This Week in Baseball History: April 26 – May 2

A week of monumental beginnings and lots of strikeouts.

April 27, 1983 – Nolan Ryan’s 3,509th Strikeout


For over six decades, Walter Johnson held the title of baseball’s all-time strikeout king. He usurped the throne from Cy Young in 1921 with his 2,804th strikeout and tacked onto his lead until he retired in 1927 with 3,509 Ks. Nobody seriously threatened Johnson’s record for the first half of the modern era. In fact, Johnson was the only member of the 3,000 strikeout club until Bob Gibson joined on July 17, 1974.

I have to note that there is a discrepancy in Johnson’s career strikeout stats. Major League Baseball lists his career total as 3,508, while the HOF states that it is 3,509. So, back in 1983 everyone viewed 3,508 as the magic mark to beat, although today that isn’t the consensus. Anyway continuing on…

Perhaps Sandy Koufax (2,396 Ks) or Bob Feller (2,581 Ks) could’ve challenged Johnson’s record if they hadn’t lost multiple years of their prime to injury and military service, respectively. But eventually, Nolan Ryan would’ve passed them all.

The “Ryan Express” made its debut as a young Mets starter in 1966 without much success. Over his first five seasons in New York, Ryan would average a 3.58 ERA/98 ERA+ with 99 Ks over 102 IP.


Before the 1972 season, the Mets traded Ryan along with Frank EstradaDon Rose, and Leroy Stanton to the California Angels for Jim Fregosi, a star 29-year-old shortstop with six All-Star selections to his name. Injuries derailed Fregosi’s career, turning him into a below-average hitter during his two seasons with the Mets. Ryan would become an ace immediately.

In his first season with the Angels, Ryan recorded 329 strikeouts. The next year, he took it one giant leap further with 383 Ks—breaking Koufax’s 20th-century record of 382 Ks in 1965. Ryan would lead the league in strikeouts seven times while in California. Once his tenure with the Angeles ended in 1979 at age 33, Ryan had 2,909 Ks—the fourth-most ever. Johnson’s record stood clearly in his crosshairs.

But then Ryan migrated from California to Houston where he joined the Astros to kick off the 80s with a bang! But things didn’t immediately pan out for him. In his first season with the Astros, Ryan’s strikeouts were a tick worse (8.3 K/9 from ’80 to ’82) than with the Angels (10.0 K/9 from ’72 to ’79).

In the 1983 season, Ryan had some serious competition for Johnson’s record. Gaylord Perry and Steve Carlton were on his heels. Ryan led the pack with 3,494 Ks, while Carlton and Perry trailed him with 3,452 and 3,434 Ks, respectively. One small misstep or injury by Ryan and he would surely be passed.

In April, Ryan suffered a prostate infection that sidelined him for the first two weeks. In his two starts following his return, Ryan had just 10 Ks. Carlton, on the other hand, had an excellent April, with 46 Ks in his first five starts. Entering the last week of April, their totals stood at 3,504 for Ryan and 3,480 for Carlton.

On April 27, Ryan faced off against the Montreal Expos, a team that eventually finished the season with a borderline top 10 offense thanks to Andre DawsonTim Raines, and Gary Carter. Ryan was all over the place in the first inning, starting off the game giving up a leadoff single to Raines, who scored on Dawson’s sac fly. Although Ryan didn’t get a strikeout in the first, he got two in the second to inch his way closer to the finish line.

It took until the sixth to get another punch out. After a K-less seventh, Ryan drained a bothersome blister on his pitching hand. That was nothing more than a minor annoyance as Ryan struck out the leadoff batter in the eighth, putting his career total at 3,508 (which tied Johnson’s record at that time). Ryan didn’t have to wait long for sole possession. He punched out the next batter, Brad Mills, looking at an outside curveball for No. 3,509.


“I never realized 15 strikeouts could be so hard to come by,” Ryan told The New York Times.

Ryan’s afternoon ended without another strikeout, giving him a line of 8 IP, 5 H, 2 R (1 ER), 1 BB, and 5 K. Despite being the first pitcher to break Johnson’s 56-year-old record, Ryan did not finish the season as the all-time strikeout leader. Perry and Carlton both crossed that 3,509 plateau later in 1983. Their final totals after that season?

Carlton: 3,709. Ryan: 3,677. Perry: 3,534.


April 29, 1986 – Roger Clemens Strikes Out 20


Speaking of strikeouts…

For the first century of major league baseball, no pitcher had 20 Ks in one game. The dead ball-era record of 19 Ks belonged to Charlie Sweeney and Hugh Daily, who both reached that mark just one month apart in 1884. The first 20th-century pitcher to get 19 Ks was Steve Carlton in 1969, followed by Tom Seaver in 1970 and Nolan Ryan in 1974. Nobody could quite cross the hump to get the clean 2 and 0. But there was one pitcher who wasn’t afraid to get dirty…

Roger Clemens debut in 1984 was overshadowed by that of another star rookie pitcher named Dwight Gooden. Across 133.1 IP, Clemens had a 4.32 ERA/97 ERA+. His sophomore season, that number improved to a 3.29 ERA/130 ERA+ in 98.1 IP. But 1986 is when Clemens leaped superstardom.

In his first three starts, Clemens showed his potential to become the ace of a talented Red Sox team with a 1.85 ERA over 24.1 IP. His command was slightly off as he allowed 19 hits and 10 walks to 19 strikeouts. Clemens’ next start was on April 29 against the Mariners, and it came with little fanfare. It was a cool April night in the high 40s. There was just one photographer on the side of the field. Many Boston fans that night were watching Larry Bird and the Celtics face the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA Playoffs. So only 13,414 fans sat in Fenway Park to watch this relatively inconsequential matchup.

Those lucky fans witnessed absolute dominance. Clemens was red hot right out of the gate. Three up, three down in the first. In the second and third innings, the Mariners managed to put their bat on the ball as they fell victim to just three more strikeouts. During one stretch from the fourth through seventh, Clemens struck out 10 out of 11 batters he faced, including eight in a row. Just unhittable. Seattle could not catch up with his heater. Well, Clemens did give up a two-out, seventh-inning solo shot to Gorman Thomas. But that was the only time in the entire game that a Mariner made it past first base.

The top of the ninth came, Clemens, sitting at 18 Ks. The leadoff batter, Spike Owen, stood no chance.


19 Ks. Two outs to go to make history. Next up: Phil Bradley. Bradley had already batted three times that game, resulting in three strikeouts. How did his fourth time up go? Take a guess.


20 Ks. A feat rarer than a perfect game. And Clemens had become the first pitcher ever to do it. Unfortunately, Clemens couldn’t make the push to 21 as the next batter grounded out to end the game.

His final line: 9 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, and 20 K. Here you can watch every dominant strikeout from this masterclass.


This start sent Clemens’ 1986 season into hyperdrive. He finished the year with a 24 – 4 record, league-leading 2.48 ERA/169 ERA+/2.81 FIP and 238 K:67 BB over 254 IP. Clemens’ otherworldly performance earned him the AL Cy Young and MVP as he led the Red Sox to their first AL Pennant since 1975.


May 1, 1884 – Moses Fleetwood Walker’s First Game


63 years before Jackie Robinson, there was Moses Fleetwood Walker.

Walker’s debut in 1884 happened during an era that proceeded baseball as we know it today. Back then, six balls equaled a walk. As a hitter, you could tell the pitcher to throw you a ball either high or low. And Major League Baseball didn’t exist.

In the 19th century, many independent baseball leagues existed within a decentralized structure and no real governing body. One such league, the American Association (AA), served as a counterpart to the National League from 1882 to 1891. The AA expanded from eight teams in 1883 to 13 teams in 1884.

One such expansion team was the Toledo Blue Stockings, who played in the Northwestern League before moving to the AA for just the 1884 season. But during that one year, Toledo made history with its two African-American players: “Fleet” Walker and Welday Walker.

Fleet and Welday were brothers born pre-Civil War (1856 and 1860, respectively) to a family in southeastern Ohio. Fleet’s earliest recorded history with baseball happened in 1877 when he played on the Oberlin College prep team and gained recognition for his catching and hitting prowess. Welday joined him a couple of years later.


In 1881, the Walker brothers and Oberlin beat the University of Michigan 9 – 2 in the season’s final game. That performance so impressed Michigan that they encouraged the Walkers to transfer schools, and they happily obliged.

Fleet continued his excellent performance with Michigan, and he gained recognition from the Blue Stockings, who signed him for their 1883 season in the Northwestern League.

Despite Fleet’s success as a baseball player, he repeatedly encountered racial discrimination that served as a roadblock to his aspirations. During one game in 1883 between the Blue Stockings and Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings, the visiting White Stockings refused to play if Fleet started. However, Blue Stockings manager Charlie Morton called their bluff, knowing the team wouldn’t turn down that payday, and started Fleet anyway. Anson, who was one of baseball’s biggest stars at the time, declared, “We’ll play this game here, but won’t play never no more with the n***** in.”

The Blue Stockings ended in 1883 with the best record in the Northwestern League (56 – 28), which led to their incorporation with the AA in 1884. Fleet stayed with the team, playing his first MLB game on May 1, 1884, against the Louisville Eclipse.

Many newspapers followed this game closely, especially Fleet’s hometown Toledo Evening Bee. Fleet perhaps was rattled before that game by constant discrimination, such as the local hotel refusing to serve him breakfast. Unfortunately for Fleet, his performance suffered that day as he made multiple errors and failed to record a hit in three ABs.

Fleet finished his injury-shortened ’84 season as the Blue Stockings’ second best batter, hitting .263/.325/.316 (106 OPS+) with 166 PAs over 42 games. Welday joined the team a couple of months after Fleet. Welday had just 18 PAs in five games, hitting .222/.222/.278 (59 OPS+).

The Walker brothers never played in MLB again as they bounced around to various leagues while the walls of segregation slowly gradually formed across organized baseball. Anson’s superstardom and outspoken racist ideology likely served as a powerful pillar in establishing and maintaining that segregation.


May 2, 1995 – Hideo Nomo’s MLB Debut


Without Hideo Nomo, the MLB would have no Shohei Ohtani. Nor would there have been Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. Nomo paved the way for Japanese players to cross the Pacific and embark on a new chapter in their careers.

The first and last Japanese-born player to precede Nomo was Masanori Murakawi, a pitcher for the NPB Nankai Hawks who played two seasons with the San Francisco Giants from 1964 – 65. A dispute between the two teams over who owned Murakawi’s contract led to Murakawi’s return to Japan and an unofficial working agreement that barred Japanese players from switching to the MLB for decades.

That is until Nomo found a loophole.

Nomo was already a young star pitcher with a captivating “Tornado” windup, with a 78 – 48 record, 3.19 ERA, 1.324 WHIP, 1,211 Ks, and 1065 IP across five seasons in the NPB.


But Nomo was concerned about the excessive workload he experienced in Japan and wanted to show he could compete among the MLB’s biggest stars. Nomo and his agents scoured the working agreement for any available path to switching to the MLB, and they stumbled upon the voluntary retirement clause.

If Nomo retired, it would free him from his contractual obligations to the NPB if he decided to play in another country. So that’s exactly what he did before the 1995 season.

In Feb. ’95, the Dodgers signed Nomo to a minor league contract with a $2 million signing bonus, the largest ever at that time to a non-major league player. Nomo made one start with the Dodgers’ A+ affiliate (5.1 IP, 2 ER, 6 H, 1 BB, 6 K) while the team waited for the season to begin following the 1994-95 strike.

Baseball was reeling from the effects of that strike. In ’94, the average attendance per game reached an all-time high of 31,256. It plummeted to 25,021/game in ’95. Even today, baseball has struggled to reach its prior popularity— the MLB has surpassed an average of 31,000/game in just three seasons (2006 to 2008).

But Nomo’s enormous Japanese stardom caused “Nomomania” across America, echoing Fernando Valenzuela’s explosive popularity 15 years prior. Attendance boomed whenever Nomo started, and Tommy Lasorda even said that “it’s not too much to say that [Nomo] saved Major League Baseball.”


It all began with his debut on May 2.

Nomo had a tough welcoming to the majors, visiting the hometown San Francisco Giants and a deadly 1-2 punch of Barry Bonds and Matt Williams. But “The Tornado” showed he was ready for the challenge by striking out the very first batter he faced in the MLB.


The rest of the first had some rough waves as Nomo walked the bases loaded. But he escaped the inning unharmed after striking out Royce Clayton in an eight-pitch at-bat for the third out. From that point on, it was smooth sailing for Nomo, who allowed just one hit and one more walk the rest of the game. His final line: 5 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 7 K.

Nomo earned a no-decision as both offenses were held scoreless for 14 innings. Finally, in the top of the 15th, the Dodgers had a three-run rally to take a commanding lead. But in the bottom half of the inning, the Giants tied the game on a two-out, three-run dinger by Robby Thompson. Bonds, the next batter, singled to center, and then Williams drove him in with a walk-off double.

As a wise man always says, “that’s baseball, Suzyn.


Photo from Icon Sportswire | Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Alex Kleinman

Journalist who loves the Yankees and the Bears. One gives me strength, the other leads me to existential dread. When I'm not obsessing over baseball, you can find me at a concert, hiking in a National Park or chasing my dog, Frankie, who has probably stolen one of my socks.

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