Walter Johnson was a force on the mound in the early 20th century. From 1907 to 1927, The Big Train won 416 games, and compiled a 2.17 ERA. He also led his league in strikeouts 12 times (which is still the record), and in late 1921 he took over the all-time lead in Ks from one Denton True (Cy) Young.
By the time he retired, Johnson had amassed 3,508 strikeouts, a record that would stand for 56 years*. After such a long stay at the top, the number had become one of the crown jewels of baseball history, a number that many fans knew by heart, along with Ruth’s 714 home runs, and Ty Cobb’s 4,191 hits.
It was on this date in 1983 that Johnson’s record finally fell, when Nolan Ryan struck out the Expos’ Brad Mills for number 3,509.
However Ryan only stayed at the top for 41 days. Steve Carlton had been on Ryan’s heels, and on June 7th he surpassed him.
The two jockeyed for position over the next season and a half. Ryan would occasionally move ahead briefly, but Carlton held the top spot for all but 13 days through the rest of 1983 and most of 1984.
On September 5, 1984, Ryan moved ahead again, 3,862 to 3,857, and at the end of the ‘84 season it was about as close as it could be:
Carlton was 40 years old when the 1985 season began, but still pitched well that year when healthy, with a 3.33 ERA. However he was striking out a lot fewer batters, down to only 12%, from a high of 24% just three years earlier. So Ryan was already pulling ahead when Carlton missed over two months in June-August. Despite his very respectable ERA, Lefty finished with an uncharacteristic 1-8 record.
Carlton bounced around for three more years before finally finishing with 4,136 Ks, which at the time was of course the 2nd highest total ever, and is still 4th all-time, behind only Ryan (5,714), Randy Johnson (4,875), and Roger Clemens (4,672).
Lefty still holds the National League record with exactly 4,000, far ahead of #2 Greg Maddux:
Despite the proliferation of Ks around MLB, that may be a record that will last quite a while.