Science has confirmed what American League batters have long suspected—Nolan Ryan of the California Angels throws a baseball harder than anyone who ever has been put to the test. As Ryan mowed down the Chicago White Sox 3-1 last Saturday for his 18th win of the season, a team of electronics technicians from Rockwell International fidgeted upstairs in the press box with some complicated radar timing equipment. The results supported Ryan's own contention that he throws harder in the late innings, for his fastest pitch of the night was the third one he threw to the Sox' Bee Bee Richard, who led off the ninth inning. Rockwell timed that high hard one at 100.8 mph, exceeding the 98.6 mph once recorded by Bob Feller with entirely different equipment. Under less official conditions Ryan had thrown even faster. During an 11-inning game on Aug. 20 in which Ryan fanned 19 Detroit Tigers, the technicians timed two of his pitches at 100.9 miles per hour.
The Ryan test was but one of several that have been conducted with asserted gadgetry over the years. Feller was timed with what the U.S. Army called a lumiline chronograph before a 1946 game with the Senators. Only 12 men have had their pitches clocked at better than 90 mph (among them: Don Drysdale, 95.3; Sandy Koufax, 93.2; Herb Score, 91.0), but some of the game's most celebrated fireballers—Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Smokey Joe Wood, Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance—were never exposed to such devices.
What matters anyway is not how hard Ryan throws but what throwing hard has done for him. He now has 315 strikeouts this season, an average of nearly 10 per nine innings. He is the only pitcher in history to strike out more than 300 batters in three consecutive seasons, and he is not far off his season record of 383, set last year. On Aug. 12 he tied a major league record by striking out 19 Red Sox in a nine-inning game. He also struck out 19 in two extra-inning games this season.
And now, of course, he is officially the hardest thrower in history.
What he throws, hitters around the league feel, is more projectile than baseball. "If he hits you with it," said the Oakland A's Reggie Jackson after facing Ryan earlier in the week, "you're dead."
Although Ryan experiences some difficulty with his control, he does not hit many batters, and so far he has not buried any. The Red Sox' Doug Griffin was skulled by a Ryan hummer in April and Griffin is alive today to tell the tale although, as a survivor, he is considered something of a medical marvel by his confreres.
Artifacts damaged by Ryan pitches are treasured like war souvenirs. Angel Catcher Ellie Rodriguez wears a twisted medallion that a Ryan fastball blasted after a mix-up in signals. "I called for a curve and got a fast one right here," says Rodriguez, patting his chest and his lucky piece. And at the merest suggestion Umpire Jim Evans produces a face mask disfigured by a deflected Ryan pitch.
The scientific evidence now available will scarcely diminish the hyperbole that attends Ryan's pitching. Says the A's Bill North, "I'll tell you how hard Ryan throws. He threw me a ball inside once that was so fast it could have hit me and bounced off, which is unlikely; or it could have hit me, knocked me down and kept going, which probably is what it would have done if I hadn't gotten out of the way."
Ryan has so much confidence in his fastball that, like Dizzy Dean before him, he will announce its arrival in advance and then challenge the hitter to cope with it. Last week in Oakland, Jackson fidgeted impatiently in the batter's box as Ryan conferred on the mound with Rodriguez. When the catcher returned to his position, he had a message for Jackson.
"Nolan wants me to tell you he's gonna throw nothing but fastballs," Rodriguez advised the startled batter. "He wants to see if you can hit one."