50 Greatest Kauffman Stadium Moments, #32: Ryan’s No-Hitter (May 15, 1973)

Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.

Of the three no-hitters thrown at Kauffman Stadium, I ranked this one at the top, even though the Royals were the victim. Simple reasoning: when a game is part of a major-league record, it is more important. And this one is part of a record that, given the trends in baseball today, is never going to be topped.

Nolan Ryan threw seven no-hitters in his career. Guys barely throw seven complete games in their careers anymore. OK, that’s a little simplistic, and this is definitely not a “baseball used to be better” rant. It is simply an acknowledgement that, even as batting averages drop and strikeouts rise, there is a concurrent dropoff in starters going deep in games. It certainly feels like it is more likely for someone to be part of seven combined no-hitters than doing it themselves that many times, doesn’t it?

Anyway, Ryan had a 1973 season that seems like it was authored by someone from a different planet. He started 39 games, pitched in relief a couple more times, threw 326 innings, 26 complete games, struck out 383 batters, and walked 162. Final record: 21-16, with a 2.87 ERA. By the way, that 326 innings didn’t even lead the league, although the strikeout and walk numbers did (the 383 strikeouts is still a major-league record). 

Royals Stadium was barely a month old when it saw its first no-hitter. It was also the first of Ryan’s seven no-nos. Oddly enough, in his previous start, against Chicago, Ryan gave up five runs before being pulled with one out in the first inning. And as he warmed up in the bullpen before this game, he was worried about a repeat.

“In the bullpen, I was terrible. I got better as the game went along. I didn’t think I had exceptional stuff in the beginning.”–Ryan, quoted by Dick Miller, The Sporting News, June 2, 1973

Royals hitters might have disagreed. California put up two runs in the top of the first off Royals starter Bruce Dal Canton. Vada Pinson led off with a single, was bunted to second, and took third on a fly ball. After Dal Canton walked Frank Robinson, former Royal Bob Oliver singled for one run and future Kansas City T-Bones manager Al Gallagher singled for another run.

Ryan followed that with three strikeouts in the bottom of the inning, although he walked Steve Hovley with one out, so there was never any drama in this one about a perfect game. Ryan then struck out one in the second and two more in the third, along with a walk of Carl Taylor. Through three innings, the Royals hadn’t hit the ball out of the infield. 

Kansas City manager Jack McKeon had complained to the umpires in the first inning that Ryan was not maintaining contact with the pitching rubber. Now, after the third inning, he told the umpires that he wanted to play the game under protest, since they had only issued a warning to Ryan.

“(First base umpire) John Rice told me Ryan was lifting his foot off the rubber. I told (plate umpire Jim) Evans, ‘Did you hear that? Then put it in your report.’”–McKeon, quoted by Dick Miller, The Sporting News, June 2, 1973

But Rice said Ryan was merely lifting his foot when he pivoted toward home, as any pitcher would. Evans agreed, and Ryan remained in the game. Afterward, he claimed the controversy actually helped him.

“Jack did me a favor, causing all that commotion. When I bring my foot off the rubber, it usually means I’m rocking back too far, and I get wild, high. He didn’t shake me up, he settled me down. I cut my back stride and everything turned out just fine.”–Ryan, quoted by Dick Miller, The Sporting News, June 2, 1973

The Royals would make a little more contact after McKeon’s protest, but still couldn’t get a hit. For the most part, they couldn’t even get around on Ryan’s fastball, hitting it the opposite way. Gallagher, at third base, did not have a fielding chance all night. Neither did Pinson in left field.

“He was throwing the ball harder than any man I ever saw in my life.”–John Mayberry, quoted by Dick Miller, The Sporting News, June 2, 1973

Ryan picked up another strikeout in the fourth and one more in the fifth. Oliver hit a solo home run in the top of the sixth to give California a 3-0 lead. Ryan rolled through the bottom of the inning, with another K to give him nine for the game.

Angels manager Bobby Winkles made a crucial decision after Oliver made the last out of the seventh. He put Ken Berry (born in Kansas City and raised in Topeka) in right field for defense. It didn’t matter right away, but it would eventually.

The Royals finally came close to a hit in the eighth. With two outs, Ryan walked Paul Schaal. McKeon sent Gail Hopkins up to bat for catcher Carl Taylor. Hopkins, in an impressive performance for a guy coming off the bench, actually made contact and hit a popup to short center field. Shortstop Rudy Meoli, who had only had one play to make so far, raced out and made a backhanded catch, ending the inning.

Kansas City had one more chance. Ryan easily dispensed with the first two batters in the ninth, blowing away Hovley for his 12th strikeout of the evening. But that walk to Schaal ensured that Amos Otis would get one more plate appearance. Otis had been the only Royal so far to pull the ball, grounding out to Meoli in the seventh. He was also motivated to back up his talk from the dugout. Otis and Ryan had been teammates on the New York Mets, and the Royals’ center fielder had spent quite a bit of time trying to shake up the hurler.

“I yelled at him all through the game. I called him every name you could think of and told him we were going to break it up. All he did was look at me and shake his head. The man derailed the Big Blue Bus.”–Otis, quoted by Charlie Smith, UPI, May 16, 1973

Otis launched a fastball to deep right field. Berry, who had won a Gold Glove as a center fielder in 1972, raced to the wall, hauling in the ball about a foot from the fence. 

“I was more concerned about the ball hitting the wall than going over it. But I couldn’t have picked a better outfielder out there.”–Ryan, quoted by the Associated Press, May 16, 1973

“He pulled me down at the 385 sign. Right there on the warning track. If Bob Oliver had been out there, I’d have had it, I’d have broken it up.”–Otis, quoted by Sam Mellinger, Kansas City Star, May 20, 2008

The Angels mobbed Ryan on the mound, honoring his first no-hitter. Few could have suspected he would pitch seven more, least of all the man himself.

“I’ve never felt like I was the type of pitcher to throw a no-hitter. My curve isn’t the type that is overpowering. And I don’t have the type of fastball that really moves like some lefthanders throw.”–Ryan, quoted by Charlie Smith, UPI, May 16, 1973

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