Nolan Ryan and His Four California Angel No-Hitters

A while ago, the Orange County Register summarized these four games as follows:

MAY 15, 1973 1 – Nolan Ryan chalks up his first no-hitter for the Angels, stopping the Royals in Kansas City, 3-0. In the first hitless game by an Angels right-hander, Ryan finishes with 12 strikeouts, one in every inning except the fifth. The only close call comes in the eighth inning when pinch-hitter Gail Hopkins’ looping liner into shallow left is caught by shortstop Rudy Meoli on a running over-the-shoulder catch. Ryan gets all the offensive support he needs from right fielder Bob Oliver,who has two RBI with a solo home run and a single.

Ryan (W 5-3) and Torborg; Dal Canton (L 2-2), Garber (6) and Taylor, Kirkpatrick.

JULY 15, 1973

2 – This is Ryan’s easiest no-hitter in terms of score as he turns in his second no-hitter of the season, a 6-0 victory in Detroit. Ryan has 17 strikeouts, 16 in the first seven innings. His arm stiffens in the top of the eighth when the Angels score five times. Ryan needs no spectacular defensive plays to preserve the no-hitter and become the fifth man in history to throw two no-hitters in a season.

Ryan (W 11-11) and Kusnyer; J.Perry (L 9-9), Scherman (8), Miller (8), Farmer (8) and Sims.

SEPT. 28, 1974

3 – Ryan makes the most of his final start of the season by chalking up his third no-hitter, beating Minnesota, 4-0, in Anaheim to raise his record to 22-16. His first seven pitches are strikes and He strikes out the side in the first and second innings. He finishes with 15 strikeouts, but also walks eight – seven in the first five innings. The Angels score two in the third and fourth to give Ryan a cushion. Center fielder Morris Nettles had three RBI.

Decker (L 16-14), Butler (3) and Borgmann; Ryan (W 22-16) and Egan.

JUNE 1, 1975

4 – Ryan moves into a tie with Sandy Koufax as he tosses his fourth no-hitter, edging the Orioles, 1-0, at Anaheim Stadium. Making his 12th start of the season, Ryan strikes out nine for his fourth no-hitter in 109 starts. The lone Angels’ run is scored when Dave Chalk singles home Mickey Rivers in the third.

Grimsley (L 1-7), Garland (4) and Hendricks; Ryan (W 9-3) and Rodriguez.

In 1999, the Houston Chronicle told the fairly interesting story of Ryan’s career in Southern California, which started in 1972:

When the trade came down, folks in Southern California figured it was the steal of the century.

Trouble was, most worried they were on the wrong end of the heist. Some kid named Nolan Ryan was coming to the Angels. Big arm, no clue where the ball was going, tepid results in parts of five seasons with the New York Mets.

And for this, the Angels had parted with Mr. Angel, the great Jim Fregosi.
Small wonder, then, that the transition from one coast to the other and from National to American Leagues had its rocky moments – all magnified by the arrival of son Reid and the specter of a strike that threatened to delay the start of the season, and a much-needed paycheck.

Years later, Ryan would describe his eight years in Anaheim as “the foundation of my career.” It began, however, with more moments in which he considered packing up and going home than ones spent pondering the text for his acceptance speech in Cooperstown.

For starters, the looming strike threatened to make Ryan a rancher. That first spring training camp, the Ryans lived in a borrowed trailer in Holtville. When the team moved on to Palm Springs, Nolan made a daily 180-mile round-trip commute in a borrowed Volkswagen Beetle.

Things were so tight that Ryan borrowed $1,500 to rent a house in Anaheim for the season to come. Had the strike lasted very long – ultimately, opening day was delayed and eight games lost – the family would have been packing up and heading back to Alvin.

Early on, some Angels fans probably wished he had done just that. Ryan had what he termed “a horrible spring,” and it continued with a 2-4 start in which he failed to last beyond the fifth inning five times, rendering hearts all the fonder about the departed Fregosi.

Pitching coach Tom Morgan, who in time would become a close friend, worked on streamlining Ryan’s delivery. In late May, they began to get results as Ryan won nine of 10 decisions, pitching five consecutive complete games in the process.
The run culminated with a one-hitter in which he struck out eight straight batters and fanned the side on the minimum nine pitches.

