But that's only part of it. Ryan was admired for things that had nothing to do with baseball. Texans saw an everyman quality in him. He talked like a Texan and walked like a Texan. He had their values, too.
He did countless random acts of kindness and charity. He never met a stranger. If someone had a five-minute conversation with Nolan -- and thousands of Texans did just that through the years -- they came away convinced those were the best five minutes of HIS day.
From the moment he became the Texas Rangers' president in 2008, he gave the franchise something it had never really had before. In a word, credibility.
Suddenly, Rangers fans trusted that a franchise that had never had much success was going to be as well run as any on earth. And the Rangers delivered.
Before Ryan, the Rangers had never won a postseason series in their 36 years. Since then, they've won two American League pennants.
Yes, there's a part of this story some people choose to ignore. By the time Ryan arrived, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels had already positioned the club to win big.
Ryan will be the first to tell you he got credit for some things he didn't do. It was Daniels who built two championship teams and constructed a great farm system. Again, though, the Rangers didn't start winning until Ryan took his place at the top of the masthead, and plenty of fans have connected dots that shouldn't be connected.
And then last winter, it came undone. Daniels wanted to fire bench coach Jackie Moore. Ryan didn't. He'd hired him, along with an assortment of others, including many from one of his former teams, the Astros.
When Daniels and Ryan couldn't agree, they took the issue to ownership, which sided with Daniels. Rightly or wrongly, Ryan believed that he was now nothing more than a glorified mascot while Daniels had the real power.
And last spring when the club sent out a press released announcing that Ryan, who'd been president and CEO of the Rangers, had been stripped of his presidency, that was pretty much that.
Ryan spent most of Spring Training contemplating leaving the franchise. In the end, he decided to stay for a while longer. Almost no one involved with the Rangers thought the relationship would last. Still, when Ryan announced what the club called a retirement on Thursday, it was stunning.
His personality was so woven into the franchise, first as the team's most popular player ever and then as the executive in charge when it had the most success, that it'll take some time to grasp that he's no longer there.
He's an emotional person, and having hired so many employees and having poured so much of his heart and soul into the franchise, it seems almost incomprehensible that he wanted to leave.
On the other hand, he did not want to stay on in a figurehead role, either. Here's hoping Daniels and Ryan exhausted every possibility to try to make the marriage work.
Ryan's departure means Daniels is going to be held accountable in a way he hasn't been before. Ryan was held in such high regard in Dallas-Fort Worth that it was almost impossible to criticize them because he was involved.
Now Daniels is alone out there. He'll get all the credit, but he'll be getting the heat, too. The Rangers have a long list of needs this offseason, and if Daniels is unable to deliver, he's going to be reminded why it was so handy to have the franchise flying in Ryan's sizable shadow.
Once upon a time, Ryan's goal seemed to be to turn his job over to his son, Reid Ryan. But last summer, Reid was named president of the Astros, the team both men grew up rooting for.
He, obviously, would give them the same kind of credibility he gave the Rangers.
To think that Thursday really was his retirement from baseball just doesn't seem possible. He's only 66 years old and almost certainly wants to continue in the sport in which he has spent the last 48 years.
Perhaps this simply is a necessary transition. Daniels will now be able to shape the franchise how he chooses to shape it, and maybe he'll have the Rangers back in the playoffs next season.
Meanwhile, the Astros could use Nolan Ryan in an assortment of roles, and he'd receive a hero's welcome back to the franchise. After the awkwardness of the last few months, he deserves that much.