SABR

Larry Jaster

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

Immersed in a pennant race that would go down to the wire, the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers took the field at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on September 28, 1966, in hopes of putting distance between themselves and their two closest competitors. The St. Louis Cardinals had no intention of making this endeavor any easier when they sent 22-year-old left-handed hurler Larry Jaster to the mound. Nicknamed “The Creeper” by his teammates because of his quiet nature, he was later dubbed the Dodger Killer for the task he was about to accomplish. Thirty-three batters later the Cardinals rookie had etched his name in baseball history by blanking the Dodgers for the fifth consecutive time (yielding a mere 24 singles in the five games). Baseball’s post-1900 era had been witness to five shutouts against one team in a single season just twice before – the last being in 1916 by future Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander – but none of these hurlers did it consecutively, or against an eventual league champion. Another future Hall of Famer, Sandy Koufax, sat in the opposing dugout watching this unique performance and said afterward, “Jaster makes it look so easy. Was he impressive? He’s better than impressive. What’s the next adjective?”1 Certainly a laudable compliment for a youngster four months removed from a controversial demotion to the minor leagues. Having threatened to quit the game the year before after an earlier demotion, Jaster went on to make two postseason appearances, both contributing to dubious World Series records.

The eldest of two professional baseball pitchers, Larry Jaster was born on January 13, 1944, in Midland, Michigan, to Edward Joseph and Bernice (Wendt) Jaster. Midland is the founding home of the Dow Chemical Company, and both Larry’s father (who died when Larry was 9 years old), his stepfather, and eventually his brother worked for the industrial giant. Larry displayed an aptitude toward nearly every sport he undertook, competing on the American Legion baseball diamonds against future Cardinals teammate Alex Johnson and exhibiting a prowess on the football field that yielded a number of college athletic-scholarship offers. He was poised to commit to Michigan State “until,” in Jaster’s words, “the money talked.”2 The youngster had received big-league bonus offers ranging from $25,000 to $40,000, but when St. Louis scout Mo Mozzali put a $50,000 bonus on the table, Jaster jumped at the opportunity to join the Cardinals’ organization.

Assigned to the Cardinals’ affiliate in the Class C Northern League, 18-year-old Jaster crossed the border into Canada to join the Winnipeg Goldeyes in Manitoba in midseason. He managed a 4-4 mark in 13 appearances for the near-cellar-dwelling club. Because the Cardinals were anxious to see the capabilities of their sizable investment, Jaster was named the starting pitcher in an August 20 exhibition against the parent club. When the Goldeyes’ short season ended, Jaster accompanied 23 other prospects, among them Ray Washburn and Mike Shannon, to St. Petersburg, Florida, to participate in the Cardinals’ Winter Instructional League (where one coach happened to be the franchise’s storied Stan Musial).

The Cardinals faced a difficult decision the following spring as a consequence of new rules instituted by the major leagues. In 1962 the team had signed both Jaster and another prized prospect to hefty bonuses. In an attempt to curb such lavish spending in the future, the owners decreed that clubs could now option only one such player without exposing the other to the waiver wire. The Cardinals were able to option Jaster to Double-A Tulsa only after they lost Jan Firek, the other prized youngster, to the Cincinnati Reds.

Jaster’s May 11, 1963, debut with the Oilers in the Texas League was far from memorable – a 9-3 defeat at the hands of the Austin Senators – and less than two weeks later, Jaster was again hurling for the Winnipeg club (which was now realigned as a Class A league). A fine 2.25 ERA posted in a few weeks’ work – including a three-hit gem on May 28 – prompted a quick recall to Tulsa, where his efforts (primarily in relief) contributed nicely to the Oilers’ eventual playoff championship. When the season ended he was again assigned to the Instructional League, accompanied this time by another $50,000 bonus baby, Nelson Briles.

The Cardinals were blessed with a large field of pitching prospects that included Briles, Jaster, and the recently signed Steve Carlton, and their mound depth allowed for each to be assigned to the minor leagues for 1964. Jaster was assigned to the Jacksonville Suns in the Triple-A International League, where he seemingly encountered nothing but bad luck. Coming off a streak of 14 scoreless innings in spring training, the 20-year-old lefty tacked on an additional 12 frames while matched against Detroit’s 20-year-old prospect Denny McLain (though neither figured in the decision). The victim of some hard-luck losses (with the added indignity of having his sports car stolen), Jaster did not get a win until a June 16 relief effort. Reassigned to Tulsa in early August, he got a pair of quick victories, giving up only nine hits in the two games, one a shutout of the Fort Worth Cats. Another shutout of the Cats on the last day of the season, a two-hitter, capped the season, and once again he reported to Florida for the instructional league. (At Tulsa, a 13-strikeout performance against San Antonio was marred when second baseman Joe Morgan smacked a grand slam – not the last time Jaster would be victimized by a bases-loaded knock.)

