On this day in 1989, Nolan Ryan of the Texas Rangers becomes the first pitcher in major league history to register 5,000 career strikeouts. Ryan would go on to rack up a total of 5,714 strikeouts, over 1,500 more than his closest competition.
Lynn Nolan Ryan, Jr. was born January 31, 1947, in Refugio, Texas and raised in Alvin, southeast of Houston. As a high school sophomore, he was scouted by Red Murff of the New York Mets. Ryan’s coach regaled Murff with tales of the young pitcher’s intimidating fastballs, so powerful they had broken catchers’ bones. Murff was impressed–his report said Ryan had the “best arm I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Nolan joined the Mets in 1968, and was soon a highly regarded fireballer. In what is often pointed to as one of the most short-sighted moves in baseball history, the Mets traded Ryan to the Angels for third baseman Jim Fregosi after the 1971 season. With the Angels, Ryan struck out a total of 383 batters in 1973, setting a new major league record. Ryan migrated to the National League after the 1979 season and pitched for the Houston Astros from 1980 to 1988. He then joined the American League’s Rangers prior to the 1989 season.
A fan favorite, Ryan was 42 years old and a 21-year major league veteran in 1989, but continued to deliver consistently powerful pitching. He was 14-7 coming into the game on August 22, with 219 strikeouts, and needed just six more to reach the 5,000-strikout milestone. Rickey Henderson led off the top of the fifth inning with Ryan sitting on 4,999. Henderson, as he did so often in his long career–he retired as the all-time walks leader–worked the count full, fouling off two pitches at a 3-2 count before swinging at and missing a low, 96-mile-per-hour fastball. After the game, Henderson told The New York Times, ”It was an honor to be the 5,000th. As Davey Lopes says, ‘If he ain’t struck you out, you ain’t nobody.’ ”
Ryan had requested before the game that play not be stopped to honor him. Instead, after the fifth inning, Ryan was saluted by President George H.W. Bush in a videotaped message. (The president’s son George W. Bush was then the owner of the Rangers.)
Despite a typically solid performance by Ryan, who had 13 strikeouts for the day and allowed only five hits and two walks, the Rangers lost the game 2-0. Ryan finished the season with a 16-10 record and a 3.20 ERA., and led the American League in strikeouts with 301. It was the 10th of 11 times in his 27-year career that Ryan led his league in strikeouts.
Ryan is most famous for his record seven no-hitters; the last came in 1991 when he was 44 years old.