By Rob Goldman, AngelsWin.com Historical Writer -
Asked to identify the best pitcher in baseball, Angels broadcaster Don Drysdale replied, “Nolan Ryan has the capabilities, but he’s still a thrower. It’s that way with all young pitchers. It was that way for Sandy Koufax and with me. You start out as a thrower, and then one day a light bulb just pops in your head and you become a pitcher. When that light pops for Nolan, he’ll be twice as good as he is now.”
The light flickered off and on over the next few weeks, but it didn’t pop. Between May 19 and July 11, Ryan went 5–8, with 121 strikeouts in 107 innings. He also gave myriad interviews, made numerous covert trips to the weight room, learned how to stretch his leg over the back of his neck, caught thousands of fungos off the bat of Jimmie Reese, and threatened Johnny Vander Meer’s record for consecutive no-hitters.
A loss to the A’s on July 3 put Ryan below .500 for the first time all season. He bested Cleveland 3–1 four days later, but his fastball was soggier than Lake Erie and he was pounded for 11 hits. “That’s what happens when you don’t have [expletive],” a discouraged Ryan told reporters. Despite striking out 11 over six innings in his next start, Ryan’s six walks kept him in trouble, and he was slammed 7–1, his eighth loss in 12 decisions. The Angels were in third place, 4.5 games behind Oakland, and with a big weekend series coming up in Detroit, Ryan knew he had to rediscover his groove now if he was going to help the team and overtake Koufax’s record.
A few hours before the game at Tiger Stadium on July 15, Ryan found out that Jeff Torborg had a broken finger and would be replaced behind the plate by his former roommate, Art “Caveman” Kusnyer. The two hadn’t worked together in weeks, so Ryan took Kusnyer aside and went over the signs. “Fingers in the front of the hat for a curve and on the back for a fastball,” Ryan told him. “You can flash whatever you want, but those are the signs we’ll follow.” Ryan’s pregame bullpen session was impressive. His fastball was smoking, and at one point Ryan turned to Tom Morgan and said with a big grin, “With the kind of stuff I have, if I ever get another chance to throw a no-hitter, it will be today.”
About 3,000 miles to the west, Ruth Ryan was having the exact same thought. She was at the Smiths’ house again, and watching Nolan she had a feeling he had “something special going.” Art Kusnyer joined that club after Ryan’s first pitch to Jim Northrup dropped a foot, ricocheted off Kusnyer’s shin guard, and struck umpire Ron Luciano on the right knee. “Ball!” cried Luciano. “How can it be a ball if it hit you on the knee!” Ryan barked. “It came square over the middle of the plate!” He’s gonna pitch a no-hitter, Kusnyer thought. I could hardly see that pitch! After Northrup flew out to right, Ryan got Mickey Stanley looking, then walked Gates Brown. After Norm Cash struck out to end the inning, Tigers catcher Duke Sims asked his teammate how Ryan was throwing.
“Don’t go up there!” Cash muttered. In the dugout before the second inning, Ryan told Kusnyer that some guy in the upper deck was stealing his signs and relaying them to the Tigers bench. “He’s rolling up his pants leg for a fastball and letting it down for a curve,” Ryan said. The catcher looked at his battery mate incredulously. “How the hell can you see that?” he asked. “There are 45,000 people out there. What’s this guy wearing, an orange suit or something?” Ryan changed the signs anyway. The next inning, he forgot the sequence, and his third pitch crossed up Kusnyer. The ball hit Luciano,
this time on his left knee.
Kusnyer called time and went to the mound. “You need to get these signs straight or I’m going to end up with this friggin’ mask twisted around my head!” the catcher said. “From now on I’m calling the signs and you can shake me off, okay?” Five of the six ensuing Tiger batters went down on strikes. Taking it upon himself to fluster Ryan, Detroit manager Billy Martin planted himself on the front step of the dugout and hurled insults toward the mound. Ryan was impervious, striking out the first Tiger to start the third inning. At that point, Martin had seen enough. “Martin had the clubhouse guy go upstairs, get 27 numbers, and put them in a hat,” recalls reliever Ed Farmer, who was in the Detroit bullpen at the time. “He then ordered everybody on the bench to put in $5 and pick out a number predicting how many strikeouts Ryan was going to get.
