Ranking no-hitters may seem like a fool's errand. Greatness is greatness and this sort of example doesn't happen very often. Why not leave it at that?
But when a pitcher ascends toward the upper echelon of strikeout potential and pitches a no-hitter as well, the temptation to match him against those who came before becomes irresistible. And since claims are being made that Clayton Kershaw's no-hit victory over Colorado on June 18 is the most dominant pitching performance ever, it becomes our civic duty to summon up a memory of Nolan Ryan.
It was 1973 and Ryan had already thrown his first no-hitter of the year, in Kansas City. The Angels were in Detroit, where he would pitch his second while also compiling 17 strikeouts, which remain the most ever by a pitcher who hasn't allowed a hit. I was covering the team for the Los Angeles Times then and the game remains the single most dominant exhibition of pitching I have ever seen. But was Kershaw's performance more dominant? Let's see.
Through seven innings, Ryan had struck out 16 batters, which led to hopes he might not only pitch a no-hitter but also set a single-game strikeout record. So when he finished the game with "only" 17 strikeouts, it was actually a disappointment. Ryan's teammates were at least partly responsible for this as they batted around in a long top of the eighth and scored five runs he wouldn't need. During the delay, Ryan's arm stiffened up, he lost a little off his fastball and struck out only one of the final six batters.
Still, he was so dominant that Norm Cash, the Tigers' first baseman and resident jokester, appeared at the plate carrying a table leg instead of a bat. Umpire Ron Luciano was not amused and sent him back for a regulation piece of lumber.
The only mark against Ryan that day was that he issued four walks while Kershaw allowed none. This gives Kershaw the nod, his supporters say. Fair enough, except for this.
Ryan threw the ball harder than Kershaw--his fastball was routinely measured at more than 100 miles per hour--and he therefore didn't have Kershaw's ability to control where it went. Walks were such a part of Ryan's repertoire that he didn't pitch a complete game without one until he was 36 years old and was no longer throwing as hard.
But I've always thought that Ryan's occasional inability to get the ball over the plate was one of his strengths. The idea that a pitch might get away from him was firmly implanted in hitters' minds as they approached the plate.
When Ryan was a young pitcher for the Mets, for instance, and the jury was still out about whether he'd ever learn to tame his wildness, Willie Mays, who was then well into his 30s, was known to develop a mysterious ailment when he was scheduled to pitch. And though Cash's piano leg is the best remembered reaction of the Tiger hitters, there was another one that might have been more to the point.
When Luciano called one Detroit batter out on strikes, the player turned to him and said "Thank you" before retreating to the safety of the dugout.
As noted, the no-hitter was Ryan's second of the season--special credit to anyone who can name his two catchers--and I can still remember Royals' first-baseman John Mayberry sitting in front of his locker after the first game in a trance as he kept muttering, "super-stuff, super-stuff."
As Kershaw's no-hitter in Dodger Stadium was winding down, a television camera peered into the Rockies' dugout and Vin Scully noted the look of awe on the faces of their hitters. That struck me as about right and points to the essential difference when the subject is domination.
When the Tigers came to the plate against Ryan that day, their main emotion was not awe but fear.