September 26, 1981: Nolan Ryan, Best Pitcher in History or Physical Freak?

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A Brief History

On September 26, 1981, Nolan Ryan, right-handed pitcher for the Houston Astros, pitched his record-breaking 5th no-hitter of his career.  Ryan, arguably the best pitcher in major league baseball history, went on to throw 2 more no-hitters in his career, the last (number 7) in 1991 when he was an astounding 44 years old!

Digging Deeper

Fans of other great pitchers will make the case for those hurlers.  Some might talk about Bob Feller’s incredible fastball, his 3 no-hitters and 12 one-hitters and how he lost some of his prime years to service in the Navy during World War II.  Others might nominate Sandy Koufax whose single-season strikeout record was beaten by Ryan and whose 4 no-hitters are second only to Ryan’s 7.

Some pitchers had just one great season or perhaps a few great seasons.  Some of them played for good teams, which inflated their winning percentages.  Ryan stands out for the velocity at which he pitched baseballs and for the fact that he did so for an incredible 27 years until retiring at age 47.  Even at that advanced age, he remained one of the hardest throwers in baseball, something no one else has even come close to. (Roger Clemens retained high velocity into his 40s but only with the help of steroids.)

With over 500 career wins, a case can be made for Cy Young being the greatest pitcher, but of course that was at a time when starting pitchers were much more likely to get a decision than today when so many relief pitchers are used.  Plus, the pitching mound was higher, and spitballs were legal or at least allowed.

So-called experts have listed Ryan somewhat down on the list of all-time-best pitchers because his winning percentage did not match those of some of the other great pitchers and because his number of walks exceeds second-place Steve Carlton by almost a thousand!  Despite being one of two pitchers who gave up 10 grand slams and despite throwing the most wild pitches in history and at 292, having the third most career losses, Nolan Ryan is also one of the rare 300-game winners in baseball history and is the only player ever to have his number retired by 3 different teams.  Furthermore, his all-time-best career strikeout total exceeds second-place Randy Johnson by nearly 900.  In addition he was an 8-time All-Star, and besides his best-of-all-time 7 no-hitters, he also pitched a tied-for-best (with Bob Feller) 12 one-hitters.

One of the few men capable of throwing a baseball over 100 miles per hour, Nolan Ryan did it on a regular basis, not just once in a while.  In 1972, Ryan set a new major league record by allowing only 5.26 hits per 9 innings pitched.  Other incredible accomplishments include leading the major leagues in strikeouts and earned run average (ERA) at age 40, twice having 19 strikeouts in a game and being the only pitcher in history to strike out 3 batters in one inning on 9 pitches in both major leagues!

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, Ryan is one of only two inductees (Sandy Koufax is the other) to have more strikeouts than innings pitched.  He is also the only pitcher to have struck out 7 sets of fathers and sons playing major league baseball.  It should be noted that Lynn Nolan Ryan (his complete name) did all this without being a jerk, something that cannot be taken for granted anymore.

Question for students (and subscribers): So who do you nominate as the greatest pitcher of all time?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.  (Please also see our other baseball-related articles from April 9, May 1, June 3, June 4 & June 23 and August 3.)

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Goldman, Rob and Reid Ryan.  Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher.  Triumph Books, 2014.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.