Frank Strong Lary, a talented, hard-throwing right hander for the Detroit Tigers, proved to be one of the American League’s best pitchers from 1955 through 1961. An All-Star hurler in 1960 and 1961, he was best known as the “Yankee Killer.” While fashioning a major league lifetime record of 128-116 with an ERA of 3.49, Frank virtually made a career of defeating the New York Yankees, going 28-13 lifetime against the perennial champions. Although he suffered a sore arm by 1962 and did not enjoy the same success thereafter, Lary’s outstanding career made an indelible mark on his teammates, legions of the Tiger faithful, and many Yankee-hating fans.
By 1961, the year he peaked with a 23-9 record, Lary had hurled roughly one-quarter of his victories over the Yankees. For example, he led the American League in wins during 1956, finishing at 21-13 for the fifth-place Tigers, but he achieved five victories at New York’s expense. In 1958, when Frank went 16-15 for a fifth-place Detroit club, he was a remarkable 7-1 against the Yankees. Thus, sportswriters were often looking for a “secret” to Lary’s success against the Bronx Bombers. But he would shrug off the question, often giving the same matter-of-fact answer, according to Ray Robinson in Baseball Stars of 1962: “I just throw them that breaking stuff of mine.” In other words, the Yankee Killer never really had the answer.
But Lary kept finding ways to beat the league’s dominant team. On July 4, 1961, with the Tigers locked in a pennant run with the Yankees, manager Bob Scheffing picked the right hander to stop New York in the second game of a holiday doubleheader. Almost 75,000 fans, the largest crowd at ‘Yankee Stadium” site:sabr.org/bioproj since 1947, paid their way through the turnstiles to see their heroes beat the upstart Bengals. Instead, Lary won a ten-inning thriller, 4-3.
“Frank Lary, the Yankees’ arch tormentor these past six years,” wrote John Drebinger in the New York Times, “really did a job on the Bombers. The right hander was the winning pitcher and it was his daring bunt that pushed across the winning run.”
With the score tied at 3-3 in the tenth, Lary, who could deliver a timely hit (he belted six homers lifetime and averaged .231 in 1961), came to bat with two outs, Dick Brown waiting on second base and Steve Boros at third. With two strikes, Lary bunted down the third base line, catching right hander Bill Stafford off guard. The squeeze scored Boros with the go-ahead run. In the bottom of the tenth, Lary gave up a single to Tony Kubek. Scheffing called lefty Hank Aguirre from the bullpen, and he retired slugger Roger Maris on a popup. A passed ball let Kubek move to second, and the dangerous Mickey Mantle, batting right-handed, drew a walk. Yogi Berra, a good clutch hitter, flied out to deep center, moving Kubek to third. Scheffing called upon Terry Fox, and the right hander got Bill Skowron to end the game with a fly ball to center field.
The stocky, broad-shouldered Lary, a cool performer under game pressure but often a clown in the clubhouse, earned the win. He improved his 1961 ledger to 12-4 and his lifetime record against New York to 26-9. Thus, the Yankee Killer’s mystique grew.
Born to Joseph M. and Margaret Lary on April 10, 1930, in Northport, Alabama, Frank grew up as the sixth of seven sons in a close-knit family. Joseph, a cotton farmer and semipro pitcher known for his spitball, lost his chance at the majors because of World War I. Better known as “Mitt,” he served as father, taskmaster, and coach to his seven sons, ranging from Joe, the oldest, through James, Raymond, Ed, Al, Frank, and Gene. When the boys weren’t doing chores or plowing, they were playing baseball. Frank, the runt of the Lary clan (his next tallest brother stood 6’1″), later grew to 5’11” and 185 pounds. He was endowed with a good work ethic, a quiet sense of determination, and an ambitious drive to succeed, notably on the diamond.
The family’s 520-acre farm was situated five miles west of Northport, then a town of 4,000. The Lary boys rode the bus to Tuscaloosa County High, where they played baseball and football. Five of them went on to study and play either baseball or football, or both, at nearby Alabama. The university’s campus stood across the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, and the Crimson Tide boasted a strong tradition of first-rate football and baseball squads. Five of Mitt’s sons lettered in baseball at Alabama, and two of them, Al and Ed, also lettered at end in football. Later, Al Lary hurled for the Cubs in 1954, 1955, and 1962, Ed signed with Nashville but never played, and Gene was a pitcher at Alabama and rose through the minors to Triple-A ball. Joe lettered at Alabama, and he and Ray were semipro pitchers in the area. James, who took up catching, was the only nonpitcher on the family’s roster, but someone had to do the catching. After learning how Bob Feller‘s father helped his son succeed in the majors by building a ballfield on the family’s Iowa farm, Mitt Lary used part of his front yard to build a pitching mound. “That’s where they all learned to play ball, out there in the front yard,” Mitt told sportswriter Furman Bisher in 1961. “I’d sit on the porch here and tell them what they were doing wrong.”
Frank Lary loved baseball. In 1948 he capped his senior year in Northport with an 8-1 ledger. But his coach also raved about his football ability, recalling that he once saw Frank average 49 yards on 11 punts in a rainstorm, and claiming that he could run the hundred in 10.2 seconds. An all-around athlete, Frank went to Alabama mainly to polish his baseball skills. As a sophomore, he peaked on the diamond, leading the Crimson Tide to a 20-10 record and into the College World Series. The fastballer posted a combined regular season and playoff record of 10-4, including a mark of 5-1 in the playoffs. Brothers Al and Ed also helped the Tide’s success: Al went 5-2 during the season but lost a playoff game, while Ed was 0-1 for the year.
The Alabama nine won the Southeastern Conference’s championship in 1950 with three victories over Kentucky (two by Frank) and captured the NCAA District III title with wins over Clemson and Wake Forest (twice). In the College World Series, Lary hurled Alabama to a 9-2 victory over Bradley. But Washington State beat the Tide, 9-1, with Gene Conley, later a major leaguer and an NBA player, earning the victory, and Alabama’s Al Worthington, who would compile a 75-82 record in the majors, taking the loss. Lary, on two days’ rest, pitched game 3 and lost to Wisconsin, 3-1, with Thornton Kipper, a future big leaguer, winning for the Badgers. Also, Bob “Red” Wilson, a senior who later caught Lary with the Tigers, was Wisconsin’s star receiver.
Lary, a sandy-haired, ruddy-faced country boy who spoke with a drawl and liked to strum the guitar, was ready to turn pro. Several clubs, including the Tigers, the Yankees, and the Chicago Cubs, were expressing interest. In late June, after Alabama’s exit from the College World Series, Detroit regional scout Bill Pierre met Lary at a Birmingham restaurant. Pierre, a savvy judge of talent, persuaded Frank to ink a contract for the current major league minumum. Furman Bisher later reported in Sport magazine: “The price was said to be $6,000, but gentle hints indicated the Tigers went under the table for as much as $12,000 to $15,000 more.”
In the second week of July 1950, Lary reported to Thomasville of the Class D Georgia-Florida League. Beginning on July 12, he started four games in twelve days and won all four. Sent to Jamestown, New York, of the Class D PONY League, Lary worked 67 innings in 10 games and posted a 5-2 record with a nifty 1.88 ERA. After the season, during the peak of the Korean War, the Army drafted him. Lary never went overseas. Stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, he spent most of his two-year military hitch doing routine duties on the base as well as playing basketball and baseball. Meanwhile, he married his longtime sweetheart, Emma Lou Barton, on July 21, 1951. They had three children, Frank Jr., Donita, and Cindy Beth.
In 1953 Lary reported for training at Tigertown, Detroit’s new facility at Lakeland, Florida. Recalled John McHale, “He came into camp as a Class D rookie and left as a real Triple-A prospect with the Buffalo team.” Jack Tighe, who would later manage Detroit, piloted Buffalo of the International League to a third-place finish. Lary’s 17-11 season boosted the Bisons. The fastballing right hander appeared in 38 games, starting 32 and completing 14. He worked 223 innings, struck out 117 batters, issued 101 free passes, and had a 4.00 ERA. Lary’s season highlight came on September 9, when, in the seven-inning first game of a doubleheader at Ottawa, he fired a no-hitter for his seventeenth victory, 5-0.
Brought to spring training with the parent club in 1954, Lary let down Detroit manager Fred Hutchinson, himself a former hurler. “I was never so disappointed in a pitcher,” Hutchinson told Hal Middlesworth of the Detroit Free Press. “From our scouting reports, I figured Frank would be a fifth starter for us. But he just couldn’t get the ball over the plate and we couldn’t use him.” Lary took the train back to Buffalo, where he reported to manager Billy Hitchcock. But wildness plagued the fastballer. By midseason his record was 5-9. Hitchcock finally turned to veteran catcher Al Lakeman, who spotted Lary’s problem. In 1953 the Alabama native had pitched full overhand, while in 1954 he was throwing three-quarters sidearm. Lakeman worked with Lary to adjust his delivery, and Hitchcock pitched the right hander every fourth day.
