For sure they were getting the game’s first million-dollar (per season) man, cemented by his four-year $4.5-million contract.
But on the field? Was this the flamethrower who struck out 300 or more batters five times in eight seasons with the California Angels, but one who had learned how to pitch with a bit more finesse?
Or was this a guy on the verge of his decline phase, as evidenced by falling strikeout rates and ERAs well above his career norms his last two seasons with the Halos?
Only time would tell, and history, of course, shows us here in the 2020s that Ryan continued to pitch at an All-Star level with the Astros before flipping the “Legend” switch when he signed with the Texas Rangers nine years later.
Before any of that could transpire, though, collectors wanted to know: when do we get a baseball card of Ryan in an Astros uniform?
Mostly, hobbyists would just have to wait until 1981.
But there were a few of options during that summer of 1980.
One was the Burger King Pitch, Hit & Run set that captured a variety of stars, some in their new uniforms — including Ryan.
Another was an Astros team-issued set, also featuring their new guy.
And then there was the big option … literally.
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The 1980 Topps Superstars set brought 60 cards to retail outlets near you, as either singles or packs of three, with a chance to buy the whole run for $9 plus some wrappers.
Topps later released complete sets to the hobby, with white card stock replacing the gray stock used in the retail versions.
No matter how you got them, though, or which version you had, Superstars gave you a shot at a 5” x 7” all-photo card of new Astro Nolan Ryan, right there on #20.
These days, the cards are a bit of a forgotten treasure, thanks at least in part to their gargantuan size and oddball nature.
Still, the Ryan card is popular with collectors of The Express, and raw copies typically sell for a few dollars. Graded specimens can bring $25 (PSA 7) or more depending on the exact condition.
Not a bad deal for the Million Dollar Man, huh?