Greetings again from the darkness. Having been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember, I can list the handful of players that I got to see play in person who left me in utter awe of their talent. Lynn Nolan Ryan was definitely one of them, so when I saw Bradley Jackson’s documentary listed on the SXSW schedule, I immediately sent my RSVP.
Jackson opens with the numbers: 7 no-hitters, 100.9 mph, 5714 career strikeouts, and 51 Major League Baseball records. Big Tex. The Ryan Express. If he wasn’t flesh and blood, Nolan Ryan could be the lead character in a graphic novel. An intimidating player with a Texas drawl borne of his upbringing in tiny Alvin, Texas. We see a fuzzy clip of Nolan pitching in high school, and his wife Ruth drives us by his childhood home. As a long-time fan, I’m relieved to see that Ruth Ryan is finally exposed as a guiding force in his life and career. Their first date is recalled … watching ROME ADVENTURE (Suzanne Pleshette, Troy Donahue) … as is their second – a baseball game to see Sandy Koufax pitch. Ruth explains that Nolan had no aspirations of a professional baseball career, and instead was determined to become a veterinarian. It was Mets’ scout Red Murff who changed the trajectory of animals and hitters everywhere when he convinced the team to draft Nolan.
Jackson includes interviews with players such as Pete Rose, Randy Johnson, and Jerry Grote (his catcher with the Mets). Rose talked about how difficult it was to face Nolan, while Johnson labels him the most intimidating pitcher of all-time. Others interviewed include Ryan’s biographer Rob Goldman and former President George W Bush, who was one of the team owners when Ryan signed with the Texas Rangers.
Some terrific archival footage shows Nolan’s World Series contribution to the 1969 Miracle Mets, his subsequent trade to Gene Autry’s (“The Singing Cowboy”) California Angels, and his early no-hitters and dominance. We learn about the impact of Tom Morgan, his first “real” pitching coach, and later, Ryan’s stunning free agent contract with the Houston Astros – making him the first athlete to sign a million-dollar contract. Jackson even includes the replay of the moment in 1973 when Norm Cash came to the plate with a table leg instead of bat to face Ryan during his second career no-hitter.
More footage is shown of Ryan’s 5th and 6th no-hitters, including Terry Puhl’s running catch. What a fun moment it is when Mr. Puhl proves that, even to this day, he still has the clip of that catch on his iPhone. And yes, it was the Astros’ blunder of inviting Nolan to take a ‘hometown’ pay cut, that drove him to sign with the cross-state rival Texas Rangers and write the final chapter of his storied baseball career. What followed was his 300th win, his 5000th strikeout, and remarkably, his 7th no-hitter. Of course, one of the most famous events of Ryan’s career occurred in 1993 when Robin Ventura charged the mound against the 46-year-old Ryan. What’s fascinating is how this is tied back to a previous incident with Dave Winfield years ago. Winfield discusses what happened, while Ryan admits to the impact.
The baseball content served up here is enough for any fan, but the real insight comes from the talks with Ruth and Nolan and their family members. Sure, he spent 27 years in the league and delivered a humble Hall of Fame induction speech (which is included here), but at the core of the player is the man with values … the man Ruth chose so many years ago. The kids and grandkids speak of Nolan and Ruth as role models, and we witness firsthand the difference between the Hall of Fame pitcher and the man fishing on the riverbank or at the head of the table for family meals. We have Red Murff and Tom Morgan to thank for the pitching, Ruth Ryan to thank for the man, and Bradley Jackson to thank for this profile.