Any time the name Nolan Ryan is muttered in sports bars around the world there are sure to be plenty of people familiar with the Texan. Some will remember Nolan Ryan as the strikeout king. Many will remember Nolan Ryan as the only man with seven no-hitters. Some will remember Nolan Ryan for the time he whooped Robin Ventura’s ass. But Nolan Ryan has another feather in his cap. Nolan Ryan was the first Major League Baseball player to be paid a million dollars a year.
Nolan Ryan’s pitching career began with the New York Mets but Ryan was finding it hard to break into the starting rotation that was led by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Nolan Ryan tried to make some noise by tying the Mets team record for strikeouts in a game. Unfortunately Tom Seaver spoiled it by breaking the record just four days later. Nolan Ryan got so little playing time in New York that he was only 10 – 14 when he went to Mets management and asked to be traded.
Apparently when Nolan Ryan asked Mets management to trade him they must’ve thought he said, “Please trade me, a really talented player, for nothing good,” because that’s what the Mets did when they traded Nolan Ryan and three other players to the California Angels for Jim Fergosi. In his very first season in California Nolan Ryan led the league with 329 strikeouts. In the next five seasons Nolan Ryan would notch even more strikeouts than that three times.
Nolan Ryan’s numbers in California continued to impress. In 1973 Nolan Ryan broke the Major League Baseball for strikeouts in one season, beating Sandy Koufax by one. Nolan Ryan threw no-hitters that season, another one in 1974 and a fourth in 1975, tying Sandy Koufax with four no-hitters. In 1974 Nolan Ryan also tied Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton for strikeouts in a game.
In eight seasons with the California Angels, Nolan Ryan led the American League in strikeouts seven times. Considering all the feats he had reached Nolan Ryan thought it was reasonable to go to Angels General Manager, Buzzie Bavasi, and ask to be the first Major League Baseball player to be paid $1 million per year. Bavasi refused to pay Nolan Ryan $1 million per year, saying that Nolan Ryan was just a flashy pitcher with a .500 record, a theory that many Nolan Ryan haters still believe.
After you’ve broken the single season strikeout record, single game strikeout record and the record for most no-hitters somebody is going to pay you what you want. Sure enough the Houston Astros were willing to make Nolan Ryan the first one million dollar man in Major League Baseball history.
Right away Nolan Ryan would pay off for Houston. In the first nationally televised game of the year, Nolan Ryan hit a three run homerun off of Don Sutton. Nolan Ryan would also record his 3,000th strikeout in his first season with Houston. Nolan Ryan would go on to have other great accomplishments including seven total no-hitters, the ERA title in 1981 and a 2 hit complete game in the 1981 NLDS but his numbers weren’t quite as good as they were in California.
As I mentioned before, many Nolan Ryan haters say he wasn’t nearly as good as people give credit. They usually cite his .526 winning percentage and the fact that he never won a Cy Young as reasons he isn’t that great. I’m sure a lot of those people would also say Nolan Ryan didn’t deserve to be the first one million dollar man.
Maybe Nolan Ryan is overrated to some point and maybe there were pitchers better than him, that deserved to be paid one million dollars first, but I don’t think you can argue that Nolan Ryan wasn’t worth one million dollars a year. Even though Nolan Ryan barely had a winning percentage and never won a Cy Young he could strike out ten or fifteen batters any given night and you never knew when Ryan might pitch a no-hitter, one hitter or shut out. Any pitcher that can put you in that position to win that often deserves to be one of the highest paid players in baseball.