On the strength of his performance in Tulsa, Jaster felt that a promotion to Jacksonville was the least he could expect in the spring of 1965. But the Cardinals’ perception that he had reported to camp 10 pounds overweight, combined with an ineffectual spring-training performance, meant an assignment back to Tulsa. In reponse, Jaster hit the roof, saying, “I might as well quit. Give me my release,” to which farm director Chief Bender is said to have replied “Give us back that big bonus and you can have your release.”3 After a cooling-down period in the company of his new bride, Peggy (the two were high-school sweethearts), Jaster reported to Tulsa, but the ineffectual spring carried over. “I [kept] our bags packed,” said Peggy, “especially when [Larry’s] earned-run average reached 14.00.”4

Under the tutelage of manager Vernon Rapp and coach Jim Konstanty, Jaster developed both his curve and changeup and hit his stride in midseason. He finished with a respectable 11-13 record and an ERA of 3.09 (league average: 3.76), while pacing the league with 219 strikeouts. The dazzling second half resulted in Jaster’s being selected to the Texas League All Star squad, and his contributions helped lead Tulsa to a first-place finish in the Eastern Division. Considering his dominance over the Los Angeles Dodgers a year later, Jaster ironically lost five games to the Dodgers’ Albuquerque affiliate, including a loss in the fourth and final game of the league playoff series.

Called up by the Cardinals, (nearly six months after he’d threatened to quit), Jaster made his major-league debut, a one-inning relief appearance against the Dodgers. He then closed out the campaign with three complete-game victories (surprisingly placing him among the team leaders in this category). A 9-1 win over San Francisco, knocked the Giants out of a first-place tie with the Dodgers – one of the few times that Jaster’s career efforts actually helped Los Angeles. Of Jaster, Willie Mays said, “He threw strikes and he was ahead of the hitters all the time. They said he didn’t have a curve, but he showed me a pretty good one.”5

For the first time in four years Jaster did not participate in winter ball. Meanwhile rumors abounded about the Cardinals’ desire to trade veterans Curt Simmons and Bob Purkey in order to make room in the starting rotation for Jaster and Nelson Briles. A week before Opening Day, Purkey was sold to Pittsburgh, but Simmons remained with the team until June. Jaster elbowed his way into five starts, including the first of his five shutouts against the Dodgers, but a numbers crunch in the overloaded mound corps eventually resulted in his demotion to Tulsa (newly realigned in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League) – a move that led to bitter internal controversy. The move made some sense: Jaster had one option remaining, and when the Cardinals finally traded Simmons to the Cubs in mid-June, Larry was promptly recalled. But the move also agitated an already stormy relationship between pitching coach Joe Becker and general manager Bob Howsam. Becker had spent ten years in charge of the Dodgers’ capable mound crews, and saw in Jaster the potential building block of another dominant pitching staff. He vociferously opposed the demotion, and it was one of reasons why he resigned abruptly at season’s end.

Upon his return Jaster was used in relief in four of his first five appearances (the only start was his second shutout of the Dodgers, on July 3). When Briles had difficulty as a starter, he was sent to the bullpen and Jaster was moved into the rotation.

Critics have argued that aside from his unique mastery over the Dodgers Jaster was a pedestrian hurler. At first glance the numbers appear to bear this out – a 6-5, 4.64 ERA against the rest of the league – but this argument bears further scrutiny. The youngster was on the receiving end of some dreadful outings, including one on May 8 against San Francisco that may have also factored into his subsequent demotion to the minors. But he also posted a 2.75 ERA in five starts against teams not wearing Dodger blue that could have resulted in five victories, yet yielded only three. Jaster might have benefited from more run support – the Cardinals were last in the league in runs during the 1966 season – that would have certainly enhanced his 11-5 season mark. Jaster got some consideration in the Rookie of the Year balloting, and his five shutouts gave him a stake in the league lead (tied with five other pitchers, including teammate Bob Gibson).

When he tied the single-season record of five shutouts against one team – last accomplished by Grover Cleveland Alexander – Jaster received a congratulatory letter from the great pitcher’s widow (incidentally, another of Alexander’s records was matched during the 1966 campaign when Sandy Koufax won his fifth ERA crown). Accolades poured in from every direction, but perhaps the most interesting of all was when Larry and his brother Danny drew comparisons to the great Cardinals duo of Paul and Dizzy Dean.

