Norm Cash had already struck out three times and he was the last man standing between Nolan Ryan and his second no-hitter when the Detroit Tigers slugger dreamed up a little gag.
Cash came to the plate carrying a table leg that he had hacked off one of the clubhouse tables. When umpire Ron Luciano ruled the bat illegal, Cash said, "Why, I won't hit it anyway," before retreating to the dugout for a real bat.
He was right, in a way. Cash popped up, leaving Ryan stuck on 17 strikeouts for the day -- July 15, 1973 -- two shy of the major-league record. But Ryan would have his strikeout record, 383 that season, surpassing Sandy Koufax's single-season record for the modern era, a record that still stands.
He would have to wait a while to have his revenge. Ryan faced Cash a couple of years later and left him with a little souvenir: a 98-mph fastball on his right arm. Ryan's teammate, pitcher Clyde Wright, saw Cash the next day.
"He was black and blue all the way down his back," Wright recalled. "A lot of people didn't realize, Nolan could be mean. If he didn't like you or something, he could get pretty nasty. Everyone thinks he was just good, ol' boy Nolan. Uh-uh."
Wright usually pitched the day after Ryan. He would sit on a towel on the top dugout step to watch the big right-hander work. What stood out for him about that remarkable 1973 season was how intimidating Ryan could be. His brushback pitches sparked several benches-clearing brawls that year. Reggie Jackson once said Ryan was the only pitcher he feared, and not because he could get him out.
When he was asked to comment on Ryan surpassing his record, Koufax said at the time, "I suspect half those guys swung rather than get hit."
The other amazing thing about 1973 is that, somehow, Ryan, 26 at the time, didn't win the Cy Young award. Jim Palmer, who had 30 fewer innings and 180 fewer strikeouts, won it. Why? Palmer had one more win and seven fewer losses. Ryan would go 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA. Palmer was 22-9 with a 2.40 ERA.
Ryan would win 22 games the next season and lead the majors in strikeouts, falling just 16 short of his own record. He also led the league in walks.
Later, Ryan's command would improve dramatically, helping him pitch until he was 46 with the Texas Rangers. But he would never be as dominant as he was in his twenties with the Angels, when hitters had basically two choices: dig in and risk their safety or give in meekly and walk back to the bat rack.