By the time the smoke cleared, few were lamenting Fregosi, who went on to become another in a long line of failed third-base candidates with the Mets. After going 29-38 in New York, Ryan finished that’72 season with a 19-16 record, leading the league in strikeouts (329) and walks (157) while completing 20 games and compiling a 2.28 earned-run average.

Tom Grieve, then an outfielder with the first-year Texas Rangers, says those numbers don’t begin to tell the story.

“Back then, they didn’t keep pitch counts,” Grieve said. “And he’s walking nine or 10 guys in some of those games. There were probably a lot of times when he was throwing 200 pitches a game when he was 22, 23 years old.

“You have a guy throwing 200 pitches now, you’ll be taken in front of a judge for child abuse. The agent will get into it. The league will investigate.”

In one particularly gritty performance, Ryan threw 235 pitches in a 13-inning outing against Boston and got a no-decision.

A quarter-century later, Grieve vividly recounts the “thrill” of stepping to the plate against a young Nolan Ryan.

“He was the only pitcher I faced – other than J.R. Richard in Oklahoma City, where you couldn’t see because of the lights – that fear entered into the at-bat,” he said.

“He was throwing so hard, and he was wild, and you knew he was mean. He’d knock you down, and you never knew whether it was on purpose or not.

“He had a curveball that he threw so hard, and it broke so much. It started up around your head, and if you couldn’t recognize it and it turned out to be a fastball, you were going to get hit.
“I backed off the plate a little bit. I backed up in the box a little bit. Instead of being nice and relaxed up there, every part of your body was alert.”

Those years would showcase Ryan at his most dominant. In August of’74, his fastball was clocked at 100.9 miles an hour, though Ryan believes he has thrown harder than that.

In 1975, Ryan started the season 10-3 with five shutouts, seven complete games and an ERA of 2.24. On June 1, he produced his fourth no-hitter.

Ryan’s elbow had been hurting for months. After one mid-April start, he awoke to discover that he could not fully extend his arm.

Dr. Frank Jobe, the noted orthopedist, prescribed ice and whirlpool treatments, but the pain persisted. In August, after losing nine of 13 decisions (eight straight at one point), Ryan finally told the club he could go on no longer.
Calcium deposits were removed. Once again, Ryan pondered the question of whether he would pitch again.

“If my arm wasn’t better the next spring,” he said, “I was going to retire.”

That wouldn’t be necessary, though Ryan was up-and-down in 1976. He pitched in 39 games and struck out 327 hitters but went 17-18 with a 3.36 ERA.

Some of the issues were mental. Some of the trouble was because of stiffness, and the elbow occasionally would catch. In trying to compensate, Ryan fell into bad habits as well.

He lost five straight in May but came back to win seven of his last eight decisions and finished with 21 complete games, seven of them shutouts. The following year, he went 19-16 with 341 strikeouts and a 2.77 ERA, with 22 complete games and four shutouts.

But the good times in Anaheim were coming to an end. In 1978, Buzzie Bavasi arrived as executive vice president. A month later, GM Harry Dalton left after Bavasi accused him of running a “country club.”

Ryan didn’t like Bavasi or his ways, and physical problems added to the pitcher’s misery.

A pulled hamstring put Ryan on the disabled list from June 14 to July 5. Later, a rib separation landed him on the DL from Aug. 20 to Sept. 6.

In the end, a 10-13 season and a 3.71 ERA had Bavasi eyeing the bottom line as Ryan eyed the door.

“I wouldn’t have come back as long as he was the general manger,” Ryan said.
His contract, however, ran one more season, and it would be an eventful one.
Reid, then 7, was struck by a car, eventually losing his spleen and a kidney. As his son endured a lengthy hospital stay, Nolan was helping the Angels win the American League West for the first time.

Despite the distractions, Ryan finished 16-14 with a 3.59 ERA and 17 complete games. His contract was up, and agent Dick Moss approached the Angels with an incentive-heavy proposal that could have made Ryan the game’s first $1 million player.

Bavasi scoffed at the offer. In one particularly colorful moment, he indicated he could replace Ryan with two 8-7 pitchers.

Thirteen years later, that comment echoed when, in June 1992, the Angels retired Ryan’s number while he was still pitching in the major leagues.

In September 1993, with Ryan about to make his last start vs. the Angels, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported:

“In hindsight, if we could do it again, we’d give him more money,” said Bavasi, who, 14 years ago, was the executive vice president who let the best pitcher in Angels history walk away.