Thirty-two months Larry’s junior, Danny Jaster was signed by St. Louis in 1964 along with Lennie Boyer, whose brothers Ken and Clete, were playing third base for the Cardinals and Yankees respectively. (Ironically, six years later when both youngsters were struggling in Double-A ball, they were both demoted on the same day by Arkansas manager Ken Boyer.) When Larry was a Cardinals rookie, 19-year-old Danny was realizing his own success in Class A ball, and reporters compared them to the Deans: “General manager Bob Howsam is happily contemplating the possible rich rewards of a hard-throwing brother combination. After all, the Dean boys won 180 games.”6 But a military commitment and college pursuits slowed Danny’s development, and when a lucrative position with Dow Chemical arose in Midland a few years later, Danny left baseball. He never advanced beyond Triple-A.

The Cardinals opened the 1967 season against none other than the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Jaster started the second game of the series. Picking up from where he’d left off, he blanked the Dodgers until a sacrifice fly in the seventh inning broke his string of 52⅓ consecutive scoreless innings against L.A. Jaster won the game and got another victory five days later, but a dismal 7.50 ERA in 12 innings of work cost him his place in of the rotation. Equally disturbing was a yield of six home runs in three starts. “I was throwing the mattress ball,” Jaster later cracked, “I was throwing the ball up there and they were laying on it.”7

Jaster curbed the propensity for giving up the long ball and eventually logged 23 starts in 1967. Shuffled back into the starting corps in June when fellow lefty Al Jackson was struggling, Jaster remained there until September, when Bob Gibson returned from a two-month absence because of injury. “I hated to get out of the rotation,” Jaster said, “but I was glad to see Gibson back. He’ll beat you some way, or die trying.”viii And it was from the bullpen that Jaster made his first postseason appearance, a brief outing against the Boston Red Sox in Game Six of the World Series. He was one of 11 pitchers who took the mound for both teams, at the time a World Series record, in an 8-4 Boston victory. St. Louis went on to win the Series the next day.

A return to winter play (this time accompanied by his brother Danny) was intended to prepare Jaster for the mound competition he faced entering the 1968 campaign. A 23-12, 3.01 mark in two-plus seasons of work was no guarantee of a place in the rotation. It was just the opposite, as the Cardinals’ solid mound depth relegated Jaster to competing with veteran Ray Washburn and youngster Mike Torrez for the fifth spot in the rotation. Though both Jaster and Washburn eventually got regular turns in the rotation, Jaster finished 9-13 with a 3.51 ERA and his major-league career was on a downslope.

At first glance a 3.51 ERA does not appear dismal, but in the Year of the Pitcher (when the major-league average was 2.98), Jaster’s 1968 mark was mediocre, especially considering that 88 games into the season he had seven wins with an eye-popping 1.79 ERA. In his first start he twirled a two-hit victory over– whom else? – the Dodgers, and on May 31 he came within four outs of a perfect game against the New York Mets. A second half-swoon that engulfed both Jaster and fellow lefty Steve Carlton – a combined record of 3-13 after August 1 –did not stand in the way of the team’s second straight pennant. But Jaster’s 6.36 ERA after July 14 (in part due to a shoulder injury) relegated him to the bullpen when the Cardinals opened the fall classic against the Detroit Tigers.

Again Jaster had but one appearance, and once again it was of the record-setting variety. In the third inning of Game Six the Tigers exploded for a record-tying ten runs – accomplished by the Philadelphia Athletics in 1929 – and Jaster was right in the middle of this outburst. Entering with the Tigers down 3-0 and runners on first and third, Jaster yielded a run-scoring single and a walk that brought Detroit’s Jim Northrup to the plate with the bases loaded. Jaster had surrendered two grand slams during the season and Northrup had blasted four for the Tigers (not to mention two during the preceding 1967 season). Northrup connected again, Jaster was promptly removed, and the Tigers tacked on four more runs to tie the Athletics’ record. After the 13-1 rout, Detroit would go on to won the Series the next day, October 10. Four days later Jaster was a Montreal Expo.

The Cardinals had left Jaster unprotected in the N.L. expansion draft, with conflicting reports as to why. One report was that the Cardinals believed he was an unlikely candidate for selection because of his 1968 late-season collapse. Another, more likely scenario was that he was expendable with the anticipated promotion of Mike Torrez, who went on to win ten games for the Cardinals in 1969. (To add to Jaster’s problems, he was injured that winter in an automobile accident in Midland, suffering facial injuries and the loss of a few teeth when his car skidded on an ice-covered street and hit a utility pole.)

