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One for the Books: "Throwing Heat" and Nolan Ryan

With the Major League Baseball Draft in the news, with the season underway and going full tilt,  all kinds of stories of scouts and prospects, wrong turns and lucky decisions are in the air.

One of the truly moving stories in this category is in my book THROWING HEAT: the Autobiography of Nolan Ryan.  When I began working on it, his sister said to me: "How can you write a whole book told by him - Nolan doesn't talk that much." Her comments led me into making the book -  one told in Nolan's voice and those who knew him best - -his wife, his high school coach, other players and managers, family members and especially Red Murff, the scout who discovered him. It was truly my first attempt at oral SPORTS history.

I was in Houston, Texas and called Red Murff on Nolan's recommendation. Red was not too pleasant.

"You call me with that New York voice and want me to get together with you and talk about a legend - you better be who you claim you are. Stay at that number. I will call Nolan and find out if you are the real deal."

A little while later Red Murff called back:

"Sorry I jumped all over you. You are the real deal. Nolan said you are okay. He said to give you whatever you need."

Red gave me more than I needed. A straight shooting Charlton Heston type Texas character - he had a voice and a style that suited oral history and baseball stories perfectly.

Here is a sample:

RED MURFF: In 1963, I began working for the New York Mets as a scout. I was scouting in Galveston one Saturday morning the first weekend in March.

I had about an hour to pass on my way from Galveston to another scouting assignment that afternoon in Houston. So I figured I'd watch a high school baseball game in Alvin just to see who was winning.

There was just one other scout there - Mickey Sullivan, who worked for the Philadelphia Phillies. It was the second or third inning of the game. It was Alvin High playing somebody - Clear Lake or Clear Creek. The Alvin coach was changing pitchers just about the time I got settled in.

This skinny, handsome right-hander threw two fastball strikes and I was thunderstruck.
You could hear the ball explode.

Then he threw an atrocious curveball and the hitter doubled to right center.

"Who's the kid out there?" I asked Mickey Sullivan.

"Nolan Ryan," he said. "He doesn't have too much, does he?"       

"I don't know... "I said. Then I started to bite my tongue. "He doesn't have a very good curveball."

"That's the closest I've ever come to being a liar.

That night I was  at the old Colt Stadium and saw Turk Farrell of Houston and Jim Maloney of Cincinnati pitch against each other in the twilight.  They could both throw 95 mile per hour fast balls.  At high noon that young man I had seen threw harder than either of them. I'm a hunter and know something about ballistics. And when I filled out my report for the New York Mets, I said that  Ryan was in the 100 mile per hour range, that his ball stayed level in flight, rose as it got to the plate, and then exploded.

At the end of Nolan's sophomore year I took it upon myself to inform Alvin's athletic director Jim Watson what they had. I knew the way it was in Texas high schools, how they grabbed a sophomore with a lean, lithe body  and put him in  a weight training program so that before he became a senior he was muscle-bound.  Knowing this, I made my first threat ever to an athletic director and a coach.

"You-all have one of the ten best arms in the world in your school," I told him.
"You mean JOHNNY BROWN-?" Jim asked
"No," I answered.
"Oh, then you mean...STEVE POWERS..."
"I mean Nolan Ryan."

"Nollie? I can't believe this Mr. Murff."  Jim didn't even dream I was talking about Ryan because Nolan had some problems pitching in high school.

"If you put Nolan on a weight program to make him stronger  - - - and I hear about it I'm gonna get all the scouts to sit in your park and we're gonna get your job."  You'll make a big mistake if you try and tamper with that arm."

"Red," he said, "you sure as shootin' know more about pitching and  baseball than I do. I'll go along with whatever you say."

"Don't bulk him. Just let him throw a baseball. You do what I say and it'll be good for you, good me. And especially good for Nolan."

I had a close friend Robert "Red" Gaskell, and he was my bird-dog, my sub-scout, back then.  "Your assignment," I told him, "is to watch Nolan Ryan pitch. Wherever he goes, you go."

Nolan had some rough times  pitching in high school.  He did not pitch well when Red Murff brought along Mets executive Bing Devine to watch him in a game. Perhaps that was the main reason for what happened next.

RED MURFF: The New York Mets wound up drafting Ryan in the eighth round in 1965. He was the 295th player taken in the draft. The thought that the best arm that I've seen was taken so low deeply bothered me. But I knew what we had. And I was intent on signing him.

Steve Vernon, a former farmer who had gone to college and became a sportswriter in Texas City, got the Ryans' okay to sit in on our signing discussions. The Ryans welcomed Steve to their home to watch and listen, but he could have no input in the discussions.

We had two meetings with the family. Our third meeting took place June 28, 1965. I recall it was a lovely Texas evening. We sat around the kitchen table: Nolan, his mother and father, the sportswriter Vernon and me.

"Major leaguers make so much money, I am almost embarrassed to talk about it," I told Nolan. "You can make $150,000  a year if you're real good." Little did either of us imagine  he would one day make a million dollars a year.

The Met offer was a good bundle of cash for an eighth round pick. With incentives and a college scholarship, the total package reached about $30,000. We talked some and I then gave him the pen.

"It's your turn, Nolan, "I said. "It's your turn to get on the mound now." He sat there and reached for the pen, then shied away like it had some electric current in it. Then he rubbed his hand and stared at that old pen. We sat there in that house with all the memories of Nolan's growing up years, his plaques and trophies from Little League and high school sports. But Nolan did not pick that pen up. I'd been through it all before with signings - you just wait.

"Your mom and dad are waiting for you to sign, Nolan," I said. "It's on the table." The atmosphere in that house was like a ballpark in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded, two outs, and a 3-2 count on the batter. Everybody sitting there knew that something had to give.

What gave was Steve Vernon. He forgot his neutral-observer vow. "What's the matter with you, boy?" he cried, jumping out of his chair and throwing his hands in the air. "You crazy? Sign."

I didn't bring Vernon around for that purpose, but he sure as shootin' put the finishing touches on the deal. Nolan signed.

Writing that book also gave me a little moment of personal satisfaction in St Louis where I entered the press box at Busch Stadium along with the famed sportswriter Bob Broeg who I had read in the Sporting News. He introduced me to a few people, one of whom had a name that I had kept filed in "the one day folder"  in my head."
I asked this guy.  "Do you remember a review you did some years ago on a book SPORTS ROOTS?

"No," the guy said.

"Yes!" I said.  "You reviewed it and said the writer is a professor at a college in NYC and should stick to doing that and not write sports books. Well, I am that writer and I did not take your advice.

"Is that so," he smirked. "What are you doing now?"

"Mister, I am writing Nolan Ryan's autobiography.


#  #  #

You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

FROMMER SPORTSNET (syndicated) reaches a readership in the millions and is housed on Internet search engines for extended periods of time.
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Dr. Frommer is the Official Book Reviewer of Travel-Watch. 
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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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