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The Making of a Pitcher
By Rob Goldman
Triumph Books Copyright © 2014 Rob Goldman
All rights reserved.
Daylight on Dezso Drive
Across the murky waters of Mustang Bayou in Alvin, Texas, the morning sun danced across the window of the modest stucco home on Dezso Drive. Inside, a boy not quite 16 years old crammed his book and baseball glove into a duffle bag. For other guys his age the day was just starting, but he had already accomplished what most teenagers would consider a full day's work before dawn when he wrapped, stacked, and delivered 1,500 Houston Post newspapers.
Later, after a long day of papers, pencils, and pitches, he was happy to brush the dirt from his baseball pants and accept a ride on a teammate's motorbike from the practice field to the parking lot. Little did he know then it would turn out to be the most momentous ride of his life.
At the nearby tennis courts, Ruthie Holdorff concentrated on keeping her swing flat and smooth. She was waiting for Aubrey Horner, the varsity tennis coach, to come by and give her a few pointers, and she wanted to be ready. Horner admired Ruthie's spunk and backhand, and knowing she couldn't afford private lessons, he always made sure to help her a little while working with the varsity girls.
As Ruthie pounded balls off the wall, she heard the whir of the motorbike. Its driver, a boy she knew, gave her a friendly wave. His passenger stared at her intently as they passed and then asked his friend, "Who's that?" "That's Ruthie, Lynn Holdorff's little sister," answered the driver.
The passenger took a second look. Living in a small town, he'd crossed paths with Ruthie several times without really noticing her. But now he took a long, serious look.
And no wonder ...
Ruthie was no longer Lynn's tag-along little sister who came with her to his Little League games, but a blossoming beauty.
Ruthie was still a freshman, so the boy waited a year before making a move.
"Would it be all right with your mom if I took you to the show?" he asked her between classes one day.
"I think so," she answered shyly, "but I'll have to check first."
Her mom said okay, and no doubt Ruthie was excited. After all, Nolan Ryan was a sophisticated junior and had been voted "Best Looking" in his grade, just as she had been in hers. And, unlike most boys in Alvin, Nolan had a car he used for his paper route.
The date was set for the following Saturday. Lynn lent Ruthie a dress their mother had sewn, along with some perfume. She was still getting ready when Nolan pulled up in his 1956 Chevy.
The Holdorff and Ryan families knew each other, so double dating wasn't required. Nolan and Ruthie knew about the 11:00pm curfew, and the movie had been approved by their folks.
Nolan led Ruthie to the Chevy and opened her door. As he made his way to the other side, she discreetly scooted to the middle of the seat.
The Alvin Theater, near the corner of Gordon and Sealy, was very familiar territory for Nolan. It was where he and his dad wrapped stacks of the Houston Post newspaper every morning.
But driving up to the theater that night, newspapers were the last thing on his mind.
Rome Adventure was the movie on the theater marquee, but neither teenager really cared what was showing. Nolan threw a buck down for tickets and headed straight for the concessions. Moments later, a tub of popcorn between them, the theater went dark. As the scenes flew by, Ruthie did her best to concentrate on sunny Italy. It was a romantic moment when Suzanne Pleshette kissed Troy Donahue midway through the second act of the movie. But because this was Nolan and Ruth's first date, there were no thoughts of kisses between these two.
After the show they headed up Gordon to Dairy Land and topped the night off with sodas. Several friends joined them, and after a bit of friendly banter Nolan took Ruthie home. Lynn was waiting to hear all about her sister's date.
As for Nolan, after going home for a quick nap, he got up at 2:00am and headed right back to the corner of Gordon and Sealy with his dad to pick up the fresh stacks of Posts that awaited morning delivery. The fatherson combo had been following this routine for three years, and the work came as natural to the boy as pelting turtles with rocks in Mustang Bayou.
As Nolan worked he saw an occasional drunk stumbling out from one of the nearby bars, or a skunk scurrying from a storm drain in search of popcorn discarded by the night's moviegoers.
But his mind wasn't on drunks, skunks, or popcorn.
Normally he folded and wrapped 1,500 papers at breakneck speed. But now his mind was cloudy and all he could think of was Ruthie's long hair, pretty smile, and the easy way about her that made him open up.
By 5:00 am Nolan was back in the Chevy, the stack of newspapers neatly folded beside him. Weaving his way through Alvin's sleepy rural side streets, his mind was tired but his heart was beating to the drum of the wonderful soaring energy that new love brings.CHAPTER 2
I first noticed Nolan when he was in the sixth grade with my sister. I thought he was cute, but the reason I liked him later on in high school was that he was confident and quiet. He wasn't the bragging type, but was kind and courteous.
— RUTH RYAN
Except for sports, Nolan and Ruthie had totally different interests. Though she grew up in a small town, Ruthie was a city type who liked ballet, theater, and music. Nolan was more outdoorsy, and on dates he took her practice shooting and to feed the baby calves he kept in a pen at a relative's house.
Nolan's quiet, reserved nature might have been due in part to difficulties caused by dyslexia and a lisp. He had trouble reading, and it set him back in some of his classes. In junior high, an impatient teacher called him stupid and threatened to hold him back a grade. A torrid tongue-lashing by Nolan's mom put an end to that, but Nolan still got Ds and Fs in English, and that thoughtless teacher's remarks left an indelible scar.
Sports brought him out of himself, and it was on the basketball court where the 6'2" natural athlete excelled.
By the time he and Ruthie started dating, Nolan had already made a name for himself on the court as a star forward. But he also loved baseball and was just beginning to feel some of the raw power in his right arm.
Nolan wasn't the only one making waves. Ruthie's countless hours of tennis practice had paid off, and her backhand was quickly moving her up the ranks as one the state's best doubles players.
"Her father got her started in tennis in the fifth or sixth grade," recalls Coach Horner. "She won a big tournament in Houston as a freshman at one of the country clubs, and surprised a lot of Houston people when she won the singles championship. Many pro coaches who worked with the Houston kids were shocked that a little country gal could go to the big town and shut everyone down.
"She was a great athlete and could have played anything. She just chose tennis. I used to hear stories that she played football with the boys, and I assume it was true. But that didn't have anything to do with her ladylike attitude."
Loyal, sensitive, and smart, Ruthie cut through Nolan's shyness, and they became, in Horner's words, "hand holders," inseparable as any couple walking the hallways at Alvin High. And when she wasn't playing tennis, you could usually find her down at the ballfield or the basketball court with Nolan.
In a glimpse of what their life would become, Nolan took her to Colt Stadium in Houston to see Sandy Koufax pitch against the Colt .45s. Even at an early age, Ryan felt a kinship with the Dodgers lefty who threw as hard as anyone on the planet. Within 10 years, Ryan would break nearly every one of his hero's strikeout records, but on this summer night, young Nolan was there only to watch and learn.
Watching from their box seats behind the Dodgers dugout, Ruthie had never seen Nolan so serious. When he told her they were there to see Sandy Koufax pitch, she didn't think much about it. She'd been to lots of Nolan's ballgames, and in her mind one pitcher wasn't all that much different from the next.
"Who's Sandy Koufax?" Ruthie asked innocently as they watched him warm up.
"The fastest pitcher in the game," Nolan told her. "If there was someone I'd like to model myself after, it would be him."
Koufax didn't disappoint that day, as he beat the Colts 4–3. What impressed Nolan the most wasn't his blazing fastball but his curveball. It was a giant wake-up call, because for the first time Ryan saw that it took more than just speed to be an effective pitcher.
Back home that night, Nolan removed the crumpled ticket stub from his pocket and tossed it into a drawer as a reminder of what he wanted to shoot for. Ruthie kept her ticket stub too, but for altogether different reasons.CHAPTER 3
I didn't know what I had — no one did. Only Red Murff.
— NOLAN RYAN
Jim Watson was Alvin High's varsity baseball coach in the spring and the football coach in the fall. The gridiron was his true passion, so he approached baseball with a football bent and tried to make up for his lack of baseball knowledge with discipline. But the tough coach had a soft side, too. He wasn't married, had no children, and treated his athletes as if they were his own kids. "Tough love," he liked to call it, and his athletes soaked it up and revered him.
One fall day in 1963, Watson was out on the track observing a softball toss when something out of the ordinary caught his eye. The memory of it still makes him shake his head a half-century later.
"Some sophomore kid threw a softball the entire length of the football field," Watson recalls.
"Who in the world is that?" he asked at the time.
Answered the track coach, "That's old Nolan."
"When nobody came within 40 yards of him," Watson remembers, "my mind began to work. I felt this boy could definitely help us when baseball rolled around. I heard he'd done some pitching in Little League, so I began to talk to some of the coaches. 'How was Nolan? Did he ever pitch for you? Was he effective? How was his control?' Stuff like that."
The following spring, Watson invited Nolan out to throw batting practice to the varsity team. Not entirely to his surprise, no one could hit him. Watson tried facing Ryan himself and couldn't touch him. Before he left the field that day, the coach knew he'd found something special and had already penciled Nolan in as the top varsity pitcher.
"Nolan was more worried about his control than anything else, because he was wild and hit a lot of kids," recalls the coach. "He didn't know where the ball was going and neither did the batter, which worked to his advantage, because the hitters didn't want to hang in there with him."
"My ability to throw hard didn't happen until I was a sophomore," he said. "Prior to that, I wasn't a harder thrower than any of the other kids. I could always throw a ball farther, but I couldn't throw it harder. The other thing was, I could throw hard, but that didn't mean I could throw strikes and get people out. I didn't have the ability to do that yet."
With Nolan anchoring the varsity pitching staff, Alvin High began winning. In his sophomore season the team was regional champ. In Nolan's senior year it played in the state finals.
It was during his junior year that pro scouts, including local scout Red Gaskill, began taking serious notice of Nolan's fastball.
Gaskill was a "bird dog" scout; he'd go to small towns, watch the games, and, if he saw something interesting, report it to New York Mets district scout Red Murff, a former Milwaukee Braves pitcher.
There's long been a chicken-or-the egg debate about which Red saw Ryan first, Gaskill or Murff.