Lary made a remarkable turnaround and finished with a 15-11 ledger. Altogether, he started 25 games, completed 13, struck out 102 batters, walked 82, and turned in a 3.39 ERA. His 1954 highlight was a near-perfect game against Toronto on August 27. With two outs in the ninth inning, Archie Wilson singled on a fastball he later said he couldn’t see. Lary fanned the last batter and won, 2-0, with Wilson the only hitter to reach base.
Called up by the Tigers, Lary made his debut on September 14, 1954, a Tuesday afternoon when the Yankees visited Detroit’s Briggs Stadium. The Cleveland Indians, leading second-place New York by 8.5 games, would soon clinch the pennant. The game meant nothing in the standings to the Yankees or the Tigers, as Detroit trailed Cleveland by 39½ games. Still, New York, behind a four-hitter by right hander Tom Morgan, hammered the Bengals, 11-0. At the end, Fred Hutchinson called for Lary, who pitched the ninth inning. Nervous, the Alabama rookie gave up a pair of hits and a walk, but he finished the game without allowing a run.
Lary made two more appearances in 1954, both against first-place Cleveland. On September 19 at Detroit, the Indians collected victory number 108, stopping the Tigers, 4-2. Frank worked the sixth and seventh frames, allowing no hits but walking one batter. The rookie made his last appearance on September 25 in Cleveland. The Indians won their 111th game, 11-1, and Lary relieved righty George Zuverink. Arriving with one out in the fifth, Frank finished the inning, giving up two hits, a walk, and one run, allowing the Indians to boost their lead to 7-0.
After his baptism under fire, Lary looked forward to a spot in Detroit’s rotation in 1955. The Bengals hired manager Bucky Harris, who took over after Fred Hutchinson, who wanted a two-year contract, resigned. Harris expected Lary to be a key part of his mound staff. As it developed, the Tigers’ rotation included veteran right handers Ned Garver, who went 12-16, and Steve Gromek, the former Indian, who was 13-10. Southpaw Billy Hoeft, in his fourth season for the Tigers, produced a 16-7 mark. But Detroit’s pitching weakness was inconsistent relievers, with right handers Duke Maas (5-6) and Babe Birrer (4-3 and three saves) as well as lefty Al Aber (6-3 with three saves) being the best choices out of the bullpen.
As Hal Middlesworth observed in his 1956 profile of Lary, the Alabama native started slowly. Bucky Harris called it the same old story: Lary was too often “high and wide.” Schoolboy Rowe, Tiger coach and former Bengal pitching great of the 1930s, concluded, “He’s throwing TOO HARD.” When Lary took something off his pitches, he developed more control. By season’s end, he had learned the big league ropes while enjoying mixed success, going 14-15 with an ERA of 3.10. But he was strong, durable, and effective, appearing 36 times, making 31 starts, and hurling 16 complete games, including two shutouts. He struck out 98 batters while walking 89.
Hutchinson’s Tigers had slipped to fifth place late in 1954, finishing with a 68-86 record. The Bengals finished fifth again in 1955, but the Motor City ball club improved to 79-75 under Harris. Lary made his first start on April 15, facing Cleveland’s prize rookie, fireballing southpaw Herb Score, who whiffed nine and came away the winner, 7-3. Lary worked the first six innings and left trailing 3-2. He yielded eight hits and walked two while striking out five. The Indians won their third straight game by scoring a run in the seventh and three in the eighth off reliever Bob Schultz. Nine days later Lary faced Score at Cleveland and outdueled the lefty, 6-4. Frank tossed a complete game, allowing four runs on eight hits, walking six, and fanning one. He also proved tough in the clutch, filling the bases in the bottom of the ninth–but surviving when Bobby Avila, who hit a two-run single, was thrown out trying to stretch it to a double. Still, Score got the best of their rivalry, beating Lary and the Tigers 5-3 on August 18 and 8-2 on September 24.
