Nolan Ryan eclipses Walter Johnson’s strikeout record

Written by: Kevin Stiner

On April 27, 1983, Nolan Ryan still had 10 seasons left in his big league playing future.

But on that day, Ryan surpassed a career record that many thought would take a full career to approach.

Against the Montreal Expos, the 36-year-old Ryan – then in his 17th big league season – passed Walter Johnson on the all-time strikeout list, recording the 3,509th punch out of his career.

Ryan began the year on the disabled list for the first 21 days of the season, delaying what seemed to be inevitable, and would need three outings to tally up the 14 overall strikeouts he needed to eclipse Johnson’s five-decades-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.”

Baseball from Nolan Ryan's 3,509th career strikeout. B-145-83 (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

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, who was up next following Blackwell. “But I had been in the tunnel for three innings, so I didn’t know where he was.”

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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 correctly predicted 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 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 95 years.

Although it was later discovered that Johnson’s strikeout total was one off, giving him 3,509, at this time 33 years ago Ryan was crowned the strikeout king.

Kevin Stiner was a Public Relations intern for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum