Domination in the Dome: Nolan Ryan throws his fifth no-hitter

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Alex Coffey

Dick Williams, former manager of the Montreal Expos and a future Hall of Famer, knew Nolan Ryan was capable of the feat before Ryan knew it himself.

After the Expos barely avoided two no-hit bids on Aug. 19 and Sept. 4, Williams predicted that Ryan would have his fifth no-hitter in a matter of weeks.

“It’s only a matter of time before Nolan Ryan gets another no-hitter,” Williams insisted to Associated Press. “When Ryan’s curveball is working, he is untouchable. The way he looked today, it’s just a matter of time.”

Ryan himself, who hadn’t thrown a no-hitter in six years, was not as confident in his endurance.

“It’s hard to believe I got the no-hitter,” Ryan told the Chicago Tribune following his record-setting fifth no-hitter. “It’s the one thing I wanted. I’ve had a shot at it for a long time. At my age, I thought I wouldn’t get it. I don’t have the stamina I used to have. I didn’t challenge guys in later innings. I had really started to wonder if I’d ever get it. I was starting to wonder if it was in the books for me.”

Regardless of his personal beliefs, the 34-year old made history in the Astrodome on Sept. 26, 1981, as the first pitcher to throw five no-hitters. He had previously been tied with southpaw Sandy Koufax with four no-hitters. Ironically, the historic feat occurred against the Dodgers, with heavy reliance on his curveball – both the team and the signature pitch of Koufax.

“He was completely dominating,” Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda said to the media after the game. “He had a curve like Koufax and Herb Score today. He was just tremendous.”

While the comparison were flattering, Ryan was hesitant to group himself with one of the greatest pitchers of all-time.

“I’m excited it’s finally over with. I’m the only one since Koufax who has had a shot at the record,” Ryan said to the Associated Press. “I really don’t compare myself to him. I thought it was a great honor when I broke his strikeout record and I’ve got that same feeling now.”

While he wrestled with control in the first couple of innings, the “Ryan Express” appeared confident for the majority of the game, seeing only one real threat to his no-hitter in the seventh inning when catcher Mike Scioscia launched a long drive to right-center field. Speedy outfielder Terry Puhl put that issue to rest, running it down and making a one-handed catch.

After that, it was smooth sailing for Ryan, as he fanned Reggie Smith, then induced Ken Landreaux to ground out to first and Dusty Baker to ground out to third, to close the ninth inning. He struck out 11, surrendering only three walks.

This cap, worn by Nolan Ryan while pitching his fifth no-hitter on Sept. 26, 1981, is currently on display in the "We Are Baseball" nationwide tour. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

The game wasn’t just important for Ryan’s career, though. The Astros were looking to stay alive in the race for the NL West second half title, and his no-hitter allowed them to move up one and one-half games on the Cincinnati Reds.

“This is by far the most important of my no-hitters,” Ryan said to the Associated Press. “I went into the game feeling like I had to do a good job and this turned into one of the biggest games of the year, My others were with ball clubs that weren’t doing well and I was still young and trying to get established. When it’s all over, this will probably be the one I favor most, being we’re in a pennant race.”

After he recorded the final out, the future Hall of Famer was instantly greeted by his ecstatic teammates. They promptly carried him on their shoulders, lifting him off the field, as Ryan waved his bright orange Astros cap toward the crowd.

That cap, which Ryan wore for the entirety of the no-hitter, is currently on display in the “We Are Baseball” nationwide tour, and will be on the road from March to October, through 2020. Fans will be able to experience the magic of Cooperstown as baseball’s most iconic moments are brought to their backyard. The tour is currently in Bloomington, Minn. until Sept. 29. For more information, visit www.halloffametour.com.

Ryan would pitch for 12 more years, retiring at the age of 46 with 324 wins, 5,714 strikeouts and two more no-hitters.

“He is great,” Reggie Smith, one of Ryan’s final outs, said after the game. “He has to rate with the greats. He’s done it without intimidating people, without knocking them down. He’s done it on sheer determination and a fastball and now he’s learned how to pitch.”

Alex Coffey is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series