Robert John Murff is a baseball scout. In the parlance of baseball, he's a "bird dog," out beating the bushes trying to find the game's next superstar.
CBS News Sunday Morning Anchor Charles Osgood accompanied him, now 78 and semi-retired, to Clear Creek High School, close to Alvin, Texas, near the Gulf. On that field in April 1964, Murff took a random detour off an interstate and wound up hitting the jackpot: discovering pitching great Ryan Nolan.
"He really got my attention," recalls Murff. "I was trying to get settled in my seat and he unsettled me....Skinny kid, he weighed about 140 pounds, [a] little over 6 feet tall. I said, 'Who is that kid, Nolan?'"
Ryan, who went on to pitch in the major leagues for 27 years, in the longest pitching career in baseball history, was once a scrawny kid with a wild fastball and an uncertain future. But he had that one ingredient that can't be taught: speed. And for the rest of his high-school career, he was Murff's best-kept secret.
Explains Murff: "You kept ball players hid from the other scouts. You went to see a ball player; you left early. You didn't stay long to confuse the opposition."
Ryan was as wild as he was fast and high school batters feared him.
"I wouldn't have wanted to hit against myself," Ryan continues. "And then throw in the fact that I was quite wild, you know, it was intimidating."
But "The Ryan Express," as he was eventually called, who set or shared 53 major-league records and struck out 5,714 by the time he retired in 1993, didn't start off as the talk of the town.
"A lot of people really didn't think that much of me," Ryan recalls. "My intent at the time wasn't to sign a professional contract because I really had no idea I had that type of ability or not."
Murff had trouble convincing people about Ryan's baseball potential. Not only were his bosses at the New York Mets incredulous, but Ryan's mother was also apprehensive.
"I remember Mrs. Ryan was very skeptical about this signing of her son," Murff continues. "He was the baby....I'm sure she went to her grave thinking he should have gone to college."
"I think Red did his homework," says Ryan. "He saw how big a man my dad was, knew my grandfather was a real big man. So he knew I was going to develop into a larger and stronger person," says Ryan.
"It finally came down to an offer. I asked my dad what he thought and so he said, 'Well, I think maybe you ought to take it.'" he recalls.
Murff had his man. For about $30,000 in salary and bonus, the New York Mets signed Ryan, after drafting him in the eighth round; not exactly a ringing endorsement. He was just 18.
"The whole process was a big cultural change because I'd only been out of the state of Texas twice, on wo different family vacations," Ryan explains.
"I got signed and was sent to Virginia; that was the first time I'd ever flown. And so a year later to be in the big leagues in September - in '66 to be called up and go to New York was pretty intimidating," he adds.
It was probably the only time Ryan was ever intimidated by the big leagues. He became known as perhaps the fastest pitcher in history. Often reaching speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour, he pitched for the Mets, the Angels, and the two Texas teams, the Astros and Rangers, during his record-breaking career.
And as geographically diverse as these ball clubs may be, they all had one thing in common: the legendary, lightening fastball of Ryan.
"That's still the No. 1 thing they look for is velocity," says Ryan. "Scouts still look for the arms; that's what they all look for. And because of that gift, that's why I was a strikeout pitcher."
Was the discovery a fluke? If you look back at Murff's record in discovering baseball talent, it is clear that he was no armchair strategist. He had always had an itch to play pro ball. At age 29, he gave up a successful business career to pitch at the lowest level in the minor leagues.
In 1957, he was on the world champion Milwaukee Braves, playing alongside Hall of Famers Eddie Matthews and Hank Aaron.
"When you play with people like that, you see the difference in what makes them a winner and a Hall of Famer," says Murff. "It made my yardstick a little bit more accurate than everybody else's yardstick, because I knew what it took."
Murff, who recruited for five different major league teams along with some minor league clubs, was accurate enough to sign 200 players to contracts. About 40 of those players made it to the major leagues.
"I went to every living room and baseball park in this state [and] several more states," Murff remembers. "And I guess my thoughts were that everybody's a prospect until he proves he can't [be]."
"I must have driven an automobile close to maybe a million and a half miles," says the scout. "You can talk to those jack rabbits out in west Texas, or you can count the trees over in east Texas, but you sure get lonesome for somebody to talk to." "I just got in the habit of being a lone wolf."
Today, Murff's prime discovery, Ryan, owns a couple of banks and cattle ranches in and around his hometown of Alvin. And this spring, Alvin honored its No. 1 citizen at dedication ceremonies for the Nolan Ryan Museum. At the ribbon cutting, the star, now five years retired, recalledf his wild youth.
"I didn't throw at people," says Ryan laughing. "You know, you can be effectively wild. There were a lot of times I was not effectively wild; I was just wild."
And how did he keep up the velocity for 27 major league seasons, a record that is not likely to be challenged? He says: "I felt like had to work harder."
"And the older I got, for me to continue to perform at that level, I had to make a commitment. And so, pretty much, it dominated my life for the last six or eight years of my career....I was spending five hours a day working out."
That dedication was rewarded in Cooperstown, N.Y., when Murff watched Ryan join Walter Johnson and Bob Feller in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"I think there's a buildup and an anticipation to it until you receive the phone call," says Ryan. "There's always that little bit of doubt there that creeps in."
Murff agrees: "I had no idea we'd be going to Cooperstown, but I did tell him one thing and he'll tell you that this is the truth. I said, 'If you're half as good as you think you are, Nolan, you'll make so much money in this business that both of us will be embarrassed when we talk about it.'"
So when driving through Alvin, Texas, take a look at the bronze statue in front of the town hall, the one with the No. 34 on the back, of the skinny Southern kid who made baseball history.
Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.
CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff