Smile, Jesus loves you. Nolan Ryan smiles. "That's our street, Dezso Drive," he says, "just the other side of that Jesus sign—this is Baptist country—and I was raised in that little house there. My mom still lives in it." Ryan is in the family van conducting a tour of sorts of his hometown, Alvin, Texas (est. pop. 20,000). With him are his wife, Ruth, and daughter, Wendy, 9. His sons, Reid, 14, and Reese, 10, are tending to chores on the Ryan acreage just outside of town. "There's our church, the First Methodist, and that's where Ruth used to live, on Richard Street." The core of Alvin, its downtown, has been siphoned off into commercial centers on Highways 35 and 6, but the residential neighborhoods of spacious green lawns and brick and clapboard houses, all shielded from the merciless summer sun by spreading live oaks, are much as they were when Ryan was growing up there as the town's boy wonder. Alvin is no dusty Last Picture Show plains town with tumbleweed careering through its streets. It is humid and verdant, 26 miles south of Houston and 29 miles west of Galveston, smack in the path of the fierce storms that sweep inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Alvin? Now, what kind of a name is that for a town? Just the right one, say the townsfolk, named for one Alvin Morgan, a Santa Fe Railroad man who built the first house there in 1879. Baseball has taken Nolan Ryan to both coasts, but it has never taken him out of Alvin. It's what he's all about.
On the corner of Sealy and Gordon streets stands an abandoned service station, and next to it there is a crumbling old movie theater. "I'd roll newspapers right in that service station, the old Sinclair station, at two and three in the morning," says Ryan. "Got quite an education there. Oh, there'd be an occasional drunk staggering by from out of the pool hall down the street—even though this is a dry county—and I'd see skunks come out of the drainage system to eat the popcorn that people dropped coming out of the movie. My dad was a hardworking man. He'd work all day at the Amoco oil company, where he was a supervisor, then come home about four, take a nap, eat at six, go to bed at nine and get up at one in the morning to deliver The Houston Post. My brother Bob and I worked with him. I rolled papers on that corner from the time I was in the second grade until I was 14 and old enough to drive and deliver them myself. We had all of Alvin as our route, about 1,500 papers. We finally gave it up when I graduated from high school. By then my dad had put three kids through college and had two more in there."
The van turns down Johnson Street. "My dad's name was Lynn Nolan Ryan. I'm a junior, but they called him Lynn and me Nolan." He laughs. "It's funny, my boy, Reid, is actually Robert Reid. Named him after my brother, who's seven years older than I am, a colonel now in the Air Force. But we call the boy by his middle name, too. My other boy, Reese, was named after Jimmy Reese. You know, the Angels coach [now 80]. And Wendy here. Well, she's Wendy Lynn. I thought that would be a great name for a country singer." He turns to wink at the slender child sitting in back with her mother. "But it looks like the talent just isn't there." Wendy huffs with indignation. "Daddy, you know I want to be a classical singer." "Classical?" says Daddy. "We'll just see about that."
The brick buildings of Alvin High School are on the left. Both Nolan and Ruth were star athletes there, Nolan a 6'2" center on the basketball team and a pitcher on the baseball team with an arm the likes of which may never be seen again. Ruth was no slouch, either. As a sophomore, during Nolan's senior year, she, then Ruth Holdorff, and her partner, Rachel Adams, won the state tennis doubles championship in their AAA division. And she and Nolan played a mean game of touch football together on lazy Saturdays over in Connie Hankamer's backyard. Ruth was "All School Most Beautiful" at Alvin High for three years running, and Nolan was "Most Handsome" in his sophomore and senior classes. Their son Reid is in his first semester at Alvin High, burdened perhaps but not overwhelmed by the legacy of his legendary parents. Reid was badly injured at age seven when a car hit him near Anaheim, where his father was then playing—he's in perfect health now—so he knows what it's like to be a survivor. And, anyway, there's a lot of respect for elders in this family. Both sons call their father Sir.
"It's hard to believe Reid's going to the same school we went to," says Ruth, a lovely brown-haired woman who, if she were somehow eligible, could easily repeat as Alvin High's Most Beautiful. "Can it have been that long since we were there? Oh, my, there's the gym. How many hours did I spend waiting outside that place for a certain person? Come to think of it, I'm still doing it." At the rear of the school, adjacent to the football field, is the baseball diamond, which since 1973 has been named Nolan Ryan Field. Alvin has done its level best to honor its favorite son. When Ryan signed as a free agent with Houston in November of 1979 for the then unprecedented sum of $1,125 million a year, the town turned out 2,000-strong for him on Dec. 15 for "Welcome Back to Texas Day." He had signed with the Mets right out of high school, had gone to the Angels by '72 and now, after all those years, he was home again. Not that he had ever left Alvin. "When the season's over," says Ruth, "your car heads home." But now at least he was playing where the home folks could see him. "Nolan," said Carl Ellis, president in '79 of the Alvin Chamber of Commerce, "we in Alvin are just dad-burned proud of you."
And Ryan is dad-burned proud of Alvin. His attachment to his hometown is genuine. He's a director of a bank there, a familiar figure on the streets and the sponsor of the Nolan Ryan Baseball Scholarship program at Alvin Community College, where both he and Ruth have attended classes. He annually raises about $18,000 for the scholarship fund with a celebrity golf tournament at the Columbia Lakes Country Club, 40 miles southwest of town. "This is a very special man," says Phillips, dean of instruction at the college. "He came to me with the scholarship idea. He wanted to see to it that Texas youngsters who are interested both in learning and in playing baseball get their chance. And he works with the kids on our baseball team during his off-season. I tell you, his autograph around here isn't worth a dime, he's given out so many. Why, he'd sign 9,000 a day if you asked him to. I don't believe you can find anyone in Alvin who is not appreciative of his presence here."
Ryan turns the van away from the high school and heads for home. "I grew up in this town," he says. "I was blessed with a good childhood. When I left home, I never really found a place I wanted to live in except Alvin." He weaves the van down country roads, then turns into a long driveway that takes him past rolling green fields where his cattle lazily graze. Two excitable English pointers bound forward to greet the returning family. "I guess if I were, say, a member of the Chamber of Commerce here, I'd have trouble selling the place," says Ryan. "The weather's lousy. There are mosquitoes this big. In winter there are drastic changes in the climate. One year , we had 43 inches of rain in two days and 102 inches for the year. Eighty percent of the farmhouses here were flooded. Ours, fortunately, was on about the only hill around. We had a hurricane in 1980 that scared Ruth half to death. And, of course, right now, the economy in this area stinks. Why choose this town, you ask me, over some place like San Diego, with its beaches and perfect weather?" He opens the car door and greets the dogs, admonishing the one named Buster for chewing on one of his old cowboy boots. "Well, I guess it's because I've always been here. I know it's no great attraction, but it is home."
"Before he threw a ball, Dave said to him: 'Now go easy. Don't cut loose and take a chance till you're in shape.'
'All right,' says Kane.
"And all of a sudden, without no warning, he whammed a fast ball acrost that old plate that blew Tierney's cap off and pretty near knocked me down. Tierney hollered murder and ran for the bench. All of us were pop-eyed and it was quite a while before Dave could speak. Then he said: