COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – When you think of career records being broken or milestones being achieved, many come from players at the end of their careers.
However, this week 28 years ago on April 27, 36-year-old Nolan Ryan – who still had 10 seasons left in his big league career – passed Walter Johnson on the all-time strikeout list, getting his 3,509th of his career.
What many believed would only take a couple of games into the 1983 season to do took a little longer due to injury. Ryan began the year on the disabled list for the first 21 days of the season and would need three outings to tally up the 14 overall strikeouts he needed to eclipse Johnson’s 55-year-old record.
And even the third outing was almost not meant to be. Ryan developed a blister in the game and had it drained in the seventh inning, still in need of two strikeouts from claiming the record as his own.
“I had to have the blister drained after the seventh inning,” said Ryan, “And I knew there was a good chance that I might not get a chance to pitch the ninth.”
Ten years prior, a Ryan fastball was clocked at 101 miles per hour, but time didn’t take too much of a toll on the Ryan Express: His fastball was still clocked at 98 mph.
He relied on that fastball in the eighth inning. Montreal Expos catcher Tim Blackwell swung and missed a 3-2 fastball delivered by Ryan to tie the record with the first out of the eighth.
“Everybody went nuts when he struck out Blackwell,” said Expo’s pinch hitter Brad Mills. “But I had been in the tunnel for three innings, so I didn’t know where he was.”
Mills would soon find out as he pinch hit for second baseman Doug Flynn. Ryan took a commanding 1-2 lead in the count. Just as he had done all game, Ryan threw yet again another strike, except this time he froze the batter with a record breaking curveball for his 3,509th strikeout.
Ryan believed correctly that future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton would pass him that season in career strikeouts due to Carlton pitching every fourth day compared to Ryan’s every fifth day; but Ryan was the first to the summit and eventual champion.
Ryan played another great 10 years in the majors that saw him win four consecutive strikeout titles from 1987-90. In a career that spanned four decades, Ryan punched out 5,714 batters on strikes. That’s nearly a thousand more than runner up Randy Johnson and more than 1,500 more than Carlton, the only other man to hold the career title besides Walter Johnson and Ryan in the past 90 years.
Although it was later discovered that Johnson’s strikeout total was one off, giving him indeed 3,509, at this time 28 years ago Ryan was crowned the strikeout king.
Kevin Stiner was the spring 2011 Public Relations intern for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum