Remembering the day Nolan Ryan and Rickey Henderson made history
While the baseball world awaits its first milestone moment or no-hitter of the season, it's worth remembering that on this day 24 years ago we got both just hours apart. The fact that they were signature moments in two of the most unique careers in recent memory—and set records that won't be broken anytime soon—only made them more special. On the afternoon of May 1, 1991, the A's Rickey Henderson swiped his 939th stolen base, breaking Lou Brock's all-time record, while that night in Texas, Nolan Ryan threw his seventh and final no-hitter, blanking the Blue Jays in Arlington.
Having just begun his third season with the Rangers, the 44-year-old Ryan was still going strong, coming off a year in which he went 13-9 with a 3.44 ERA. On June 11, 1990, he no-hit Henderson’s A's for his sixth career no-no and his first since Sept. 26, 1981, when he had broken Sandy Koufax’s record of four, while on July 31, he notched his 300th win by beating the Brewers. He also led the American League with 232 strikeouts, his fourth straight year finishing first and the 11th time he had done so in his then 24-year career.
Still able to pump his fastball into the mid-90s, Ryan began the 1991 season by striking out at least nine in all four of his starts preceding the no-hitter, running his all-time record total to 5,345, 1,209 more than the next-closest pitcher, Steve Carlton. He had expended 131 pitches in his previous outing, and in the video linked at MLB.com, Rangers pitching coach Tom House and manager Bobby Valentine noted that Ryan's pregame warm-up on May 1 had given them cause for concern due to the legend's balky back and aging knees. "We've got to get somebody up quick, because Nolan doesn't have it today," House said to Valentine before the game.
Facing a lineup whose nucleus—Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, John Olerud and Devon White—would help the Blue Jays win the AL East title that year and then back-to-back world championships in 1992 and '93, Ryan had to work around a two-out walk to Kelly Gruber in the first inning, but by the time he returned to the bench after the frame, he had found a comfort zone. "Boys, get me one [run], that's all I'm going to need today," he told his teammates.
In the second inning, Ryan froze Olerud, Mark Whiten and Glenallen Hill with third-strike curveballs, jump-starting a stretch in which he retired 18 Toronto batters in a row, 12 via strikeouts. In the third, the Rangers provided all of the offense Ryan would need via a three-run rally against Jays starter Jimmy Key, highlighted by a two-run homer by Ruben Sierra.
Playing centerfield, the fleet-footed Gary Pettis made one of the key defensive plays behind Ryan, robbing Manny Lee of a hit on a sixth-inning bloop into shallow center (you can see it in the video above or around the 1:22:20 mark in the complete video here). Pettis, who was shading to left-center, lost his cap in the pursuit, which finally ended just short of the infield dirt behind second base.
Ryan's streak of consecutive batters retired ended when he walked Carter with two outs in the seventh. Toronto's hardest-hit ball came when Whiten smoked a line drive to rightfield in the eighth, but Sierra ran it down; it was just the fourth ball to reach the outfield all night.
Ryan entered the ninth inning with a pitch count of 106. After quickly disposing of Lee via a groundout to second baseman Julio Franco, he needed seven pitches to retire White on another grounder to Franco. That brought up Alomar, himself a future Hall of Famer. Ryan quickly jumped ahead 0-2 but his four subsequent pitches failed to get the 27th out. Finally, on his 122nd pitch of the night, Ryan blew a fastball past Alomar—who dropped to his knee after swinging through it—thus completing no-hitter number seven. Despite all the pitching dominance of the past two years, no hurler has thrown more than two no-hitters, and the only men to have done so in baseball history remain Ryan, Koufax (four), Larry Corcoran (whose career ended in 1887), Bob Feller and Cy Young (three apiece).
Ryan would finish the 1991 season 12-6 with a 2.91 ERA and 203 strikeouts, though he spent three weeks on the disabled list in August due to a sore shoulder that he attributed to the no-hitter. He would spend two more years in the majors before finally retiring after the '93 campaign with 324 wins and a record 5,714 strikeouts. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1999.
While Ryan was close to the end of his career when he authored his latest gem that day, Henderson was still in his prime. In 1990, his age-31 season, he had tied his career high with 28 homers while hitting .325/.439/.577 en route to an AL-best 189 OPS+. His led the league in on-base percentage, runs (119) and steals (65), the 10th time he had topped the AL in the latter category. Not only did he help the A's to their last of three straight pennants, he won the AL MVP award.
Henderson entered the 1991 season with 936 steals, two shy of Brock's total, but his pursuit of the record was slowed when he missed 14 games in April due to a calf strain. He came off the DL on April 27, and tied Brock the next day with a swipe against the Angels. Three days later, facing the Yankees, he drew a first-inning walk off Tim Leary but was thrown out trying to steal second by catcher Matt Nokes. After striking out to end the second inning, he reached on an error to lead off the fourth, then took second on a Dave Henderson single. With Harold Baines at the plate, Henderson lit out for third with one out. Nokes bounced his throw to Randy Velarde, and Henderson was safe with the record-breaker.
Play stopped as a triumphant Henderson uprooted the base and held it aloft. The Oakland crowd gave its hometown hero a lenghty standing ovation, and Henderson's family and Brock came onto the field to congratulate him. Handed a microphone, Henderson, with trademark chutzpah, announced, "Lou Brock was a great base stealer, but today I am the greatest of all time!"
Henderson finished with an AL-best 58 stolen bases in 1991 and earned All-Star honors for the 10th and final time. The A's won just 84 games, however, and failed to win the AL West for the only time from 1988-92. Already on his second stint in the green-and-gold, Henderson would bounce around the majors for another 12 years, returning to Oakland for two more stints and wearing the uniforms of seven other teams. He would accumulate 1,406 stolen bases in all, and set records for runs scored (2,295) and walks (2,190, later broken by Barry Bonds). On Oct. 7, 2001—the final day of the season—playing for the Padres, he collected his 3,000th hit via a bloop double against the Rockies. He would retire with 3,055 and be elected to the Hall of Fame in 2009.
Given the evolution of today’s game toward innings and pitch count limits for pitchers as well as a decline in the prominence of the stolen base, we may never see Ryan's no-hit record or Henderson's stolen base mark surpassed. Nor will we see the likes of players as unique as the Ryan Express and the Man of Steal.