Just as the Beatles did shortly before him, Nolan Ryan performed at Shea Stadium and sang at The Ed Sullivan Show.
The first is a well known and narrated part of Ryan’s life, the early days of his Hall of Fame career that eventually launched Ryan Express as if it were rocket fuel. The latter, when he and the entire winning slate of the 1969 Mets World series sang “You Gotta Have Heart” to a national television audience, was a lesser known and one of the many amazing parts of the new documentary, “Facing Nolan,” that’s sure to bring smiles.
“I thought this was the worst suit I had ever seen,” said Reed Ryan, the eldest of Nolan and Ruth’s three children and executive producer of the film. Red laughed and added, “I’m not sure the mustard suit was ever there. I know he can’t sing, but that was funny.”
Nolan Ryan said that although it might sound as if he and his co-workers were lip syncing, they were really singing.
“We were all so excited to be part of this show and the honor it has been,” Ryan said during a recent phone conversation. “But the highlight of the evening for me was that Eddie Arnold was there. I was a huge fan of Eddie Arnold, and that made the night special.”
What is charming and disturbing about the film, which began airing on multiple services this week, is Ryan’s surprising modesty. Hall of Fame pitcher who still holds 51 major league records – according to movie stats – Ryan has a legend that easily fills his native Texas, but for some of his on-screen co-stars, he’s simply the grandfather, who tells corny jokes and who, yeah, can’t singing. And he loves him.
Great praise comes to Ryan in interviews with fellow Hall of Famers. George Brett, Rod Carew and Dave Winfield are among those who provide insight into the challenge described in the film’s title. Pete Rose, too. Reminding us that Ryan finished second to Baltimore’s Jim Palmer in the 1973 U.S. Cy Young Award vote after setting a record 383 strokes—of course, Ryan also led the league that year with 162 walks—Caro reacts as if he heard him for the first time.
“You must be kidding!” Caro yells when he tells Ryan he’s never won Young’s car.
“Nolan never won a Cy Young award? I thought he won three, four, five,” Brett says.
This makes more impact today given that among the records he still holds are those for career hits (5714) and career no-hitters (seven; Sandy Kovacs is second with four). Warm applause and star-studded testimonies reverberate throughout the film, of course, but it’s the family’s insight that galvanizes and gives director Bradley Jackson’s work a human touch. The surprisingly strong backbone of the story is Ryan’s wife Ruth.
“People say if you marry a baseball player, you really marry a baseball player,” says Ruth Ryan in the film while visiting Nolan’s childhood home in Little Alvin, Texas, as she inspects the progress of a tree he planted as a boy. “There is a lot of truth in this statement.”
The two celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary last month, though, after their second date in 1962, the feat seemed as unlikely as Ryan’s eventual dominance after control issues plagued him early in his career.
It wasn’t exactly a romantic outing: He took her to Colt Stadium to see Kovacs.
“He didn’t talk to me,” said Ruth. “He won’t get up.”
“We were sitting behind the plate and looking up at Sandy Kovacs,” Nolan explained.
Although she says she was initially angry when bowler and scout Red Morph warned her that one day she would “have to share Nolan with the world,” Morph’s prediction came true, and this movie is that story. Roger Clemens says in the movie that with a generational quick ball (“it looks like bacon in a skillet”), it was only a matter of time.
What wasn’t inevitable was Encountering Nolan, which is essentially a video diary of his wife, three children, and seven grandchildren disguised as a baseball documentary.
“He said no,” Reed Ryan said. “My mom said, ‘I’ve been all over the place with you, and you’re going to do this movie with me. Without her, this movie would not have ended.
“I’m not really comfortable talking about what’s happened in my career and all things, and so I’ve really frustrated Bradley and they are from doing that,” he said. “But my kids stayed with me. They felt it was something I should do for my grandchildren, and Ruth felt the same way. So I finally agreed to do it.”