Until the day he died, Murff maintained he had discovered Ryan, and even went so far as to claim that a premonition made him stop on his way to Houston at the high school tournament in Clear Creek, where he first saw Ryan.
Gaskill has passed on too, and wherever old baseball scouts end up they are probably still arguing about who deserves the credit for discovering Nolan Ryan.
Jim Watson definitely remembers the day Murff first saw Ryan, whenever it may have been.
"We were playing in the final playoff game at Clear Creek. Nolan was pitching but it started raining around the fifth inning, and so we stopped the game. I went under the concession stand to get out of the weather when Murff, who I'd just met, walked over, pointed to Nolan, and said, 'Who is that? Where'd you get that boy?'
"I told him, and he said, 'That's the fastest ball I've ever seen from a pitcher's hand to the plate.'
"I just smiled and said, 'You oughta see him when he's on.'"
As soon as Murff got home that day he took out a white scouting card, put the name Lynn Nolan Ryan at the top, and underneath it he wrote:
This skinny high school junior HAS THE BEST ARM I'VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. This kid Ryan throws much harder than Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati Reds or Turk Farrell of the Houston Colt .45s (I saw them pitch Thursday night, 4-23-63).
On the back he scribbled, "Ryan has the potential to be a high-performance starting pitcher on a major league staff. A smiling, friendly-faced kid — wide shoulders, long arms, and strong hands. Good athlete."
He signed his name, and in the space for the time wrote "12:00, High Noon." He dated it April 26, 1963, and went to sleep.
From that day forward somebody named Red went to every game Ryan pitched. The varsity played twice a week. Murff attended the Tuesday games, when Nolan was fresh and gave the scout a truer read of his ability. Gaskill would go on Fridays.
A concern other scouts had was that at 145 pounds, Ryan was too small to have big league potential. But Murff wasn't bothered by that. He'd seen Nolan Ryan Sr. at some of the games and had been impressed by the man's quiet nature, as well as by the thick arms and wrists on his 245-pound frame. He figured the boy still had some growing to do.
"They didn't think I would hold up physically," says Ryan, "but Red, being an ex-pitcher, recognized my ability to throw and saw how big my dad was, and luckily that settled it for him."
But Murff was worried that the football-oriented Watson would overwork Nolan and ruin his arm. To make sure he'd get the proper coaching, Murff asked Watson to let him personally tutor Ryan on some of the basics.
"It was illegal for scouts to help kids," recalls Watson. "It was okay to go out there and watch, but you couldn't say anything to them. I'd already been warned by my superintendent to not let them do any coaching. But Murff wanted to coach Nolan so badly, I had to really get after him to not do it."
But Watson wasn't around all the time, and Murff managed to get Ryan alone for a few sessions, where they mostly concentrated on harnessing Nolan's fastball.
Nolan dominated every game he pitched with both his speed and lack of control. For every 10 strikeouts, there might be three hit batsmen and nine walks. He was breaking both bats and limbs, and it got to the point where nobody wanted to face him.
"I was as raw as you could get," recalls Ryan. "I didn't know anything about pitching and didn't get a lot of the things Red was trying to tell me. All I knew was winding up and throwing. I didn't understand anything about gripping balls or trying to put a spin on it or how important your delivery was. Red would bring a catcher and he'd teach me the curve and work with me on some part of my delivery. But I had a lot to learn."
With fresh interest brewing every time Nolan pitched, Watson found himself in the middle of a whirlwind. Ryan was drawing lots of attention, with scouts and college coaches constantly seeking updates on his progress.
"The Houston Chronicle and the Post were writing about Nolan, and it seemed every day there was another article on him," says Watson. "One night Red pulled me aside and said, 'I want to ask you a favor. I can get Nolan into the big leagues if you'll let me have him and do this thing. If he pitches an outstanding game or a no-hitter, don't call the newspapers. I want to keep him hidden out here as long as I can.'" Watson wasn't nuts about calling in the score to the papers after a game anyway, so he went along with the plan. He also respected Murff and figured he had Ryan's best interests at heart.
Ruthie wasn't so sure. To her, Murff was cantankerous, married to baseball, and not easy to like. "Red kept saying things like 'Nolan, you have this talent that nobody else has.' After Nolan and I got engaged, he even had the nerve to tell me, 'Ruthie, you are going to have to share Nolan with the world.'
"I didn't like that. He made it sound like Nolan was going to be something big in baseball. But we didn't believe him. We thought he was just saying that to get Nolan to sign a contract."
Computers, radar guns, and the other sophisticated methods routinely employed today by big league scouts were the stuff of science fiction then. For all Ryan knew, he was not much different than all the other kids dreaming about playing big league baseball.
"He would watch major league games on TV on Saturday but he was very innocent," says Ruth. "He didn't even have people trying to get him to go to college. He wanted to go to Texas A&M and talked to the baseball coach there, but the coach wasn't interested. He told Nolan to go play at a junior college for a couple of years, and he'd see how he did and then maybe reconsider having him come to A&M."
Excerpted from Nolan Ryan by Rob Goldman. Copyright © 2014 Rob Goldman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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