Nolan Ryan’s Reign as The Million Dollar Man

Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax

Remember all the hub-bub that fell out into news stories when the Houston Astros signed Nolan Ryan in November 1979 as the first Million-Dollar-Pitcher in MLB history? According to New York Times sources, Ryan’s first year 1980 salary as an Astros tipped the scales at $1,125,000 for that first season.

Unlike today’s more recent contracts, however, it didn’t really ever skyrocket higher from there. At Houston, it remained at $1,125,000 for four straight seasons (1980-83) and then dropped to an even $1,000,000 for 1984. Then it rose in 1985 when the Astros raised it to $1,350,000, before dropping it again to the familiar dip figure of $1,125,000 for each of the next two seasons (1986-87).

The Astros-Ryan-Million-Dollar-Annual-Salary-Dance was heading into its final run in Houston when the team cut his salary again to the $1,000,000 bottom line for 1988. That year would be the last of nine seasons in which it was OK to rise a few dollars above the original $1.25 mil as long as a salary never slipped below $1 mil as some kind of informal unwritten description of ego-bending failure for the man whose talent and home area appeal were the two original ingredients that made it all possible in the first place.

Going into 1989, $1,000,000 a year as a symbol of incredible success was no longer the exclusive province of Nolan Ryan, but it would land with the sting of failure to be asked again to take less than that much money to pitch anywhere in the big leagues for the gentlemanly larger-than-life baseball talent from Alvin, Texas.

And wouldn’t you just guess what happened next? With Nolan Ryan coming off a less than brilliant 1988 year, New Jersey-grounded owner John McMullen asked the famous Texas fireballer to take a pay cut for 1989. Now the number that once had defined Nolan Ryan as baseball’s greatest pitching success by giving him the first one-million dollar annual salary would take it all away with another of those classic reversals of fortune.

Now, for Nolan Ryan alone, over this brief moment in time, pitching a baseball in the big leagues for anything less than a million dollars a year symbolically had become the signature on failure. This latest offer would take Ryan back to a salary that paid out less than $1 million a year.

John McMullen didn’t understand that part of the equation ~ less than a mil represented failure to Ryan ~ and it cost the Astros and all of us fans a lot of bitter pain, loss, and big disappointment.

The other possibility exists that McMullen did understand that an offer to Ryan of less than a million would drive him away ~ and that rejection was exactly the reaction he was hoping to create in the elder pitcher. That outcome would then supposedly show the fans that the Astros had made an attempt to keep Ryan, but that the elder pitcher wasn’t willing to take a justifiably small salary decrease for the sake of the team.

If this second possible motivation was behind McMullen’s Ryan-pay-cut offer plan, it failed miserably. After Ryan’s rejection of McMullen’s downgrade offer, by whatever way in which it was communicated back to McMullen, you probably know the rest of this sad and angry Astro fans story.

That other Texas team, the Texas Rangers, signed the 42-year old Ryan to pitch for them in 1989 at his highest salary in history to this point at $1,800,000. Ryan would pitch five seasons for the Texas Rangers, never falling below the $1.4 mil he received in 1990 ~ and then taking his money through the roof in 1991 at $3.3 mil in 1992, $4.4 mil in 1993, and $3.757 mil in his final season of 1993.

On the field as a Ranger, Nolan Ryan used the time to pitch the 6th and 7th no-hitters of his career while also adding the final 51 of his 324 career MLB wins, and also showing Robin Ventura a new way to part his hair, and then going into the Baseball Hall of Fame with 98.8% of the BBWAA vote in 1999.

Wonder who the idiot was that didn’t vote for Nolan Ryan?



Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher




One Response to “Nolan Ryan’s Reign as The Million Dollar Man”

  1. Larry Dluhy Says:

    Nice article thanks Bill

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: