Like the Beatles before him, Nolan Ryan performed at Shea Stadium and sang on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The first is a well-known and well-told part of Ryan’s life, the early days of a Hall of Fame career that eventually launched the Ryan Express like it was on rocket fuel. The last time he and the entire line-up of the 1969 Mets World Series winners sang “You must have a heart” to a nationwide television audience, is lesser known and is one of the many amazing parts of the new documentary:Face to face with Nolan“It will definitely bring smiles.
“I thought it was the worst costume I’ve ever seen,” said Reed Ryan, the eldest of Nolan and Ruth’s three children and the film’s executive producer. Reid laughed and added, “I’m not sure the mustard suit was even on him. I know he can’t sing, but it was funny.”
Nolan Ryan said that while he and his teammates might appear to sing along, they did sing along.
“We were all very excited to be on this show and that we were honored to be on it,” Ryan said during a recent phone call. “But the highlight of the evening for me was that Eddie Arnold was there. I was a big fan of Eddie Arnold and that made this evening special.”
What’s both charming and disarming about the film, which began airing on multiple streaming services this week, is Ryan’s amazing humility. A Hall of Famer pitcher who still holds 51 major league records — according to the movie’s tally — Ryan has a legend that easily fills his native Texas, but to some of his co-stars, he’s just a grandfather who tells corny jokes and who, Yes, they can’t sing. And he loves it.
High praise for Ryan comes in interviews with his fellow Hall of Famers. George Brett, Rod Carew, and Dave Winfield are some of the people who fail to understand the problem described in the film’s title. Pete Rose too. When reminded that Ryan came second to Baltimore’s Jim Palmer in voting for the 1973 American League Cy Young Award after a record 383 strikeouts (of course, Ryan also led the league that year with 162 walks), Carew reacts as if would have heard it for the first time.
“You must be joking!” Carew exclaims when told that Ryan has never won Cy Young.
Brett says: “Nolan never won a Cy Young Award? I thought he won three, four, five.”
That’s even more important today, given that the records he still holds include career strikeouts (5,714) and know-hitters (seven; Sandy Koufax is second with four). Standing ovations and star reviews certainly echo throughout the film, but the insight of family members is what plays on the emotions and lends director Bradley Jackson’s work a touching humanity. Ryan’s wife, Ruth, is an amazing and enduring pivot of the story.
“People say that if you marry a baseball player, you really marry a baseball player,” Ruth Ryan says in the film as she visits Nolan’s childhood home in tiny Alvin, Texas, and checks on the growth of the tree he planted in childhood. “There is a lot of truth in this statement.”
They celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary last month, although after their second date in 1962, that milestone seemed as unlikely as Ryan’s eventual dominance after control problems plagued him early in his career.
It wasn’t exactly a romantic outing: he took her to Colt Stadium to see the Koufax field.
“He didn’t want to talk to me,” Ruth said. “He didn’t get up.”
“We sat at the plate and watched Sandy Koufax from a bird’s eye view,” Nolan explained.
Although she says she was annoyed at first when veteran pitcher and scout Red Murph warned her that one day she would “have to share Nolan with the world,” Murff’s prediction came true, and this movie is just such a story. With a generational fastball (“sounded like bacon in a frying pan,” Roger Clemens says in the film), it was only a matter of time.
What wasn’t inevitable was Facing Nolan, which is essentially a video memoir of his wife, their three children, and seven grandchildren disguised as a baseball documentary.
“He said no,” Reid Ryan said. “My mom said, ‘I’ve been with you everywhere, and you’re going to do this movie with me.’ If it wasn’t for her, this movie wouldn’t have been possible.”
“I’m not very comfortable talking about what happened in my career and all of that, and so I really talked Bradley and them out of it,” he said. “But my kids just held on to me. They felt that this was what I should have done for my grandchildren, and Ruth felt the same way. So I finally agreed to do it.”