It had been raining intermittently this humid May night in Cleveland, and Nolan Ryan, who was between pitching starts, was utilizing the dry spells to loosen up his legendary right arm. From a distance of perhaps 75 feet he lazily played catch with California Angels Catcher Tom Egan and Pitching Coach Billy Muffett. He was throwing effortlessly, but even so the ball made explosive thwaak sounds as it reached mitt and glove.
"Yessir, Nolie," Muffett cried out, wincing slightly after one thwaak, "your damn arm is dead."
Muffett was jesting, of course. Ryan's arm, which has accounted for four no-hitters and virtually every strikeout record of consequence, may be more alive than any that ever threw a baseball. Nevertheless, as Muffett spoke, the damp night air was rent by a terrible clap of thunder, as if the Creator Himself were responding to blasphemy. Lord knows, a man who can throw as hard as Nolan Ryan is no ordinary mortal. He is among the blessed, an exalted figure to be held in awe. The supreme fastball pitcher, more even than the long-ball hitter, is baseball's noblest creation, for as in the fight song, he brings down the thunder from the skies. He does not throw a ball; he throws lightning, smoke, flames, heat, blue darters, dark ones, high hard ones, hummers, aspirin tablets. In baseball vernacular, he does not throw at all; he "brings it." He is never just plain Bob, Joe or Sam; he is Rapid Robert, Smokey Joe, Sudden Sam, Dizzy, Dazzy, The Whip, The Big Train, The Ryan Express. He is the stuff of legend.
There was the time in the mid-1920s when Jigger Statz of the Cubs complained bitterly to the umpire over a called third strike thrown by the Dodgers' fabled fireballer, Dazzy Vance.
"Where was the pitch?" Statz was asked by Dodger Outfielder Zack Wheat as the teams changed sides.
"Well," said Jigger, "I couldn't see it, but it sounded low."
Consider the simple eloquence of Yankee Ping Bodie explaining why he struck out against Walter Johnson: "You can't hit what you can't see."
"You couldn't hit him on a Monday," said the Reds' Rube Bressler, recalling Vance in Lawrence S. Ritter's wonderful book, The Glory of Their Times. "He'd cut the sleeve of his undershirt to the elbow, you know, and on that part of it he'd use lye to make it white, and the rest he didn't care how dirty it was. Then he'd pitch overhand, out of the apartment houses in the background at Ebbets Field. Between the bleached sleeve of his undershirt waving and the Monday wash hanging out to dry—the diapers and sheets flapping on the clotheslines—you lost the ball entirely. He threw balls by me I never even saw."
This is the mystique of the fireballer. Those who stand before him speak as if they should be carrying white canes instead of bats. Norm Cash of the Tigers did come to the plate once against Ryan carrying a piano leg, reasoning, it is assumed, that it would serve him just as well. Batters speak respectfully of pitching craftsmen; they speak reverently of fastballers.
"You have to respect pitchers like Catfish Hunter," says Baltimore Catcher Dave Duncan. "He has that perfect control. But a guy like Ryan doesn't just get you out, he embarrasses you. There are times when you feel you've won some sort of victory just hitting the ball."