Jan 30, 2016

1969 World Champion Mets Pitcher: Nolan Ryan (Part One: The Mets Years- 1966-1969)

Lynn Nolan Ryan was born on January 31st, 1947 in Refugio, Texas, a son to Robert Ryan & Martha Lee Hancock a descendant of John Hancock, signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The Ryan family moved to Alvin, Texas when Nolan was just six weeks old. He began to pitch in Little League & tossed his first no hitter at nine years old. From the ages of 8-18 he learned a strong work ethic, working with his dad who besides working for a local oil company was also a Houston Post distributor.

Young Nolan rolled up & tossed the news papers, strengthening that gifted arm. With the arrival of major league baseball in Houston, Ryan was able to go watch games & it was there he was first mesmerized by the pitching of Sandy Koufax. 

In high school the Ryan stories are legendary, one tells of a game in the first inning where he cracked the lead off mans batting helmet, hit the number two man & broke his arm & had the third hitter refuse to enter the batter's box. When he did give in he struck out on three pitches. After graduating a star pitcher from Alvin High School, the six foot two right hander was signed in the 12th round of the 1965 amateur draft by the New York Mets.

Mets scout Red Murff said Ryan had the best arm he had ever seen in his life. The night before he watched the two hardest throwers in the NL at that time, Jim Maloney & Turk Farrell, Ryan was already faster than both of them.

At first, his fast ball was just over 90 miles an hour, but over the next two years he gained more velocity and threw even harder. He was assigned to the Marion Mets in Virginia in the Rookie League. In 1967 he was 17-4 striking out over 300 batters first in A ball Greenville, then AA Williamsport & finally in New York. At Greenville he went 17-2 with 272 strikeouts in 183 innings of work.

He made his MLB debut at Shea Stadium on September 11th, 1966 coming in relief of Dick Selma in the 6th inning. The catcher behind the plate was John Stephenson who had come in to replace Jerry Grote. The first batter he face was Braves pitcher Pat Jarvis who was also his first career strikeout victim. Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews stepped in and watched a Ryan fast ball whiz by him; he looked at Stephenson saying “what the hell was that?” Mathews was strike out number two.

The Mets lost to the Braves 8-2, with Ryan getting no decision. Ryan also gave up his first career HR that day to non other than Joe Torre.

Ryan would make his first start a week later in Houston. He only pitched in two innings allowing four runs, four hits & three walks although he struck out three, taking the loss. His control was to be a problem early on in his career. In 1967 he only pitched in four games at the minor league level. He served time doing his military duty & was sidelined with an illness.

Ryan returned to the Mets staff in 1968 & got to start the fourth game of the season. It was a thrill for him as, the game was played in Houston Texas, against the Astros. That day he had a fine outing, holding the Astros hitless through five innings. He pitched into the 7th inning, leaving due to a blister. He allowed no runs on just three hits, while striking out eight. The Mets went on to a 4-0 victory.

He pitched well in his next outing as well, it was at Shea Stadium against Claude Osteen & the Los Angeles Dodgers. He allowed two runs in 7 1/3 innings, but took a loss as Osteen outdueled him 3-2. 

In his third game, he allowed just one earned run, but five runs overall in Cincinnati, taking a 5-3 loss to the Reds. In May he won three straight starts; starting out with a Shea win, allowing just three hits to the Phillies, while striking out ten in seven innings of work.

Next, he tossed a complete game three hit, one run victory in St. Louis, against the reigning World Champion Cardinals. On May 7th, Ryan struck out fourteen Reds at home, pitching a four hit, 3-2 win at Shea Stadium. At this point he was 4-2 with one of the league's best ERA's at 1.22 & among the tops in strike outs as well. But the rest of the year didn't go so well, as he went 2-7 the rest of the way. He finsihed out May losing twice to the Atlanta Braves, allowing three runs both times.

In the first game of a June 18th doubleheader, he lost a tough 3-2, nine inning outing to Houston's Denny Lemaster. Ryan struck out twelve Astros in the game, but walked seven as well. In Houston the Astros would beat him up for five runs at the end of the month.

He began July with a debacle against the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he gave up eight earned runs in five innings of work. He went 0-3 in the month, then missed all of August with a blister problem on his pitching finger. Ryan became famous around New York, for using a solution that involved soaking his fingers in pickle brine. He returned in September to pitch just three games out of the bullpen.

On September 8th, he allowed three runs in an 8-1 loss at Wrigley Field, finishing up the game. He ended the year on September 20th, pitching two scoreless innings in Philadelphia.

In 1968 Ryan was 6-9 with a 3.09 ERA. He struck out 134 batters in 134 innings averaging a strike out an inning, in 21 games. Control was still an issue; as he walked 75 batters, threw seven wild pitches & hit four batters. He also served up a dozen long balls. Some batters were scared to death facing Ryan, when he was having control issues, while pitching at such high speeds.

On a personal level in 1968; Ryan married his childhood sweetheart Ruth, and the two would be a team forever. Ruth was a small town Texas girl, like her husband but she eventually moved to New York City to help Nolan with his home sickness & loneliness. The two kept very much to themselves & never quite adapted to the East Coast climate or environment. They never got accustomed to the Big Apple or New York City's City’s fast pace life style.

Ruth always feared for her safety & the thought of raising children in New York was never an option. The Ryan’s became friends with the Koosman's, Jerry & Lavonne. Koosman was also a farm boy from a small town, so the two couples could relate.

Ruth Ryan & Nancy Seaver (Tom's wife) also became good friends, just like their Hall of Fame pitching husbands. The Seaver's certainly were not wild party goers, but they did enjoy the museums, restaurants & arts, New York City has to offer.

That year, Nolan Ryan was also featured in the May 31st, 1968 addition of Life magazine. America was slowly taking notice of what Nation League hitters were calling "an arm that threw harder than Sandy Koufax".

As the 1969 season began, Gil Hodges used Ryan in relief during the month of April. In the second game of the young season, he earned a save against the expansion Montreal Expos, pitching an inning and a half of relief. It was the Mets their first win of the season Amazing season ahead.

After appearing in two losing efforts, as a mop up pitcher, he notched his first win of the year on April 20th. Ryan pitched four 2/3 innings of scoreless relief that day in St. Louis, as the Mets rolled to a 11-3 win.

On April 29h he relieved Jerry Koosman in the 5th inning at Montreal, and went on to complete a 2-0 shutout giving the Mets their first ever win outside the United States. He got his first start of the year on May 3rd, earning no decision at Wrigley Field. He allowed just one run in six innings of work against Phil Regan, who beat New York 3-2. He would miss a month of action returning to a relief role in mid June.

On the next home stand he was back in the starting role, beating Bob Gibson & the St. Louis Cardinals at Shea Stadium. He bested his record to 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA. On June 25th, Ryan struck out ten Phillies batters in just six innings at Connie Mack Stadium. He earned no decision in the 6-5 loss.

On July 1st, he took his first official loss, it came at St. Louis, where he walked seven batters in 5.2 innings of work, allowing three runs. On August 5th he pitched a complete game win, in Cincinnati beating the Reds, allowing just one run, with seven strikeouts.

On August 10th, he came out of the game in the third inning & would miss three weeks of action due to military obligations. He returned at the beginning of September, as the Mets were involved in a heated pennant race with the Chicago Cubs. Ryan earned a relief win against the Phillies on September 7th, when Art Shamsky, Ken Boswell, Tommie Agee & Rod Gaspar all had RBI hits in the 7th & 8th innings.

On September 10th the Amazing Mets took over first place & the next night Ryan took the mound at Shea Stadium. He blew away eleven Montreal Expos, allowing just three hits pitching a complete game three hit, one run game, giving the Mets their sixth straight win. That week he won two games in a four day stretch on the home stand, helping the Mets pass the Chicago Cubs in the pennant race.

At that point he was 6-1 with a 2.95 ERA. Byt as the season winded down, he lost his next two decisions & earned a hold in a relief appearance on September 28th.

Ryan finished the 1969 season at 6-3 with a 3.53 ERA, two complete game wins & one save. He had 92 strikeouts, and it would be the last year, until his final season in 1993 (14 years later) that he would not pass the 100 strike out mark. His control was better; in 89 innings he still walked 53, but only hit one batter & threw just one wild pitch.

Post Season: His biggest day in the spot light as a New York Met came on October 6th, 1969, in Game #3 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium. Ryan came in to relieve starter Gary Gentry in the 3rd inning, with the Mets down 2-0.

The Met bats quickly responded, as Tommie Agee & Ken Boswell hit HRs, putting New York ahead 3-2. Ryan then gave up a two run HR to Orlando Cepeda, which gave the Braves the lead. But it didn't last long, Nolan Ryan led off the 5th inning with a base hit & then rookie Wayne Garrett responded, with a two run HR off future Met pitcher, George Stone. The Mets never looked back, they would score a total of seven runs to support Ryan.

On the mound he was spectacular through the end of the game. From the 5th inning on he allowed just two hits the rest of the way, as no one got past second base. In the top of the 9th inning, Bob Aspromonte flew out to centerfield to start the inning. Then Felix Millan grounded to short stop for out number two. Next, Tony Gonzales hit a ground ball to Wayne Garrett, he threw to first baseman Ed Kranepool for the last out. The Amazing Mets were going to the World Series.

Catcher Jerry Grote ran to the mound to congratulate Ryan, then the two ran for their lives to the dugout, as the wild Shea fans stormed the field.

Ryan earned his first post season win, as he pitched seven innings, allowed two runs on three hits, two walks & struck out seven. At the plate that day, he even got two base hits, going 2-4 and scoring a run.

In the 1969 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, Ryan once again came in to relieve Gary Gentry. This time it also was Game #3 & also at Shea Stadium. He walked into a bases loaded jam in the 7th inning, with the Mets ahead 4-0.

Mark Belanger was on third, Dave May on second & Don Buford on first. Centerfielder Paul Blair then ripped a screaming liner to right center field. Met fans held their breath, but once again they saw Tommie Agee come up with another one of the greatest catches in World Series history.

It was the second spectacular catch Agee made on the day, making it all look more Amazing. Ryan took a sigh of relief & walked off the mound. He returned in the 8th to retire the side in order, striking out Boog Powell & Brooks Robinson.

In the bottom of the 8th Ed Kranepool hit a HR to make it 5-0 Mets. In the top of the 9th, Ryan got into another bases loaded jam with two outs, as he walked Belanger & Buford, while serving up a single to pinch hitter Clay Dalrymple. Gil Hodges paced the dugout but stuck with Ryan. He bored down & got Paul Blair to strike out looking on a blazing fastball.

The Mets now had a two games to one lead & Shea Stadium was ecstatic. Once again Grote ran out to congradulate his pitcher, as the team followed. The Amazing Mets went on to win the World Series, it would be the only time Ryan would ever play in a World Series as a pitcher.

He enjoyed some of the success that came with being a champion in New York. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, along with the rest of his team to sing " You Gotta Have Heat".

Ryan was visibly shy as Tom Seaver jokingly nudged him as the camera passed him with his name of the screen. All in all the simple Ryan just wanted to go back to Texas & have a quiet off season with his wife.

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