The View From The Rear View Mirror - Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw
by Michael Jawitz, AKA: Grubby Glove
Nolan Ryan. Where to begin? The images I have of Nolan Ryan are too numerous to count. Which portrait should be featured? The fire-balling young pitcher who unleashed bullets, some of which were actually strikes comes to mind. The dazzler who appeared in the third game of the 1969 National League Division Championship game against the Atlanta Braves is a nice one. The jubilant celebrant of yet another no hitter is high on anyone’s list. The unflappable veteran who so graciously introduced a hard-charging Robin Ventura to his fist is a classic. The seasoned master acknowledging the applause of tens of thousands after recording his 5,000th strikeout always works for me. How about the retired gentleman accepting his plaque upon his induction into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York for a fitting image? Any of these options will successfully illustrate his long and triumphant career in the big leagues.
For many long in the tooth New York Mets fans, however, there is one more image that might do the trick, that of a pickle barrel. As strange as it might seem, this is the one that comes to my mind first, because in his early days, Nolan Ryan had an ongoing problem with finger blisters. On Easter Sunday, 1968, in a game at Houston’s Astrodome, he stuck out seven of the first ten hitters the Astros sent to the plate. Two of the better known victims among this bunch were future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, and the “Toy Cannon,” Jimmy Wynn. For his efforts he won his first game as a big league pitcher, and left before its conclusion with a finger blister. The Mets Trainer, Gus Mauch, came up with a remedy I had never heard of before. He bought some kosher pickles from a New York City delicatessen, and had the young flame thrower soak his fingers in the pickle brine on his off days. This is my primary recollection of his early years, when all seemed both possible. The Miracle Mets were a year away, but many of the pieces were already in place. Nolan Ryan was one of those pieces.
This is Nolan Ryan's 1970 Topps card. It features a beautiful image of our man standing in Shea Stadium. It’s a high number, too. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that term, back in the day baseball card manufacturers would issue cards in series. By the time the later series came out, the season was nearing its conclusion and fewer people were purchasing packs. As a result, fewer of the high number cards got out. Now that many decades have passed, high number cards can be very costly, especially if the subject is a Hall of Famer. This card is # 712 out of a 720 card set.
This is a special card for me, one that I’ve enjoyed for almost thirty years. It was a great birthday gift that I still have. I didn’t know what was inside the gift box at the time, but I knew from the size and shape of the box that it was a tie. I was asked to open the tie first, and upon doing so I found the 1970 Nolan Ryan card instead! Thank you, Nancy. Thank you, Steve.
Tug McGraw. This is Tug McGraw’s 1966 Topps card, among my favorites of the two dozen cards he appeared on during his career. Its various elements, including the young left-handed pitcher, Shea Stadium, the blue sky and the 1964 – 1965 New York World’s Fair patch add up to an eye-pleasing combination.
The visual image is just one of the reasons why I am featuring it here. This card was issued at a time when real, legitimate major league players were beginning to arrive after being developed in the Mets minor-league system. By 1965 they were arriving at the rate of two or three a season. Tug McGraw was a fan favorite as well as a glimmer of hope.
One game early in his stay with the Mets stands out. I remember the game as if it was played yesterday. The Los Angeles Dodgers were the opponent on Thursday, August 25, 1965, when in front of 45,950 fans, Tug McGraw defeated Sandy Koufax in what was a close contest until the bottom of the eighth when the Mets pushed a couple of insurance runs across the plate. I don’t quite remember the headline, but I swear the win made the front page of the New York Daily News. “Rookie Beats Koufax,” is what I recall. Who knows if it happened that way, or even happened at all? It’s a happy recollection, one that makes me smile to this very day.
Tug became one of my favorite Mets. He was spirited and exceedingly likable. He was the "Ya Gotta Believe" guy whose enthusiasm proved impossible to resist. Although he spent the last part of his career with another team, for me, he will always be a Met. Thanks, Tug. I still believe.