Nolan Ryan becomes baseball’s first million dollar man

Written by: Matt Kelly

Early on in his legendary Hall of Fame career, fireball pitcher Nolan Ryan, born and bred in Texas, told the press that he would buy his own bus ticket to Houston if it meant he could pitch for his hometown Astros.

On Nov. 19, 1979, Ryan may have been able to buy his own private jet after the Astros signed him to a four-year, $4.5 million free agent contract. As a sign of changing times, the deal made Ryan the highest-paid player in baseball history and owner of the game’s first million-dollar-a-year contract.

“I’m delighted to be in Houston,” Ryan said that day. “And the one thing I’m interested in is helping bring a pennant to this city.”

By 1979, Ryan was baseball’s strikeout king and the game’s most intimidating pitcher. Ryan’s fastball – officially clocked at 100.9 miles per hour by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1974 – at times traveled so fast that it was tough for batters to see it, let alone predict where it was going.

“I’ve never been afraid at the plate but Mr. Ryan makes me uncomfortable,” Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson once said. “He’s the only pitcher who’s ever made me consider wearing a helmet with an ear flap.”

After some growing pains with the New York Mets, Ryan blossomed as a pitcher with the California Angels. From 1972-79 the “Ryan Express” led the American League in strikeouts seven times (including a modern-era record 383 in 1973) and threw four no-hitters, equaling Sandy Koufax for the most in history.

But when Ryan suffered an injury-shortened season in 1979, Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi was hesitant to re-sign the 32-year old pitcher.

“All I need to replace Ryan is hire two 8-7 pitchers,” Bavasi said, referring to Ryan’s 16-14 record that season. The Angels allowed Ryan to declare himself a free agent.

As a boy, Ryan grew up in Alvin, Texas, 26 miles from the Astrodome. In November 1979, the Astros signed the hometown hero to the game’s biggest contract, eclipsing the four-year, $3.2 million contract that Pete Rose signed with the Philadelphia Phillies one year before.

“We have established ourselves as a first-rate club,” said Astros owner Tal Smith. “And we feel the addition of Ryan puts the Astros a step closer to that day when we will win the pennant.”

Neither Smith nor Bavasi could have predicted that Ryan was merely at the halfway point of his storied career. Though he did not lead Houston to the National League pennant, coming up short in the 1980 and 1986 NLCS, Ryan captured four more strikeout titles with the Astros and Texas Rangers and earned three more All-Star selections. He also threw three more no-hitters, including his seventh and final no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays in 1991 at age 44.

Ryan continued pitching until the fall of 1993, when he retired at the incredible age of 46. He finished with a record 5,714 strikeouts – 839 more than second-place Randy Johnson.

In 1999, Ryan received the second-highest total percentage of Baseball Writers’ Association of America votes (98.79 percent) in history and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I had the pleasure of batting against some of the greatest pitchers in the game, but I consider Nolan Ryan one of the tops,” said Hall of Famer and home run king Hank Aaron. “He was a winner on and off the field."

Matt Kelly was the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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