Jaster had the honor of throwing the first major-league pitch in Canada. That was one of his few distinctions that season. Excluding Jaster and Mudcat Grant (who was traded to the Cardinals on June 3), the Expos entered the 1969 campaign with a starting staff that had a total of two big-league starts, both by Bill Stoneman. This lack of experience led to a dismal mound performance – a 4.33 team ERA that was last in the N.L. Not countinga complete-game victory over the Pirates on April 27, Jaster’s ERA in his four other starts stood at an unenviable 5.59 that soon relegated him to the bullpen. Although he wasn’t pleased, Jaster thrived in relief: a 2.25 ERA not counting his last outing (a miserable performance following a 40-day layoff because of a plantar wart on one of his pitching fingers). Perhaps at 25 years old his arm was not capable of the endurance required of a starter – a theory that gained credence two years later when Jaster’s relief work with the Richmond Braves nearly earned him a ticket back to the big leagues.

In search of another left-handed hurler for their bullpen, the Atlanta Braves, in the midst of a pennant run, inquired about Jaster’s availability. No trade was made during the season, but Jaster was shipped to Atlanta on December 2, largely on the strength of positive reports from former Braves coach Bill Adair, who saw Jaster in the Venezuelan League that winter. When Atlanta mound stalwart Ron Reed suffered a broken collarbone in the spring, Jaster was suddenly competing for a starting role in the 1970 season.

The starting job went to Jim Nash. Working strictly in relief, Jaster produced a respectable 3.14 ERA into mid-May, but the wheels soon came off. After surrendering a grand slam to Ron Fairly of the Expos on June 18, Jaster was optioned to Richmond four days later.

Aside from a September call-up in 1972, Jaster spent the next four years hurling in the International League. Initially placed in the starting rotation with mixed results, he was moved to the bullpen on June 20, 1971, and over the course of two seasons he had an 11-1 mark in relief with ten saves. This success continued through his time with Richmond. Despite that, and as the parent team floundered from 1971 through 1974, Jaster appeared to be an afterthought when it came to pitching promotions. Finally, at 30 years old, Larry hung up the glove and spikes.

Jaster embarked on a long career in coaching at the high-school, college and professional levels. As far back as his early days with the Cardinals, he was helping Michigan State Spartans coach Danny Litwhiler with the baseball team (while also attending the classes he’d bypassed with the scholarship offer), so the carryover to coaching on a full-time basis came as no surprise. Jaster retired from the Baltimore Orioles organization in December 2012. As of then he resided near Jacksonville, Florida, with his second wife, Mary, and enjoyed fishing and hunting.

Jaster eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgia State and a master’s from the University of New Mexico. In 1990 Larry and fellow Midland native Terry Collins were among the first 12 inductees into the Midland County Sports Hall of Fame.

Of Jaster’s three children, Scott, Kimberly, and Brent (there are also six grandchildren), his athleticism rubbed off on the eldest when, in 1985, Scott was a second-round draft selection of the New York Mets. Scott had a nine-year minor-league career as an outfielder in the Mets, White Sox, and Royals organizations, then spent nine years scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks, for whom he signed Brandon Webb and Dan Uggla.

Jaster’s talent had extended to the basketball court years earlier when he joined the Clete Boyer All-Pros during the 1970-71 offseason. Sponsored by Boyer’s car-leasing agency, the squad included such notables as Phil Niekro and Bob Uecker playing games in the Atlanta area to benefit charity.

In a 1996 interview Jaster was asked to recall remarkable exploits from his career. He replied that “[a]s time goes on [the string of shutouts against the Dodgers is] more unbelievable to me.”9 What is believable is the sense that, with fewer complete games in the 21st century game, and thus fewer shutouts, Jaster’s feat will likely never be matched. For any pitcher, this is quite an accomplishment.

 

Acknowledgment

The author wishes to thank Larry and Danny Jaster for the time spent on February 21, 2013, to ensure the accuracy of the narrative. Further thanks are extended to Norm Richards.

 

Sources

ancestry.com

Baseball-reference.com

midlandascc.org/

 

Notes

1 “’Unbelievable,’ Says Jaster – Dodgers Agree,” The Sporting News, October 15, 1966, 7.

2 “’Unbelievable,’ Says Jaster …”

3 “Once-Spoiled Bonus Boy, Jaster Pops Card Peepers,” The Sporting News, October 23, 1965, 18.

4 “Once-Spoiled …”

5 “Once-Spolied …”

6 “Two Jasters Better Than One as Cards Polish Brother Act,” The Sporting News, September 10, 1966, 37.

7 “Cards’ Jaster Put a Quick Stop to Long-Ball Barrage,” The Sporting News, January 6, 1968, 43.

8 “Major Flashes,” The Sporting News, September 30, 1967, 23.

9 “2-0, 2-0, 4-0, 4-0, 2-0,” The Sporting News, July 8, 1996, 55.

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