout record. No way. It just won’t be done.”
But the train that was the Ryan Express was in jeopardy of not leaving the station early in his career. Ryan tied Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax’s record four no-hitters by the time he was 28 years old. But like Koufax, whose career ended because of arm problems at age 31, Ryan’s future was in doubt.
Ryan needed surgery to repair bone chips in his throwing arm following the 1975 season. While some questioned if he would follow Koufax’s footsteps, Ryan put those worries to bed.
“I won’t quit unless my arm falls off next spring,” Ryan said after his surgery. “The only way I can make this kind of money is to hold up a bank.”
Luckily for Ryan, his arm had plenty of strikeouts remaining.
Ryan’s arm did more than hold up for those next 18 seasons. He finished his career with 324 wins, a World Series ring and a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Even some of baseball’s best power hitters of all time said they couldn’t keep up with Ryan.
“There’s no pitcher like Nolan Ryan,” said Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt. “No one has his combination of fastball and curve. That curve gets in your mind. His release point is right in your ear. I listen for his grunt, then I know it’s a fastball. But by the time I hear the grunt, it’s too late to swing.”
Ryan’s ability to command control of the plate stemmed from a fastball that hovered around triple digits.
“He was the only guy that could put fear in me,” said Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson. “Not because he could get me out, but because he could kill me. You just hoped to mix in a walk so you could have a good night and go 0-for-3.”
Ryan’s longevity allowed him to bring the heat to batters spanning four decades. Despite the wear and tear of 20 years in the majors, Ryan still struck out 200-plus batters in five different seasons after the age of 40.
Ryan once said his goal when he got to the big leagues was to play four years so that he could qualify for the pension. His 27 seasons of Major League service are the most of all time, his 5,714 strikeouts have not been approached and his record seven no-hitters are untouched.
When Ryan was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, he was recognized for loftier accomplishments than earning his pension.
“If they had a higher league, he could be in it,” Hal McRae said. “As a matter of fact, he could be it.”
Connor O’Gara is the 2012 public relations intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development