When you picture baseball legend Nolan Ryan, do you see him wearing a Houston Astros uniform or a Texas Rangers uniform? Does he have blood running down his chin or maybe he has a guy in a headlock? Or is he selling Advil? Nolan Ryan has had many faces. And if you were standing at bat, his face generally wasn’t one you wanted to see.
“Facing Nolan” is the title of a new documentary about Ryan’s life and career. It’s having a one-night theatrical release, playing on May 24.
Bradley Jackson directed the film. He spent his childhood in Houston and told Texas Standard he grew up with the mythology of Nolan Ryan, both from stories from his dad and from watching Ryan on television in the 80s and 90s. Jackson said that in his film about Ryan, he set out to make a love letter to Texas.
“I’ll always consider myself a Texan,” Jackson said. “And getting to make a movie about, in my mind, one of the truest Texans that ever was has been the honor of my life… Texans are proud defenders of their own. And, you know, no better example of that Nolan Ryan defending the mound.”
Listen to the full interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Nolan Ryan’s wife Ruth plays a prominent role in this film. Is that something you set out to do originally?
Bradley Jackson: Yeah, I don’t think I set out originally to do that. And I think that’s because I didn’t know Ruth Ryan at the time. His son, Reid Ryan, about halfway through the movie said it best. We were talking after a production day and he said, ‘I think this is a love story wrapped in baseball.’
Because when you realize, one, how close Nolan Ryan came to not being Nolan Ryan that we know of. You know, he was about to quit baseball about five years into his career. And then you understand why he didn’t was because he had a partner in his wife who pushed him, who said, ‘you have a gift. And if you quit right now, you’re depriving the world of your gift.’ So to me, when I learned that fact, it changed the movie that I wanted to make.
Ryan has more than 50 Major League Baseball records under his belt. Why did he almost quit? Did you sense that he had a certain degree of self-doubt?
I think so. But I also think that you got to understand that nobody was expecting anything of Nolan Ryan. It’s not like kids today where, you know, if you’re throwing 90-plus miles an hour today and somebody sees you, they’ll give you a $100,000 contract on the spot. Doesn’t matter if you can throw the ball over the plate. Nolan was from a tiny town nobody heard of. He never had a pitching coach, and he just could throw hard. And I just think people, you know, baseball, the economics and the scouting of baseball was so different back then…
Nobody expected Nolan Ryan to play beyond a couple of years. Nobody expected him to do much of anything because that’s not the way baseball was treated back then. And he didn’t even have a real pitching coach, a real pitching coach until he went to the California Angels, which is even crazier…
And finally he got a proper coach who actually watched him and observed him and fixed him. And then once they fixed him, it was game over. That’s when he started throwing, you know, he threw for no-hitters in about four years, which is just insane.
Your documentary features George Brett, Rod Carew, Dave Winfield, Bobby Valentine, and former President George W. Bush? How did you go about getting these folks – and a former president to talk to you?
That was as simple as the Ryan family making a couple of phone calls. We had the support of the family. And when you say the name Nolan Ryan, a lot of people say, ‘okay, where do I show up?’ Because people want to talk about him. Because, you know, it is one of those like tall tales that, you know, if a screenwriter sat down to write Nolan Ryan’s story without him actually being in existence, I don’t think you would believe it.