“This is in the third inning. The guys in the bullpen started pulling numbers in the fourth.. The bullpen was down the left-field line, but I had to come down to the bench and pull a number.” In the third inning, Vada Pinson’s sacrifice fly gave the Angels a 1–0 lead. Ryan fanned the side again in the fourth, added two more Ks in the fifth, and then fanned the side again in the seventh. With two innings left, he had a total of 16 Ks, and the Tigers were still hitless. At the time, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton shared the major league record with 19 Ks, and Bob Feller held the AL mark with 18.
In the eighth inning the Angels scored five runs. Their long at-bat forced Ryan to sit on the bench longer then he referred, and by the time he returned to the mound in the bottom of the inning, his right arm had stiffened up. “I knew with the layoff I was going to lose some movement on the ball,” he said later. “Pitching in the bottom of the eighth, I didn’t have the same stuff.” With some of the edge gone from his fastball, Detroit hitters started timing his pitches. Ryan mixed in an occasional curveball to keep them off- balance. He got through the eighth unscathed, but with no strikeouts. In the ninth, Ryan got two strikes on leadoff hitter Mickey Stanley, who then grounded out to Meoli.
The next batter, Gates Brown, lined a screamer toward the 5-6 hole that seemed a sure hit, but out of nowhere Meoli, who’d been shading Brown to his right, threw up his glove and snagged the ball for the putout. “Brown’s line drive had base hit written all over it,” recalls Meoli, “but Nolan was throwing so hard that I had positioned myself a little bit to the opposite field, and the line drive came to me. I jumped as high as I could to catch it. It turned out to be a big play in the game.” Detroit first baseman Norm Cash was, like Ryan, an avid outdoorsman.
In a game against the Tigers a year before, Ryan got a base hit, and as he stood on first base Cash started chatting him up about cattle and hunting. Totally distracted, Ryan was easily picked off. The next time they faced each other, Ryan threw a pitch that hit Cash so hard the big first baseman thought his arm was broken. (“Don’t worry about it, kid,” Cash told Ryan later. “It’s nothing a little ice and bourbon won’t heal.”)
In a subsequent game in Detroit, Cash got a hit off Ryan with a man on second. Backing up a possible play at the plate, Ryan noticed that Cash’s bat, lying in the grass, had a ring on top of it. He asked the umpire to check to see if it was corked. The ump did, it was, and the bat was thrown out of the game. Now the last man standing between Ryan and his second no-hitter, Cash was already plenty irked. When he’d come up to bat in the sixth, Ryan urged umpire Ron Luciano to check Cash’s bat. It was clean, and Cash grounded out. Heading back to the dugout, he fumed, “That friggin’ Ryan’s throwing that hard, and Luciano’s checking my bat! Why the hell bother? I can’t hit the SOB anyway!” As Cash arrived at the plate in the ninth, he asked Luciano, “Want to check my bat now?”
It was a strange-looking one, all right. “We had this table in the clubhouse that had candy and the pass list on it,” said Farmer. “Before the inning started, Cash had ripped one of its legs off, and instead of a bat, that’s what he carried out there.” By now even Luciano was laughing. “Get that thing outta here!” he ordered Cash. “You can’t use it!” “Why not?” said Cash. “I can’t hit with my bat. What do I have to lose?” Using a regulation bat, Cash hit a weak pop-up in no man’s land behind shortstop and third. Once again, it was Rudy Meoli to the rescue. “I got a good jump on it,” recalls Meoli, “but back then Detroit’s infield was higher then the outfield, and when you left the dirt you actually ran down a two-foot slope. There was always a chance that you would fall down because of the elevation change, but I was able to make the catch.” Ryan had his second no-hitter. This one excited him even more than the first one.
“I had better stuff today then in Kansas City,” Ryan told reporters. “I had a better fastball and a better curve. In fact, the curve was probably the best it’s ever been.” The proof was as plain as Caveman Kusnyer’s swollen glove hand. “He’s parading around the clubhouse showing his hand to everybody,” Ryan told Ruth in his call home. “It’s so swollen his fingers are bent.” “I’ve never seen anybody throw that hard,” lamented three-time strikeout victim Dick McAuliffe in the losers’ clubhouse. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen, bar none.” Duke Sims, who’d also whiffed three times, said “That’s the hardest I’ve ever seen anybody throw. It was no contest. He just had me overmatched.” “Super stuff,” muttered Gates Brown. “Super stuff…” Ryan always maintained that his second no-hitter in Detroit was his most overpowering performance. Anybody present that day would probably agree.
© 2014 Rob Goldman, Nolan Ryan, The Making of a Pitcher
Book signing, May 24, B&N Costa Mesa, South Coast Plaza-1:00