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History Mystery: Did Nolan Ryan Wear No. 20 for the Mets?

If you’re reasonably knowledgeable about MLB history and/or Mets history and/or uni numbers, then you probably know that Nolan Ryan wore No. 30 for the Mets from 1967 through 1971. If you’re a more serious Mets geek and/or Ryan geek and/or numbers geek, then you may also know that Ryan wore No. 34 when he had a cup of coffee with the Mets in 1966.

What you probably don’t know is that Ryan wore No. 20 with the Mets at some point, as seen in the screen shot above. And therein lies a mystery.

That screen shot is from the current Netflix documentary Facing Nolan. It was sent my way by reader Michael Raskin, who spotted Ryan’s unusual number while watching the movie. Since Ryan clearly never wore that number for the Mets during the regular season, Michael hypothesized that the footage of him wearing No. 20 was probably from spring training in 1966.

I ran that theory by Mets numerologist Jon Springer, who runs the definitive Mets by the Numbers website. His response: “This is a new one on me! I know a guy who might know more. Will check.” It’s not often that you can stump Jon on anything Mets-numerical, so this now qualified as a Very Big Deal.

Jon got back to me two days later with this:

My spring training guy says he has no record of Ryan as a spring training invitee in 1966 and he didn’t appear in any [spring training] games then. However, he was in the fall instructional league in 1965 so that’d be my best guess.

Ryan did play in the minors in 1966 with Greenville and Williamsport —both teams were called the Mets — but I don’t think those clubs had front-numbered jerseys.

Wow, the fall instructional league — there’s an answer I never would have thought of! Very cool. Big thanks to Michael for bringing this mystery to our attention and to Jon for coming up with the probable solution.

Meanwhile, as a few readers have recently pointed out to me, Facing Nolan also has some unfortunate uni-related wardrobe glitches in the scenes where an actor plays a young Ryan. Most notably, they used caps with the New Era maker’s mark, which wouldn’t come into existence until decades later, long after Ryan had retired (plus the Mets did not have an orange squatchee back in Ryan’s day):

Obviously, they just used current retail caps, but come on — at least use a seam ripper to remove the side logo!

(My thanks to Twitter-ers @HawkeyeOnAir and @mattispossum for those last two screen shots.)


 

ITEM! Uni Watch Power Rankings for the New Reverse Retro Designs

Today I have a new Premium article on Substack — a worst-to-first ranking of the NHL’s new Reverse Retro designs.

You can read the first few paragraphs of the article here. In order to read the entire thing, you’ll need to become a paying subscriber to my Premium content on Substack. (Didn’t hear about my move from Bulletin to Substack? Additional details on that, including the “Pay What You Wish” subscription option, can be found here.)

I usually do only one Premium article per week, but I may have a bonus piece on Friday about the World Series, which begins that night. Depends on how some other work stuff shakes out, but I’m hoping to get it done in time for Friday — stay tuned!


 

What Paul Did Last Night

As you know, I just started writing for Substack. In a bit of fortuitous timing, they had a little gathering at a bar in the East Village last night, so I got to meet the CEO, my main contact guy, a few other admin people, and a bunch of writers (including the great soccer writer Grant Wahl, who spent 25 years at Sports Illustrated but now goes it alone as a Substacker — really nice guy). Several of the admin people told me, “Oh, you’re the uniform guy! The Bulletin people said we should make sure to sign you up,” so that was nice to hear. All in all, a very nice night.

When I arrived, my main contact guy was sitting at a corner table with a woman who looked familiar to me but I couldn’t place her. Then it hit me: It was Patti Smith! Sure enough, she writes for Substack. I confess that I was a bit starstruck. She left just a few minutes later, so I didn’t get to meet her or even get a photo of her, but it was still really weird to be in a small room with Patti Smith. Crazy!

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Comments (19)

    Patti Smith is a legit reason to be starstruck!

    Congrats on what we all hope will be a successful venture for you

    Paul (and others smarter than me),

    Prior to New Era, who made the hats for MLB teams? Was it on an individual team by team basis or was there a league wide supplier? It’s a rabbit hole I have never really gone down.

    Thanks!

    This’ll give you the details on who made whose caps back before New Era’s disastrous league-wide contract. Spaulding, Wilson, KM Pro, McAuliffe, Roman Pro, Reach, Rawlings and Devon were all suppliers at one time or another.

    link

    Reminds me of the photo of Tom Seaver wearing 36, which I believe was when he switched jerseys with Koosman for fun at a youth clinic.

    link

    So how does that work, does Netflix make money from new era for having their product displayed on their screen or does new era make money from Netflix?

    If they did make a product placement deal, it would have been New Era paying Netflix for the exposure of their logo.

    But it seems equally likely, as Paul wrote, that the filmmakers just bought a current cap (or rented from a costume supplier) along with the rest of the uniform, without even thinking about the presence of the New Era logo.

    I’ll bet the cap had to be returned after the shoot, so a seam ripper would have cost them money. But a little bit of tape over the logo would have solved it.

    Maybe Netflix took footage of someone who looks like a young Nolan Ryan — maybe it’s not him(??)

    that doesn’t look like young Nolan Ryan to me. Ryan had a mole on his chin.

    link

    I haven’t seen the documentary – does it say its Ryan or is it just footage of guys throwing balls around.

    Could it be Bob Friend?

    link

    I really think you might be onto something there-it’s fairly easy to misidentify a blurry image of someone, especially whether eyes are covered. Here’s another image of Bob Friend from 1966: link

    That just triggered me to remember the footage of Reggie Jackson from the “uncivil war” doc about the yanks/dodgers rivalry in the 70s. There are a bunch of shots from him in what is likely spring training with the yanks….wearing an unfamiliar number 20.

    Justin Courtney, who is a minor leaguer in the Mets minor league system was used to portray Ryan in the documentary. link

    If you look carefully at Nolan’s picture. The sun looks more spring than fall. Players tend to wear different numbers once they hit the majors they are given another number.

    By the way, the Mets scoreboard department has all the highlight films from each year. That’s Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg in the background. So that’s Spring Training for sure.
    In the meantime, why doesn’t anyone contact Nolan himself to set the record straight.

    That New Era logo glitch is just priceless. They could have also included mobile phones in the story at one point without thinking about period correctness. Like it was stated by others before: invest in a seam ripper or put a tape on the NE logo. I wonder if Nolan Ryan will remember wearing number 20 at one point, it must have been for a very short time.

    If Nolan was even reachable, I’d bet given his personality, he would not give even one second of thought to it.

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