Like the Beatles did shortly before him, Nolan Ryan performed at Shea Stadium and sang on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The former 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 as if by rocket fuel. The latter, when he and the entire 1969 Mets World Series-winning roster sang “You Gotta Have Heart” to a national television audience, is less known and one of the many surprising parts of a new documentary, “Facing Nolan,” that surely will elicit smiles.
“I thought that was the worst suit I’ve ever seen,” Reid Ryan, the oldest of Nolan and Ruth’s three children and an executive producer of the film, said. Reid laughed and added: “I’m not sure the mustard suit was ever in. I know he can’t sing, but that was funny.”
Nolan Ryan said that though it might look as if he and his teammates were lip-syncing, they really were singing.
“We were all plenty excited about being on that show and the honor it was to be on it,” Ryan said during a recent telephone conversation. “But the highlight of the evening for me was that Eddy Arnold was there. I was a big Eddy Arnold fan, and that made the night special.”
What is both charming and disarming about the film, which began streaming on multiple services this week, is the surprising humility shown by Ryan. A Hall of Fame pitcher that still owns 51 major-league records — according to the film’s count — Ryan has a legend that easily fills his native Texas, but to some of his on-screen co-stars he is simply grandpa, who tells corny jokes and who, yes, cannot sing. And he loves it.
The high praise for Ryan comes in interviews with his fellow Hall of Famers. George Brett, Rod Carew and Dave Winfield are among those who offer keen insight into the challenge that is described in the film’s title. Pete Rose, too. Upon being reminded that Ryan finished second to Baltimore’s Jim Palmer in the 1973 American League Cy Young Award voting after a record-setting 383 strikeouts — of course, Ryan also led the league that year with 162 walks — Carew reacts as if hearing it for the first time.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Carew exclaims when told Ryan never did win a Cy Young.
Says Brett: “Nolan never won a Cy Young Award? I thought he won three, four, five.”
That is even more affecting today given that among the records he still holds are those for career strikeouts (5,714) and career no-hitters (seven; Sandy Koufax is second with four). The standing ovations and star-studded testimonials echo throughout the film, of course, but the insight of family members is what strums the emotions and gives the director Bradley Jackson’s work its touching humanity. The surprising, sturdy backbone of the story is Ryan’s wife, Ruth.
“People say that if you marry a baseball player, you really marry baseball,” Ruth Ryan says in the film while visiting Nolan’s childhood home in tiny Alvin, Texas, and checking the progress of a tree he planted as a young boy. “There’s a lot of truth to that statement.”
The two celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary last month, though, after their second date in 1962, that milestone seemed as unlikely as Ryan’s eventual dominance after control problems had plagued his early career.
It was not exactly a romantic outing: He took her to the Colt Stadium to see Koufax pitch.
“He wouldn’t talk to me,” Ruth said. “He wouldn’t get up.”
“We were sitting behind the plate with a bird’s-eye view of Sandy Koufax,” Nolan explained.
Though she says she was initially irritated when the old pitcher and scout Red Murff warned her that one day she “was going to have to share Nolan with the world,” Murff’s prediction came true, and this film is that 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 was not inevitable was “Facing Nolan,” which essentially is a video memoir to his wife and their three children and seven grandchildren disguised as a baseball documentary.
“He said no,” Reid Ryan said. “My mom said, ‘I’ve been all over the place with you, and you’re going to do this movie with me.’ If it wasn’t for her, this movie would not have gotten done.”
“I’m not real comfortable talking about what happened in my career and all the things, and so I really discouraged Bradley and them from doing it,” he said. “But my kids just kept on me. They felt like it was something I needed to do for my grandkids, and Ruth felt the same way. So I finally agreed to do it.”