On June 11, 1990, 43-year-old Nolan Ryan of the Texas Rangers threw the sixth no-hitter of his career. Pitching in Oakland against an A's team that would go on to win 103 games and reach the World Series, Ryan struck out 14, walked two and threw 130 pitches. It was a little bit of a watered-down A's lineup that night as Jose Canseco was on the disabled list and Mark McGwire apparently came down with a case of "Nolan Ryan flu" and didn't play.
Still, it was a remarkable achievement, in part because of Ryan’s advanced age and infirmities. As Gerry Fraley wrote in his game story for the Dallas Morning News:
"He is a 43-year-old man who will have his aching back examined Tuesday morning. But Monday night, Nolan Ryan was superman.
Ignoring the pain in his back, Ryan claimed his permanent spot in baseball history with his sixth career no-hitter in a 5-0 victory over the Oakland Athletics. It gave him his 294th career victory."
Ryan had a pitched a one-hitter on April 6, but in five starts since hadn't lasted more than six innings while going 0-3 with an 8.86 ERA. He had missed a couple of weeks of action in late May and on June 6 had labored through five innings, throwing 113 pitches. He entered the game on June 11 with a 5.11 ERA -- and when you're 43 years old with a 5.11 ERA and a bad back, nobody expects a no-hitter.
Even from Nolan Ryan.
His back was still bothering him during the game and Fraley's story says Ryan "went through a series of odd gyrations and took extra time between pitches." Fraley also reported that Ryan was throwing under 90 mph early on, instead relying on his changeup, but was up to 95 mph late in the game. The catcher that night was John Russell, who had never before caught Ryan. He started only because Geno Petralli and Mike Stanley were both injured; six weeks before, Russell had been helping coach a high school team after getting cut by the Braves in spring training. Russell said after the game that Ryan called his own game. All of his 14 strikeouts were swinging.
Despite the back issue, Ryan managed to go the rest of the season without missing a start and even pitched 10 scoreless innings with 15 strikeouts against the White Sox in August. He finished the season 13-9 with a 3.44 ERA, leading the AL in strikeouts, WHIP, fewest hits per nine and strikeouts per nine.
Not bad for a 43-year-old. The next season Ryan went 12-6 with a 2.91 ERA and tossed his seventh no-hitter, striking out 16 Blue Jays. It was against a good Blue Jays lineup -- Toronto won the AL East that year -- that included Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, Kelly Gruber and John Olerud. It may have been Ryan's greatest single-game performance.
Those final years with the Rangers -- he signed with Texas in 1989 -- cemented Ryan's legacy. He was the ageless wonder still throwing baseballs by players half his age. When he had left the Astros, Ryan's legacy was far from settled as an all-time great. He was 273-253, just 20 games over .500, a record constantly referred to as proof that Ryan wasn't a "winner," more freak show than pitcher.
Then he went to the Rangers and put up three absurdly good seasons. He didn't pitch the huge number of innings that he did with the Angels back in the '70s, and his fastball was no longer touching 100 mph with regularity, but he had become a better pitcher. He walked a lot fewer batters and the changeup that he had developed in 1986 (according to his autobiography) had become a deadly weapon. Opponents hit .187 against him 1989, .188 in 1990 and .172 in 1991. He threw the two no-hitters.
In the eyes of many, he had become Superman. Some at that time regarded him as the game's greatest pitcher. He wasn't that, but he was certainly unique and certainly one of a kind.