Born in Refugio, Texas, in 1947 as the youngest of six children, Lynn Nolan Ryan was no stranger to hard work and hand-me-downs. At six months old, his father, Lynn Nolan Ryan, Sr., who worked for Hastings Oil Field was transferred to Alvin, Texas, where Ryan spent the rest of his childhood and much of his adult life.
Growing up, Ryan was referred to as “Nolan” while his father was called “Lynn.” Both father and son were hardworking, reserved, and athletic, and enjoyed hunting, fishing, the outdoors, and sports. A third generation Texan, Ryan grew up in a community known for two things, oil and cattle, and Ryan loved both from an early age.
As a child, Ryan began delivering the Houston Post with his father when he was 8, a job that required him to wake up at 1 a.m. This trait of rising early, however, was something that Ryan would mimic throughout his career. It was a habit that would have him hailed by many as “the hardest working man in baseball.”
At age 7, Ryan got his first baseball glove, and by nine he has joined his first Little League team. Ages 11 and 12, Ryan made the all-star teams and had already pitched his first no hitter. Though Ryan had a good pitching arm, he actually played many sports in school, including basketball. This love of all things athletic was not unusual for the Ryan family and can be seen in Ryan’s parents, siblings, and grandchildren today.
For most people, Nolan Ryan’s legacy is baseball. In spite of Ryan’s legendary baseball career, to the Ryan family, the real legacy is in the character of the man, and not just the speed of his pitch. America has seen many great pitchers, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Cy Young, but what makes Nolan Ryan truly stand out among his peers is not only the amazing feats which took place at the mound, but also the man that he was when he walked away from it.
Still, it was not until the Mets scout, Red Murff, entered his life in 1963 and declared that Ryan had “the best arm he had ever seen” that Ryan began to seriously entertain dreams of professional baseball.
Three years later, a year after graduating from high school, Ryan began playing for the New York Mets in 1966. In 1967, Ryan missed most of the season due to illness, an arm injury, and service in the Army Reserves. 1967 was still a big year for Nolan, who married his high school sweetheart, Ruth Holdorff, on June 25. In 1968, however, he was playing for the Mets full time. Ryan and his young wife moved to New York at that point, but the two were always homesick for Texas and found the transition difficult. Ryan played for the Mets until 1971.
“When we first got married and moved to New York, my mom told me ‘just be yourself’. I was meeting a lot of famous people and didn’t know how to act, but that was good advice,” Ruth Ryan said.
Nolan, Ruth said, was at ease with anyone, regardless of their status. “I’ve always appreciated the fact that he has never changed his way with people,” she said. “He’s the same with everyone no matter who they are, and always has been.”
From 1972 to 1979, Ryan played for the California Angels, during which time all three of his children were born; Robert Reed in 1971, Nolan Reece in 1976, and Wendy Lynn in 1977.
From 1980 to 1988, Ryan played for the Houston Astros and from 1989 to 1992 he played for the Texas Rangers. In spite of his busy schedule, Ryan’s family was always a priority and he was simply unwilling to give up fatherhood for baseball. His family accompanied him whenever he traveled. During the off seasons he could often be found coaching his children’s basketball teams and taking them on hunting and fishing excursions.
He pitched successfully for an amazing four decades and was known for his surprising work ethic as well as for his fastball, which exceeded 100 miles per hour. Known as “the Ryan Express,” a nickname he picked up shortly after the movie Von Ryan’s Express came out, Ryan lived up to that name. He pitched his sixth no-hitter in 1990, with his 16-year-old son Reece serving as batboy.
“It was really special to be on the bench for that game,” Reece Ryan said. “I was sixteen, so I was old enough to understand the significance of that moment. I was very proud of him, and it was really pretty special to be a part of that time in his life.”
Ryan totaled 324 victories, and altogether pitched an amazing 27 seasons, the most of any player in Major League Baseball history. His career totaled 5,714 strikeouts, another all-time record, along with seven no-hitters and twelve one-hitters.
He was an eight time All-Star, and was the first pitcher in history to record 4,000 strikeouts in 1985. He holds 53 different Major League Baseball records as well as the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing the fastest baseball pitched at 100.9 miles per hour.
He is, to date, the only player in Major League Baseball history to have his jersey retired by three different teams: the Angels, Astros, and Rangers. He was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987 and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.
Nolan’s Family Tree
Nolan’s well-known work ethic and honesty have been attributed to his upbringing and the values passed down to him by his elders. Originally of Irish decent, Nolan’s great-great-great-great grandfather, Daniel Ryan, emigrated from Ireland to Savannah, Georgia in 1760. Daniel’s son, John Jacob Ryan was born in Alabama, and Daniel’s grandson John Ira Ryan was born in Mississippi in 1826.
John Ira Ryan lived in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, until after the Civil War, when he and his brother, Isaac Lawrence Ryan, moved to Texas and settled on farms in Pine Valley in Dewitt County. He married Mary Ann Otis, and he and his brother Isaac founded Ryan’s Chapel Methodist Church in 1866. John Ira’s son, William Franklin Ryan, was born in Mississippi in 1857. He married Elizabeth Dally and was father to Albert Jackson Ryan, Nolan’s grandfather. Albert was born in 1882 and married Angie Caroline Pullin Ryan. Their son Lynn Nolan Ryan, Sr., was born on October 11, 1907, and died in 1970.
Athough Ryan’s family heritage is Irish, according to his wife Ruth, he is all Texan.
“Whenever someone mentions being Irish, he says, ‘I’m not Irish, I’m Texan,’” Ruth said with a laugh.
Yet whether he is Texan or Irish, some of Ryan’s family traditions have made their mark. For example, the Ryan family is still Christian and still attends a Methodist church. Nolan, his father Lynn, and his children all attended First United Methodist Church in Allen, Texas, and faith is still important in the Ryan household.
Other traditions, such as hard work, honesty, and a lack of pretension remain as well.
Ryan’s father Lynn raised his children to work hard and put their best effort into everything, a fact that has been modeled throughout Nolan’s life. The desire to teach his children the same values led Ryan and his wife Ruth to give their then teenagers responsibilities around the ranch, and drive around in the old family pick-up for a few years until they could “earn” their first new vehicles. They taught their children to be modest, to be good stewards of their finances, and to treat everyone equally.
“We learned from our parents and grandparents that (notoriety) doesn’t matter,” Reece Ryan said. “That was a behavior we watched our parents model. We pride ourselves on that because you just never know when the tables are going to be turned. It is also something that my wife and I are trying to instill in our own kids.”
Another important family lesson remains. Though the entire family has a great love of sports, especially baseball, that lesson of “being yourself” still dominates. Nolan’s children and grandchildren have been taught since infancy that the best part of baseball is in enjoying the game, and not in attempting to repeat Nolan’s success. While it would be nice to pass on that legendary right arm, the Ryan family believes that being true to self and loving what you do is even better.