Ryan was born in Refugio, Texas and grew up in the Houston suburb of Alvin, where he resides to this day. He developed his dazzling fastball as a high school pitcher in Texas, which impressed the New York Mets enough to draft him in 1965 and promote him to the major leagues late in 1966.
However, Ryan struggled for a number of years and was even sent back to the minor leagues a few times because of his inability to find the strike zone. He didn't make the majors for good until the 1968 season, and even then was unable to crack an outstanding Mets pitching staff led by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.
Ryan did, however, give people a taste of what was to come in the 1969 World Series, when he entered Game 3 in relief of a struggling starter and shut down the powerful Baltimore Orioles for nearly three innings. Ryan's work enabled the Mets to hang on to win that game, and they went on to upset the Orioles in five games.
Ryan truly blossomed as a pitcher after being traded to the California Angels in 1972. Even though the Angels were a bad team and remained one for most of his time there, he began winning between 19 and 22 games a season regularly. In 1973, he set his first record when he struck out 383 batters in one season, eclipsing Sandy Koufax' old mark by one. This record was made even more impressive by the fact that he achieved it in the first year of the designated hitter in the American League; if AL pitchers had still been hitting, Ryan would almost certainly have had over 400 strikeouts that season.
He threw two no-hitters in 1973, added a third in 1974 and a fourth in 1975, tying another of Koufax' records. He led the league in strikeouts seven times in the 1970s and once struck out 19 in a single game, tying a record which wasn't broken until 1986.
Ryan signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Houston Astros in 1980, in which he became the first player to make $1 million a year. He got his second taste of postseason play that fall, but the Astros were stopped one game short of the World Series.
On September 26, 1981, Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter to finally break Koufax' mark. That season, he won the National League ERA title with a miserly 1.69 mark.
After that, Ryan then settled into having a long string of good, but not great seasons, highlighted by his breaking Walter Johnson's all-time strikeout record on April 27, 1983, with his 3,509th whiff.
In 1987, Ryan had one of the most bizarre seasons in baseball history. He was by far the most dominant pitcher in the National League, leading the league in ERA (2.76) and strikeouts (270) at the age of 40. However, Ryan received horrendous offensive support all season, and finished with a record of 8-16. The poor record most likely cost him the Cy Young Award, an honor he contended for many times but never won.
He left Houston in a contract dispute after the 1988 season and joined the Texas Rangers, back in the American League. Many observers, keeping in mind that the aging Ryan had been pitching home games in the air-conditioned Astrodome, thought he would struggle by having to pitch outdoors in the oppressive Texas heat. However, just the opposite happened. With a better team behind him, Ryan had a number of fine seasons for the Rangers.
In 1989, he won 16 games and led the league with 301 strikeouts. Two years later, at 44, he finished fifth in the league in ERA (2.91) and third in strikeouts (203), to again earn Cy Young Award votes.
He threw his sixth no-hitter in 1990 and his seventh in 1991, and won his 300th game in 1990.
Before the 1993 season, Ryan announced his retirement, effective at the end of that season. His arm finally gave out in August 1993, when he tore a tendon in his arm, ending his career several weeks prematurely.
He ranks first all-time in strikeouts (5714), fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.56), fifth in innings pitched (5386), second in games started (773), seventh in shutouts (61) and tied for 12th in wins (324). He also ranks high on the list for two "negative" records. Because he was wild as a young pitcher, he piled up the walks and ranks first all-time in walks allowed with 2795, and he also ranks third all-time in losses, with 292.
Nolan Ryan was elected to the United States Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999, in his first year of eligibility.
His current business interests include ownership of two minor league teams--the Round Rock Express, which currently plays in the Class AA Texas League, and the Edmonton Trappers, a Class AAA team in the Pacific Coast League. In 2005, the Trappers will move to Round Rock and take the Express name, while the current Express will move to Corpus Christi, Texas and receive a new name.