“Nolan Ryan, well, to me, he’s not quite in the category of Koufax, but he’s there with Drysdale and Gibson. His record is incredible. There’s no doubt he was better before 40 than after, but it’s just unbelievable he can walk from the dugout to the mound at his age. His courage alone puts him in the Hall of Fame.”

But it wasn’t enough to keep him in an Angels uniform.

It never should have come to this. Bavasi, Autry, everyone says Ryan should have been an Angel forever.

What they still can’t fathom is how they let themselves fall into a money pit at the most pivotal time the organization had known.

Why, of all the times, did the Angels feel compelled to take a stand against the rising tide of baseball economics when it was Ryan’s turn at free agency?

How could they let him get away? No one in the club’s past or present has had the impact of Ryan.

He probably will be remembered as a Texas Ranger, but it was during his California days he hit his peak, a no-hitter waiting to happen every time out.

“Incentives,” Bavasi said.”I think we all agreed on the salary, but his agent, Dick Moss, gave me a three-page list of incentives that any player on my club could have met. It wouldn’t have been fair. They wanted everything from insurance to bonuses for starting five games, 10 games and so on.

“We thought our figure was honest and fair. We had some other up-and-coming players, and we just felt we couldn’t commit to what Moss wanted and look our other players in the eye.”

The free-agent showdown could have been avoided. Ryan only became a free agent after the Angels, incredibly, refused his preseason proposal of $1.2 million for three years.

He ultimately signed a three-year deal with the Houston Astros worth $3.5 million, making him the game’s first $1-million-per-year player.
Bavasi was dumbfounded by the numbers.

“It was twice what we offered,” he said.”I was taken by surprise when I heard it because no one had said anything to us. But I still believe if it hadn’t been for the incentives, he would have stayed an Angel.”

Economics, then as now, ruled the Angels. They played hard ball with a soft hand and lost.

Autry could have made a difference, but he left the business to Bavasi and has lived to rue the day.

“I should have gotten more personally involved,” Autry has said again and again.”If I had, I don’t think Nolan ever would have left.”

Autry tried to correct the mistake a decade later, offering Ryan $1.5 million to pitch the 1989 season in Anaheim.

“It still wasn’t enough,” Bavasi said.

There is no way to white-out the mistake. Bavasi knows that. He knows people still see him as the villain.

Bavasi has heard the talk. Are you kidding? Of course he has. He can’t escape it.
“All we need are two 8-7 pitchers,” he said when Ryan left. The words have thundered through the years.

It was as ludicrous a notion then as it appears now. Quantity to replace quality. It never happened.

Ryan was the Angels. The foundation that has made him an American celebrity, the foundation for this incredible, enduring love affair with the public, was laid during the California years.

Ryan won 138 games for the Angels, a club record that still stands. He pitched 291 games, compiling a 3.06 earned run average that needs no defense. He pitched a record 156 complete games, a record 2,182 innings, a record 40 shutouts, a record 2,416 strikeouts.

Seven times during his eight years as an Angel he led the American League in strikeouts.

He threw four no-hitters, seven one-hitters, 13 two-hitters, 19 three-hitters.
He built numbers so grand he still holds or shares 20 team records. And this for an organization that was a collective 619-669 during his tenure, only winning during his final two seasons.

“I was only with him two years,” Bavasi said.”And he had a losing record for those two years.”

And that was all the proof the Angels needed to convince themselves Ryan was near the end.

He was approaching 33 and had managed only a 26-27 record his previous two seasons. His strikeouts were down, and he had spent three weeks on the disabled list during the’78 season.

The Angels had no way of knowing he would still be pitching 14 years later, that he would strike out 301 at 42 and win 157 more games.

Published in: on May 26, 2012 at 9:06 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Arne, great find. Can you imagine someone throwing 200 pitches in a game anymore? That’s unbelievable. But isn’t Ryan also on record now as saying something along the lines that the reason there are so many arm injuries today is that pitchers don’t throw enough? He certainly had some arm issues himself, and he obviously threw too much.
    Good stuff,

  2. I like the line about how in 1972 “Nolan made a daily 180-mile round-trip commute in a borrowed Volkswagen Beetle.” Not a car you imagine Ryan ever being in. And, few people remember him as an Angel. The whole pitcher longevity issue is I think a mystery to some degree: Randy Johnson, for example, also had a lot of injury problems, yet pitched until 46.

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