Nolan Ryan's 19-Strikeout Game Ball

Nolan Ryan's 19-Strikeout Game Ball

by John Guillon

It was an abnormally cool night in Anaheim, August 20, 1974, as the lowly Detroit Tigers were in town to face the even more lowly Angels.

On the hill for Detroit? Mickey Lolich – the MVP of the 1968 World Series. Just a couple of seasons removed from his prime – he won 25 games in ‘71 and 22 in ‘72- Lolich’s career was in decline. He lost 21 games and posted a 4.15 ERA in 1974. He led the league in losses as well as earned runs and home runs allowed.  

The guy taking the mound for the home team? Nolan freaking Ryan. If you were there that chilly August night, you would have assumed you were seeing Ryan firmly in the middle of his prime. He was in his seventh full season – he got a cup of coffee with the Mets in 1966 before returning to the majors for good in ’68 and pitched the following 25 seasons.

Ryan was on his way to leading the majors in innings pitched, batters faced, walks and strikeouts.

Sitting there in the stands that day, could anyone has convinced you that if you went ahead and bought a ticket for the Angels game on Sept. 17, 1993 – more than 19 years later – you could see the same pitcher take the mound for the Rangers?

The list of mind-boggling Nolan Ryan stats is quite extensive, but try this one on for size – in the history of Major League Baseball there have been 18 games in which a pitcher has struck out at least 19 batters. Nolan Ryan had three of them in 1974 alone. Two of those came in August of that year, he struck out 19 Red Sox in Boston on August 8.

But let’s return to Anaheim, with a firecracker hot Ryan firing fastballs for the fairly feckless Angels. 

That night, in addition to Ryan and Lolich, 21 other ball players took the field. None of them were pitchers.

Both Lolich and Ryan went the distance in an 11-inning pitchers’ duel, facing 41 batters each.

The game ended 1-0 when Lolich’s Tigers managed to scratch a run home off of the Angels’ fireballer. Ben Oglivie smacked a two-out single to center and stole second. Bill Freehan drove the winning run home when he knocked a two-two pitch to right and brough Oglivie home.

The Angels tried to rally in the bottom of the inning as Bob Heise led off with a single and Rudy Meoli sacrificed him to second. Bobby Valentine couldn’t advance the runner with a grounder to third for the second out. After Lolich intentionally walked Frank Robinson, Bob Oliver flew out to right to end the game.

Lolich’s line for the game kind of pedestrian in what – on paper – appeared to be such a pitchers’ duel. He scattered 10 hits and two walks over 11 innings. He struck out four.

Ryan, of course, struck out 19 but walked five. He allowed only 4 hits but took the hard-luck loss.

That season was the second in a row Ryan would pitch more than 300 innings, the second in a row he would face more than 1,350 batters. He would pitch another 19 seasons and rack up a collection of statistics that stand alone in the history of the game.

And so, that brings us to the issue of Ryan’s legacy within the game. Grappling with the idea of that much sustained power, how do we properly appreciate a right arm apparently made of oak and tire rubber and pure, unadulterated cantankerousness.

Speaking at the GroveWood Baseball Museum, All-Star Dodger and Yankee Steve Sax – whose first major league appearance came 15 years after Ryans’ and who retired a year after Ryan – said he’s stood near the plate as today’s fireballers light up the radar gun, posting numbers that seemed unreachable just a decade or two ago.

First, he explained they measure speed differently now. In Ryan’s day they measured speed at the plate. Today, they measure the velocity coming out of the pitcher’s hand.

He said Ryan’s speed by today’s measurement would top them all.

“I’ve never seen anybody throw harder,” he said.

It is impossible to know with any certainty who is the greatest pitcher in the history of the game, but any real conversation must include Ryan. There may be some who had higher peaks. There were some who won more consistently. But those who can count themselves as Ryan’s peers is a decidedly short list.

The GroveWood Baseball Museum has on display several items connected to Ryan and his career. There’s a ball from the night he retired. There’s a satin California Angels jacket that would have been perfect for the nights in Anaheim when the temperature was unseasonably cool.

And there’s a ball – kept by Lolich for years and acquired from his estate – from the night he went toe-to-toe with the great Nolan Ryan and came out on top. The signed ball commemorates the night Lolich faced an opposing pitcher who struck out 19 men and gave up only a single run over the course of 11 innings, and still managed to best one of the greatest off all time. 

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