HOUSTON -- Nolan Ryan had a great admiration growing up for Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers' Hall of Fame lefty who capped his career with a brilliant six-year stretch that was about as dominant as any pitcher has been in Major League history.
Ryan, who was reared about 30 miles south of Houston in the rural town of Alvin, Texas, was a budding young power pitcher himself when Koufax retired at the age of 30 in 1966 -- the same year Ryan broke into the Major Leagues with the Mets at age 19.
When he retired, Koufax's record of throwing four no-hitters was believed to be unreachable, but Ryan matched it by throwing four no-no's with the Angels in a 25-month span from 1973-75. By the time the 1981 season rolled around, Ryan -- in his second year with the Astros -- thought his no-hit days were behind him at age 34.
Game to RememberNolan Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter in September 1981 at the Astrodome.
Nolan Ryan Facts and Figures
- Full name: Lynn Nolan Ryan.
- Game to Remember: Sept. 26, 1981 (Astros 5, Dodgers 0).
- Nickname: Ryan Express.
- Jersey number: 34.
- Primary Position: SP.
- Bats/Throws: Right/Right.
- Born: Jan., 31, 1947.
- Birthplace: Refugio, Texas.
- Major League debut: Sept. 11, 1966.
- Years in Major Leagues: 27.
- Years with Astros: 9 (1980-88).
- Other teams: Mets (1966-71), Angels (1972-79) and Rangers (1989-93).
- Key stats with Houston: 106-94 record, 3.13 ERA, 38 complete games, 13 shutouts, 1,866 strikeouts in 1,854 2/3 innings, 282 starts.
- Claim to fame: He struck out more batters (5,714) and thrown more no-hitters (seven) than anyone else in Major League history.
- Did you know? Ryan hit the first of his two career home runs in his first game with the Astros on April 12, 1980, hitting it off future Hall of Famer Don Sutton of the Dodgers.
- What's he doing now?Ryan is owner and team president of the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers. He also co-owns the Triple-A Round Rock Express (Rangers) and Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks (Astros), as well as staying active in the cattle and beef industry.
"I grew up a Sandy Koufax fan, and he was the pitcher that I looked up to -- and still to this day think he was as overpowering of a pitcher that I ever saw throw," Ryan said. "I took a lot of pride in the fact we were tied for four [no-hitters] and to be able to surpass that, I get a lot of pride and satisfaction out of that."
Ryan threw his record fifth no-hitter on Sept. 26, 1981, on a Saturday afternoon in the Astrodome against Koufax's former team, the Dodgers. He walked three batters and struck out 11 in the Astros' 5-0 win, getting Dusty Baker to ground out to third base for the final out in NBC's "Game of the Week."
The record no-hitter came against a Dodgers team that went on to win the World Series that year, the only one of Ryan's seven no-hitters that came against the club that went on to win it all.
Ryan had the kind of stuff -- the 100-mph-plus fastball -- that made him a threat to throw a no-hitter each time out, but his curveball was terrific on that day.
"You never know about those kinds of days," Ryan said. "Things have to go right, and normally you have good stuff and you're making your pitches. That's the way I looked at that game. I had a good breaking ball. If I look back at what I call high-strikeout games, it's not only because I had a good fastball, but because I had a good breaking ball and was throwing it for a high percentage of strikes. That runs pretty true in that game."
Of course, almost every no-hitter has a moment where everyone has to hold their breath to see if a play will be made defensively. For Ryan, that came on the final out of the seventh, when Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia hit a line drive to right-center field that Terry Puhl ran underneath and caught.
The rest was easy for Ryan, who retired the final six batters he faced. And when third baseman Art Howe threw across the diamond to first baseman Denny Walling for the final out, Walling lifted the ball into the air before the Astros mobbed Ryan.
Ryan went on to throw two more no-hitters with the Rangers (1990 and '91), but no-hitter No. 5 was perhaps his most meaningful, because he had surpassed the great Koufax.
"When I threw the fifth, there was so much time between the fourth and fifth, I thought that part of my career was behind me," Ryan said.