I was born in Refugio, Texas, on January 31, 1947, the youngest of six children. When I was only six weeks old, the family moved east to Alvin. The oil company my father worked for transferred his job to that area. So that’s where we settled, where I grew up, and where I still live today.
My brother, Robert, was something of a hero to me, being a few years older and more advanced in athletics. I’d hang around with Robert and his friends, shag flies for them, sometimes get into a game when they were shy a player. I’d practice a lot with Robert in our backyard. We would pitch to each other. He’d catch me, and I’d catch him.
Some people claim that I developed my arm throwing the Houston Post. That was not the case. It was a short throw from a car, and I made the throw backhanded with my left hand while I steered my 1952 Chevy with my right. But I did develop the knack of being able to roll and tie fifty newspapers in just about five minutes, and that probably helped me develop strong fingers and wrists.
We got our first TV set, a Philco, in 1953, and I remember watching the “Game of the Week” with Dizzy Dean. He was colorful. That was the only baseball we got except what you heard on the radio. Major league baseball was far removed. The only team you could pick up was the St. Louis Cardinals on KMOX.
But when major league baseball came to Houston later on, I really got into the habit of following Colt .45 games. And I would lie in bed on those hot summer nights, listening to the radio and picturing the action. My favorite players at that time, though, were not on Houston and not pitchers. They were outfielders. Hank Aaron was one of them. I admired him because of his power and his durability. I also especially liked Roberto Clemente. He was what I thought an athlete should be. He was driven and put every bit of himself into what he was doing.
My first organized sports experience was in Little League. The first field in Alvin was cleared and built by my dad and the other fathers of the kids in the program. I played Little League from the time I was nine years old until I was thirteen. Some of my fondest memories of baseball come from those years.
I had heard that my dad was a pretty fair ballplayer in his time during the depression. As a Little League parent, he was always there when I needed him. My dad was just interested in my having a good organized sports experience.
Making the Little League team was a thrill for all us kids in Alvin. When we got our caps and uniforms, we’d be so proud we’d wear the caps to school. That was a big deal. We played our games in the Texas heat in those old heavy flannel uniforms, but no one seemed to pay the weather any heed.
I was a good player, not a great player, although I did pitch a no-hitter in Little League and was on the All Star-team as an eleven- and twelve-year-old. I didn’t develop great pitching velocity until my sophomore year in high school.
One year after our Little League team had been eliminated from tournament play, I remember standing on the field for the closing ceremony. The man who was presenting the awards gave a little talk. “One day,” he said, “one of you Little Leaguers will go on to play in the major leagues.”
When I heard what he said, it was like a bell went off in my head. I got home and told my mom about the ceremony and what the man said. “Mom,” I said, “that man was talking about me.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“It’s me that he meant, Mom. I’m sure it was me he was talking about.”
There were under six hundred kids in my high school, and you knew almost everyone. All I thought about in high school was basketball, not baseball. I was 6'2", but I was the center on the team because I was a good jumper.
In baseball, they said I could throw a ball through a wall, but I had a lot of problems with control. I was so tall and skinny and raw that I didn’t pay much attention to being scouted. I had no idea that I could ever play in the big leagues.
One Sunday between my junior and senior years in high school, we went to see the Houston Colt .45s play the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sandy Koufax was pitching, and I was a big Koufax fan. It was the first time I had a box seat and the first time I had ever seen Sandy pitch. I was truly amazed at how fast he was and how good a curveball he had. I think he was the most overpowering pitcher I have ever seen.
My senior year in high school, 1965, I went to the Astrodome. It was the year it opened. I watched these major leaguers play. They were so much older and more polished than I was. I never considered myself on their level.
Throughout high school I was in my own world, having fun on Friday and Saturday nights playing ball. Going to the majors was not a big item as far as I was concerned. Scouts came through and checked me out and didn’t have the interest. There were no radar guns — I didn’t know how fast I was. I was so wild. I was just a kid with a great arm. I didn’t know what I had.
No one did — only Red Murff, who was a scout for the New York Mets then. I was selected in the eighth round of the 1965 free-agent draft, the 295th player taken. I was pretty disappointed. It was like they were sending me a message that 294 high school players had a better chance of making the majors than I did.
My first stop in organized baseball was Marion, Virginia, in the Appalachian Rookie League. I was eighteen years old and had never been away from home. Some of our trips on those old broken-down buses lasted almost eight hours, and the conditions in some of those ball parks — awful — rough fields, poor lighting, no showers.
The season there began very late so that high school and college players signed after graduation would have a place to play. That summer of 1965, more than seventy players passed through the Marion roster. I lasted the whole season. Pitching in thirteen games, I won three and lost six and struck out 115 batters in seventy-eight innings. In the dim light, to a lot of nervous kids, I guess I was a little dangerous to hit against. I gave up fifty-six walks and hit eight batters.
The following spring, 1966, I was assigned to Greenville, South Carolina, in the Western Carolina League. I earned $600 a month there, $100 more than the year before. The conditions were a bit primitive, cramped, and there were dirty dressing rooms, bus road trips every other day. My wildness was still with me, and the word was out that I frightened some batters and catchers alike with my velocity. I wound up with 272 strikeouts, 127 walks, and seventeen wins — all league highs. I had a great year, losing just two games, the least in the league.
When the season ended, I was promoted to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in the double-A Eastern League. It was only ten days, but a lot happened. I struck out thirty-five batters in nineteen innings. On September 1, 1966, I had the greatest game of my career up to that point in time — striking out nineteen batters in nine innings against Pawtucket. I wound up with twenty-one strikeouts in ten innings but lost the game 2–1.
I was very excited about what I had accomplished in the minors, but I was even more excited by the thought of pitching in the majors, throwing against major league hitters. I’d been told that I would join the Mets after September 1 — the date major league teams called up prospects from the minors for the final month of the season — and I was looking forward to trying out my fastball against top hitters.
In my last start for Williamsport, I was scheduled to pitch just four innings and then get on a plane and fly to LaGuardia Airport to join the New York Mets. I had a no-hitter going through four.
When I returned to the dugout, my manager, Bill Virdon, said, “You’ve got to be going to report to the Mets, but you’ve given up no hits. Do you want to continue pitching in this game and go for the no-hitter?”
“Mr. Virdon,” I told him, “if it’s all right with you, I’d just as soon move on to New York City.”
I was excited to be in New York City but also a bit awed by the whole thing. I had come all the way from A ball to the major leagues in one season and had attracted a lot of fanfare. Players would say, “Wait till you see this kid Ryan pitch. Wait till you see his arm.” And I felt I had to go out there and show everybody how hard I could throw. It was the mentality of the gunfighter, the fastest gun in the West.
I guess it was easy for Wes Westrum, the manager of the Mets, to pick all of that up. He told me, “Nolan, you’re up here just for us to take a look at you. Your major league future does not depend on how you do. Just do the best you can.”
His words helped me relax a little, but only a little. Shea Stadium was a noisy place with jets always roaring overhead from LaGuardia Airport. That was unsettling. The Mets drew about 25,000 a game — five times more people than lived in my hometown of Alvin. When the games began, I would sit out in the bullpen with the extra catchers and relief pitchers. Sometimes my mind would drift back to thoughts of home.
My first major league appearance was on September 11, 1966, against the Braves. I had a big case of stage fright walking out of the bullpen and stepping on the mound knowing I would be pitching to players like Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Joe Torre.
But I got through it, giving up a home run to Joe Torre — but also getting my first major league strikeout. The batter was Pat Jarvis, a rookie pitcher for Atlanta.
That first time on a major league mound was a big learning experience for me. Hank Aaron said I had one of the best fastballs he had ever seen. But one of the best fastballs I’d ever thrown was hit for a home run by Joe Torre. I learned the hard way that it would not be possible to get by in the major leagues with just a fastball, no matter how hard it was thrown.
From Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer & Frederic J. Frommer.
Copyright © 2001 by Harvey Frommer & Frederic J. Frommer. Excerpted with permission.