Nolan Ryan’s secret ingredient
As an eleven year old, I can remember leafing through a copy of LIFE magazine while waiting to get a hair cut at the barbers in Somerville, New Jersey. I was basically flipping through the award winning pictures that the magazine was known for, until one day, I came across an article about Nolan Ryan, the Mets young fire-baller.
I can remember reading: “Someday, when he puts it all together, they’re going to talk about Nolan Ryan the way they talk about Sandy Koufax.” – Ron Swoboda.
Red Murff signed Nolan Ryan in 1965, as the Mets fifth round draft pick, 250th overall. Apparently the rest of the major league teams did not covet this native of Alvin, Texas. He became legendary in places like: Greenville, South Carolina, Marion, Virginia, Williamsport, Pennsylvania and Winter Haven, Florida.
Before joining the Mets, he served in the army and battled a sore arm; Ryan only pitched eleven innings at Winter Haven and Jacksonville in 1967. Still, he struck out twenty-three batters.
His “coming-out” party took place in Houston, Texas on Easter Sunday in 1968. Nolan shut out Larry Dierker and the Astros. He ended up with ten strikeouts. He struck out seven of the first ten batters he faced. Joe Morgan, the future Hall of Fame member was his second victim. Unfortunately, Ryan needed to leave after 6 2/3 innings because of a blister. The strain of firing his fastball was the reason, so he switched over to his curveball, which was a “dandy” as far as the Houston hitters were concerned.
On the whole, the Houston Astros were impressed with his performance but some were not ready to compare him with Sandy Koufax. Bob Aspromonte, a Houston infielder offered this: “He’s not Koufax fast, but he’s right up there with Gibson and Maloney. He has a nice fluid delivery and really makes the ball pop.”
Nolan’s blisters were something that hampered him since his high school days. “I seldom could pitch more than five innings because of my blisters.”
Originally Gus Mauch, the Mets trainer treated the pitcher’s blisters with a solution of alum and alcohol, but it was unsuccessful. Before using Gus’ concoction, the pitcher used a medication call Tar Dermamet; it caused his blisters to disappear. Unfortunately, for some reason it also disappeared from the market.
Ryan’s blisters seemed to develop because he released his fastball with such velocity. He tried everything, concentrating on toughening his skin by coating it with kerosene, alcohol or nail polish. None proved to be helpful.
Then Mauch recalled how boxers toughen their skin. They used pickle brine. The trainer also heard that the Yankees also used the brine for two of their pitchers, Hank Borowys and Tom Morgan. After consulting with the Yankee’s trainer, Gene Monahan, he visited Daitch’s Shop well Market in the Bronx to purchase a jar of the of the liquid with ten cents. Ryan soaked his fingers in it every chance he got. He even dipped them in the jar while on the bench between innings. Some joked that Nolan Ryan would be named “Man of the Year” by the pickle packers of America!
“I can smell the brine when I’m pitching.” – Nolan Ryan
On May 2nd, Ryan tossed a 3-0 shut out over Woody Fryman and the Phillies. He struck out ten, walked seven over the seven innings he pitched before giving way to Ron Taylor. This time it was not due to blisters.
“Blisters or not, he was coming out. He had thrown 107 pitches and that was enough. You must realize that this boy hasn’t pitched in two years.” – Gil Hodges
Nolan Ryan admitted that he never tried pickles; he didn’t think he would have enjoyed them but fortunately for baseball, he took a liking to pickle brine.
Nolan Ryan went on to be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999. You have to wonder if he brought a jar of brine to the ceremony!