Some of you will go to Cooperstown later this month to see Craig Biggio become the first member of the Hall of Fame to have an Astros cap on his plaque. He is not the first member of the Hall of Fame to play for the Astros. That list is...
Joe Morgan (1963-1971, 1980), Nellie Fox (1964-65), Robin Roberts (1965-66), Eddie Mathews (1967), Nolan Ryan (1980-88), Don Sutton (1981-82), and Randy Johnson (1998).
Of course, the one player that sticks out on this list is Nolan Ryan. Why in the world is he not wearing an Astros cap on his plaque? Ryan played 27 seasons - nine of them in Houston, more than any other team (he spent eight years with the Angels, and five each with the Mets and Rangers). Twice in his career did he lead the League in ERA, 1981 and 1987, both seasons in Houston. Two of the best seasons in Astros' franchise history - 1981 and 1986 - came with him anchoring the rotation. The best years of Ryan's career were with the Astros.
Yet when Ryan's likeness was enshrined in bronze in Cooperstown, having been chosen by 491 of the 497 (who were the six guys - because you know they're guys - who didn't think Ryan was a Hall of Famer?) voters in his first year of eligibility in 1999, he was wearing the mark of the beast on his forehead. How? Why?
First, let's clear something up: the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum has the final say as to the team represented on the Hall of Famer's cap, but this has nothing to do with Nolan Ryan. The Hall put that clause into effect because the then-Devil Rays offered Wade Boggs a clause in his contract that would result in further financial gain if he chose a Tampa Bay logo for his Hall of Fame plaque. Seeing as how Boggs played just 213 of his 2440 career Major-League games in Tampa Bay, the Hall of Fame said, "Nah" to that. But this was after Ryan had been elected and inducted.
So how did Nolan end up in the Hall of Fame as a Ranger and not an Astro?
At a press conference at Alvin Community College after his election was announced, Ryan said he'd wear a Rangers cap:
The reason for that is I feel those last five years with the Rangers, because of some of the things that happened there - the 5,000th strikeout, the no-hitters, the 300th win - brought my career and my presence in the game to another level. I feel those were very special years there.
At the time, Hall of Fame spokesman Jeff Idelson (who is now the President of the Hall of Fame) said:
Nolan is a very thoughtful thinker and we were happy with his decision.
I'm not buying it. If you're pitching in your Age 42-46 seasons, you're going to hit some milestones. But a key indicator came from a throwaway line in the previous link, courtesy of the New York Daily News, where they reported that Ryan specifically mentioned Rangers fans and management treating him well.
Which brings us to Dr. John McMullen. Architect, engineer, and sports franchise owner, McMullen bought the Houston Astros from Ford Motor Company Credit in 1979 (he bought the hockey franchise that would become the New Jersey Devils three years later). He had been a limited owner of the New York Yankees, but sold his stock in the Yankees to purchase the Astros, remarking that "Nothing is so limited as being one of George's (Steinbrenner) limited partners."
Ryan had once said that "I would buy my own bus ticket to get to Houston if I could pitch for the Astros." After Ryan strained a muscle in his pitching elbow in early August 1979 and finished the season 16-14, Angels GM Buzzie Bavasi said that Ryan could be replaced by two 8-7 pitchers. So the Astros' new owner took advantage of the Angels' mistake and signed the 32-year old Ryan to a three-year deal, making him the first professional athlete to make $1m.
During Ryan's tenure in Houston, he threw his 3,000th and 4,000th career strikeouts, broke Walter Johnson's strikeout record, broke Sandy Koufax's no-hitter record, and led the Astros to the playoffs in 1980, 1981, and 1986.
In 1987 Ryan led the NL with a 2.76 ERA, striking out a league-leading 270 batters, with a league-leading 142 OPS+, a league-leading 6.5 Hits/9, a league-leading 11.5 K/9, and a league-leading 3.10 K:BB ratio. Still, he was 8-16 for the 1987 Astros, whose 648 runs scored were 11th out of 12 NL teams. And because sportswriters haven't evolved much in the last 28 years, the Astros' piss-poor offense led to Ryan finishing 5th in the Cy Young voting.
Still, Ryan wasn't sure if John McMullen would pick up his $1m option for 1988. McMullen wanted to restructure his contract:
Is Nolan overcompensated? I think based on his record, probably the answer is yes. I want Nolan back and I think he should be back, but I think we need some minor modifications.
Pete Rose couldn't believe it:
I can't believe a team would ask a guy to renegotiate his contract when he leads the league in strikeouts and earned run average. It should be the other way around. If I could get him I'd send a Porsche...no, I'd send a Rolls Royce to pick him up.
Manager Hal Lanier didn't want to consider the possibility that Ryan would leave the Astros over financial issues:
It's not Nolan's fault that we didn't score any runs for him. He deserved better.
Ultimately McMullen did pick up Ryan's option for 1988 and Ryan was 12-11 with a 3.52 ERA, leading the NL in strikeouts with 228 and in K/9 with 9.3. A free agent in the offseason, McMullen gambled that his 41-year old pitcher with obviously diminishing returns (sarcasm implied) would rather stay in Houston than become a free agent, and those diminishing returns should result in a diminished salary of a 20% pay cut, from $1m plus incentives to $800,000 plus additional incentives to make up the loss in base salary.
On October 27, Ryan filed for free agency. John McMullen was not happy.
I would have to say it was discouraging and disappointing to hear. I guess in this business there's no such thing as loyalty.
Eventually McMullen would up his offer to 1yr/$1.3m but it was too late and too little money. Ryan informed the Astros in early December 1988 that he would not be re-signing with the team and considered offers from the Giants (2yrs/$3.2m), Angels (2yrs/$3.4m), and the Rangers (2yrs/$3.4m, plus incentives). Ryan chose the Rangers because of their aggressiveness in wooing him. Ryan said "the overriding factor was what I felt was best for myself and my family. Also, I'm a die-hard Texan and want to remain in Texas." Manager Bobby Valentine called the signing the "most important transaction the Texas Rangers have ever made."
McMullen complained at the following Spring Training that the media was overly-critical of his financial strategy and holding salaries down:
It's not a question of holding the line, it's pay for value received. But (the media) are still talking about Jose Cruz and Dickie Thon (both players were released by McMullen).
But McMullen wouldn't talk about Ryan:
That's another subject I don't wish to discuss because it's such an unfair and emotional subject. It's impossible to explain it.
Ryan wasn't the only one who found McMullen difficult to work with: In March 1989, three months after Ryan signed with the Rangers, Astros minority owner Don Sanders filed a lawsuit for more influence in the organization due to a lack of leadership from McMullen, and said that McMullen was untruthful when saying he made "a very respectful offer" to Ryan.
Incidentally, Don Sanders and Nolan Ryan would later form a partnership, Ryan Sanders Baseball, which owns the Round Rock Express and the Corpus Christi Hooks (or did, anyway; the Astros are planning to buy the team).
When Ryan pitched in an exhibition game between the Rangers and Astros in 1993, Ryan said he looked back fondly at his time in Houston:
My feelings haven't changed. They've never changed toward the organization or the fans. I left there because of John McMullen's attitude.
That attitude is ultimately what led to his departure from Houston, the Rangers' subsequent emotional and financial embrace, and the first Ranger cap in the Hall of Fame.