COOPERSTOWN,N.Y.– Throughout his unparalleled 27-year big league career, Nolan Ryan and his fastball were ranked and re-ranked among the baseball’s greatest of all time.
Fastest ever? Certainly, Ryan was in the conversation.
But 31 years ago this week – on Sept. 26, 1981– Ryan put to rest one debate: The greatest no-hit pitcher ever.
In a late-season game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Astrodome, Ryan pitched his fifth career no-hitter, breaking the record of four he shared with Sandy Koufax. It was Ryan’s first no-hitter in more than six seasons, and it cemented his reputation as the game’s no-hit master.
“He was the only guy that could put fear in me,” said Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who hit .210 in 62 career at-bats against Ryan. “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.”
The 34-year-old Ryan was in his 15th big league season in 1981, but was still lighting up the radar gun with pitches in the high 90s. He had control problems early in the game against the Dodgers, walking Steve Garvey in the second inning (Garvey was eventually stranded at third base) and Derrel Thomas and Ken Landreaux in the third inning (runners were stranded at first and second) before retiring the final 19 batters he faced.
Ryan struck out 11 Dodgers in the no-hitter and lowered his National League-leading earned-run average to 1.74 while improving his record to 10-5. He allowed just one run in his last start of the season on Oct. 1 against the Cubs, dropping his ERA to 1.69 – the best single-season mark of his career.
Ryan went on to throw no-hitters in 1990 and 1991 with the Texas Rangers, giving him seven for his career. Other than Koufax, the only other pitcher with more than two no-hitters is Bob Feller, who pitched three.
Ryan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum