Gary Nolan

June 9, 2009

Gary Nolan 77

A few things about Gary Nolan as I try to work my way back from the blogging disabled list:

1. My wife is from Cincinnati, and her sports-loving parents have three giant posters of Reds hanging in their house: Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, and Gary Nolan. The Bench and Rose posters are in the same classic and timeless style, big understated black and white head shots from the early 1970s that somehow communicate both youth and immortality. The Nolan poster is of a different, later vintage and seems dated and even a little desperate in the way it blares the name NOLAN in big letters below the action photo of a burly veteran hurler huffing and puffing as he follows through on a pitch.  

2. When I was a kid, my shaky understanding of the relative importance of Gary Nolan had its foundation in that last name, Nolan, which was the same as the first name of the most famous pitcher of the era. It was tough to spend any time thinking about Gary Nolan when your mind instantly suggests an alternative, Nolan Ryan.

3. The 1977 series of cards included cartoons on the back that did not have anything to do with the player featured in the card. It seems a little unfair to Gary Nolan that the cartoon on the back of his 1977 card focused on Nolan Ryan. The cartoon shows a frustrated batter walking from the field with a broken bat, the caption reading “Nolan Ryan has pitched four no-hitters in his career.”

4. Nolan Ryan went on to pitch three more no-hitters after this cartoon appeared on Gary Nolan’s card. Gary Nolan, on the other hand, did not add to his total of zero no-hitters after the appearance of this card. In fact, he only won four more games in his injury-hampered career.

5. Gary Nolan recorded all of his 110 career wins with the Cincinnati Reds, though he did pitch briefly in his final season alongside Nolan Ryan on the California Angels, after being traded straight up for a minor league player named Craig Hendrickson.

6. Gary Nolan was not even thirty years old when he called it quits. He had broken into the league as an 18-year-old in 1967 and that season won 14 games while recording a 2.58 ERA with 206 strikeouts. His next stellar season was in 1970, when he won 18 games to help the Reds win the NL pennant, and two years later, when the Reds added another NL championship to their collection, Nolan posted a 15-5 record with a 1.99 ERA. The following two seasons were ruined by injury, as he only pitched in two games in 1973 and none in 1974. He must have begun to wonder if it was over.

7. Nolan Ryan never had to learn a new way to pitch, as far as I know. From the beginning to the end he threw mind-boggling heat. Things were not so simple for Gary Nolan, according to the stats on the back of his 1977 card. The kid who had struck out 206 men in 227 innings in 1967 was long gone after two injury-ruined seasons. But Gary Nolan found a way to come back and be effective. In fact, during 1975 and 1976, while no longer able to blow anyone away, he still found a way to be the pitching anchor of the best team of my lifetime.

8. I don’t think about Gary Nolan when I think of that Reds dynasty. They had arguably the best catcher ever in Johnny Bench, arguably the best second baseman ever in Joe Morgan, and the eventual all-time hits leader in Pete Rose. Then there’s Hall of Fame RBI-machine Tony Perez, multiple all-star team selections Dave Concepcion and Ken Griffey, and budding super-slugger George Foster. Even the least-known of the starting eight, centerfielder Cesar Geronimo, had a barrel of Gold Glove awards to go with his memorably mellifluous name. You might be tempted to think that with a starting eight like that, who needs pitching?

9. In the photo in the dated poster in my in-laws’ house, there’s something of the bulldog in Gary Nolan. He’s not going to saw anyone’s bat in half or throw a no-hitter, let alone seven, but he’s not going to shy away from battle, either. Gary Nolan huffed and puffed and battled his way to more victories than any other Reds pitcher during the team’s glory-drenched two-year reign atop the baseball world. This was nothing new. As Gary Nolan went, so went the Reds, his best years (besides his rookie year) all coinciding with the Reds winning either the NL title or a World Series. Later departures, most notably native son Pete Rose leaving for Philadelphia, surely got more ink as signaling the end of an amazing era in Cincinnati, but in point of fact the team was never the same once Gary Nolan left.


  1. Gary Lynn Nolan and Lynn Nolan Ryan actually had two names in common.

  2. Wow, something is certainly drawing me to the name Lynn lately, I guess. Fred Lynn will have to make another appearance here soon.

  3. Maybe he could have been “The Other Nolan,” like “The Only Nolan” from the 19th Century.

    The Reds sure burned out a lot of young arms in the late ’60s/early ’70s.

  4. Not many people realize this, but Gary Nolan always had Ray Liotta stand in for him in baseball card photos.

  5. In the movie “Something Wild”, Ray Liotta is one scary MoFo.

    Even though Seaver is my all-time favorite player I always felt Gary Nolan got screwed in the ’67 Rookie of the Year vote. He bested Seaver in almost every category but was pitching in a small market in Cincy while Seaver was an immediate star in New York.

    Seeing this Nolan card reminds of the time when following MLB dominated my life…I wanna go back!

  6. Josh, I think I may have owned that Gary Nolan poster. As a kid growing up in Tampa, Fla., I went to few spring training games with the Big Red Machine of the early 70’s. I remember begging my parents to take me to a game one Saturday – it was Poster Day. As an 8 or 9 year old, I had dreams of a Morgan, Rose or Bench poster. My parents took me to the game, and I was disappointed to see “NOLAN” as I unrolled my poster at the ticket gate. I think I had it up in my room for a few weeks probably out of guilt – kind of a “my parents took me to a Reds spring training game and all I got was this lousy Gary Nolan poster.”

  7. The Gary Nolan card I remember is the 1974 card. The card is just a big huge picture of Gary Nolan’s head.

    The Reds also got “Joe Nolan” in 1979 from Atlanta.

    I’m not positive but I think the ’77 set is one of those sets that feature a lot of pictures from spring training. Also it’s one of those sets that feature the player’s signature on the front of the card. I remember as a kid thinking each player autographed each card.

    I wasn’t a big fan of the ’77 set as a kid. I thought it was kind of bland with the plain white background and the simple printed team name on front. The little pennant was cool.

    AS far as Nolan/Seaver 1967, I can’t see Nolan getting screwed. It was close but I think Seaver deserved it. Here’s their totals in Warp 3, Win Shares, and WAR.

    Warp 3: 7.5
    Win Shares: 21
    WAR: 6.4

    Warp 3: 5.8
    Win Shares: 19
    WAR: 6.9

    Only WAR has him as the more productive player that year, so I think Seaver deserved it.

  8. I just played a computer game from the 1967 season, and Gary Nolan no hit the Dodgers.

  9. Great post. I always took note of Gary Nolan because he was the default ace of those incredible Reds teams. At least the starting nine was incredible, and the bullpen was, too, but the starter? Just an afterthought. I’m sure they were the greatest team to have such no-name starters. Hardly an exact measurement, to be sure, but I was always interested in how anonymous the starting pitchers were on the dynastic Reds teams. The starters just seemed to be placeholders until the Reds got to come up again.

    To amplify Josh’s point about learning to be a different pitcher, I noticed Nolan lead the league in BB/9 in ’75 and ’76 (1.2 and 1.0). He lead the league in Ks/9 (8.2) his first year and dropped to 3.2 by 1975.

  10. sb1902:

    “I’m sure they were the greatest team to have such no-name starters.”

    I think you’re probably right. The closest in greatness of team/relative anonymity of starters ratio might be the late 1940s Yankees (Raschi and Reynolds very good but not “immortal”). The ’84 Tigers might be in the mix (another Sparky Anderson production). Maybe the ’98 Yankees, too, though when I looked at the stats on baseball-reference.com, I was surprised to see that David Cone seems to have borderline HoF numbers.

  11. Anybody who was an NL fan in this time period did not consider Gary Nolan or Don Gullett or Jack Billingham “no-name starters.” Nolan and Gullett were great pitchers who had their careers cut short by injuries.

    The poster above who mentioned the Reds blowing out a lot of starters in the 60s and 70s sure hit it on the head. In addition to Gullett and Nolan, there was Sammy Ellis and Jim Merritt and Wayne Simpson and probably a couple of others that I’m forgetting.

    Everyone bitches and moans about how we’re coddling pitchers these days with pitch counts. But for everyone like Nolan Ryan who could throw a bunch of pitches and survive over a long career, there were a bunch who just couldn’t handle the stress.

    Jim Bouton won 39 games as a 24-25 year old. He won 16 the rest of his career. Don Gullett pitched 218 innings as a 20-year old. He didn’t make it past age 27. Denny McLain hurled 661 innings over two seasons as a 24-25 year old. He was washed up at 28. Ron Bryant pitched 270 innings as a 25-year old. He was out of baseball two years later. All of these pitchers (and many more) had great success early and then flamed out.

    Nolan had ERA+ seasons of 128, 132, 147 and 161. For a comparison, Cole Hamels had an ERA+ of 142 and 136 the past two seasons and I don’t think anyone considers him a no-name. It’s just too bad Nolan was finished at age 29.

  12. Add Jim Maloney to the list of great young Reds pitchers whose careers were cut short. He did manage to go 117-60 and throw 3 no-hitters* from 1963-69, but constantly seemed to be battling arm trouble and was essentially finished at 29.

    Also Mel Queen, who converted from OF to pitcher at the big league level, had one great year (14-8, 2.76, 137 ERA+) in 1967, then was finished.

    I always loved Gary Nolan, both the fireballing young version and the crafty guts-‘n-guile pitcher he later became. Interestingly, his motion was very similar to Ryan’s, with the knee flexed and lifted high up nearly to the chest during the windup.

    *One of Maloney’s no-hitters was later defined out of existence — he pitched 9 no-hit innings, but lost the no-no and the game in the 10th.

  13. See Rob Neyer’s discussion from one of his books about 1970’s dynasty’s. He makes some outlandish statements, comparing the 70’s Reds to the 70’s A’s.


    He concludes the Reds offense was better. Ok, I’ll give you that, player for player. But the A’s offense was no slouch. He says the Reds defense was better. Ok, if so slightly. The A’s defense was very good. Good catching with Duncan, Fosse and Tenace (no Bench of course). First base was good with Epstein and Tenace. Perez better? I don’t know. Morgan was stellar of course. But because Dick Green couldn’t hit water with a paddle he never got credit for his great defense. Green was an awesome defensive player. He owned the ’74 World Series defensively. Someone on the A’s said thereafter, if Green only got one single he would have received the ’74 WS MVP. Poor Dickie went 0-13 at the plate. (In the ’73 series he went 1-17). He was talked out of retirement every year after a championship. Finley knew his glove was that good. Shortstop I say Campy was on par with Concepcion. I think Bando was better at third than Driessen or Rose. Left field I’ll take Rudi over any Reds leftfielder by far. He was grossly underrated defensively. Geronimo over North (although he was was good) in center. Jackson over Griffey in right.

    But the crazy part of his argument was that the Reds staff was superior to the A’s. That is absolutely nuts. His argument was that it’s only because all the Reds pitchers were always injured. Uh, ya! That’s like saying the A’s pitching staff was better if they only still had Rube Waddell and Lefty Grove, if they only didn’t get traded and later die.

    The A’s staff was FAR superior to the Reds staff. Yes, the Reds had some talent, but they DIDN’T play much. The A’s staff of Blue, Holtzman and Hunter were busy with an abundance of innings and wins. They were consistent and dominant. Their relief staff was better than the Reds as well. The A’s staff had two HOFers, and a few other that could be considered. The Reds staff had nothing of the kind.

    There are two sides of the ball. I’ll take that A’s staff any day, with solid offense and defense as well, as compared to a studded lineup and burnt-out arms.

    Oh yea, and the A’s beat the Reds in the ’72 WS . . . without Reggie Jackson, their most potent offensive weapon.

  14. Also, I just read on the INternet the following:

    “The A’s won without their best player, Reggie Jackson. They won with only eight pitchers, and none of those pitched a complete game. They won because for most of the way their pitching muffled Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Bobby Tolan—the first three hitters in the Cincinnati batting order—and because the A’s decided that if anyone was going to beat them it was definitely not going to be Johnny Bench. During the regular season Rose, Morgan and Tolan got on base 43% of the time. In the Series that shrunk to 29% and Bench produced only one RBI.”

    And, Rose hit .214 and Morgan hit .125. The A’s were better as a team.

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