Lary’s season resembled a roller-coaster ride. In his third start, on April 29 in Detroit, he beat Camilo Pascual and the Washington Senators, 3-2. But Frank lost his next three decisions, two by one run. The rookie evened his record at 4-4 by outlasting the Baltimore Orioles, 6-3, in ten innings, and scattering six hits to stop the Kansas City Athletics, 8-2. Five days later, on May 30, he lost to KC at Briggs Stadium, 8-6, before winning at home over the Orioles and the Yankees.
Lary’s first career victory against New York came at Briggs Stadium on June 8, 1955, when he topped Bullet Bob Turley, 3-1, in a matchup of fastballers. Lary, called “Bulldog” by New York pilot Casey Stengel because of his tenacity, gave up eight hits and passed four, but he struck out six and proved tougher to hit, as usual, with runners aboard. He yielded the only Yankee tally in the third on Mickey Mantle‘s single. Meanwhile, Turley walked the bases full in the fourth. Detroit star Harvey Kuenn, who had doubled twice, drove in one run with a force out at second base. Bill Tuttle, the fleet center fielder, singled in another. The Tigers added an insurance run in the sixth when Lary walked, Tuttle singled, Al Kaline, who would win the 1955 AL batting title with a .340 average, walked, and Ferris Fain bounced out, scoring Lary for a 3-1 lead.
After defeating the Yankees, the Tiger rookie lost his next three starts, including a 3-2 loss at the hands of New York left-hander Tommy Byrne. The Bengals, getting just four hits off Byrne, scored single runs in the fourth and the eighth. But Lary, who struck out five, was tiring by the ninth, and he walked Mickey Mantle with one out. Yogi Berra promptly lined a two-run homer into the right-field stands. Irv Noren followed with a single, Lary nicked Eddie Robinson with a fastball, and Joe Collins drew a walk. With Detroit’s infield drawn in, Elston Howard singled sharply to win the game, dropping Lary’s record to 6-6 for the year and 1-1 against the Yanks.
Lary could not win more than two games in a row in 1955. But against New York at home on August 23, he squared his record at 12-12 by beating the Yankees and Turley, 7-2. Frank went the distance, allowing two runs on eight hits while walking four and whiffing six. Turley’s wildness allowed Detroit to score four runs in the first three innings. Facing Tom Morgan in the eighth, the Tigers clinched the game with three runs, two on Ray Boone‘s single. “Meanwhile,” wrote John Drebinger of the New York Times, “Frank Lary, Bucky Harris’ young right hander, managed to weather a few squalls and go all the way.” While he didn’t have a winning record for the season, Lary did finish 2-1 with a no-decision against the World Series-bound New Yorkers.
Speaking in a 2007 interview, Red Wilson, who caught the former Alabama ace in 21 of his career starts against New York, shared memories of Lary as a pitcher and teammate. As a battery against the Yankees, Lary and Wilson combined for a 19-3 record, with two no-decisions. Red said, “Frank Lary was a hard-throwing right hander, more of a power pitcher. He had a good curve and a good slider. He gave you a lot of good innings, and he was a tough competitor.”
But, Wilson added, Lary could have won more games if he had more control: “Frank didn’t cut the corners very well. He wasn’t what I would call a ‘control pitcher.’ Most big leaguers can hit a good fastball, so you have to get it over the corners. But playing New York, Frank had a real desire to beat the Yankees, like we all did, because they were the best team in the league.”
When the Tigers finally hung up their spikes in 1956, Lary had posted a 21-13 record with a 3.15 ERA. In addition to pacing AL hurlers in wins, he led the league in games started, 38, and innings pitched, 294. He completed 20 of 38 starts, fanned 165 hitters, and walked 116–his career high. The intense competitor led the league for the first of three straight times (and four in five years) in hit batsmen, nailing 12. Like many pitchers of the era, Lary threw inside partly for intimidation. He was not afraid to show the other team he owned the inside of the plate.
Despite Lary’s performance, the Bengals endured a frustrating season, finishing in fifth place for the third straight year–even though improving to 82-72. The Yankees, the Indians, the White Sox, and the Red Sox again populated the junior circuit’s first division, while the Tigers, despite an AL-best batting mark of .279, topped only the Orioles, the Senators, and the Athletics. Also, the Tigers’ ownership changed in 1956, as the Briggs family sold the franchise at bid to a syndicate headed by Detroit radio magnate Fred Knorr and Kalamazoo, Michigan, businessman John Fetzer. On October 1, 1956, the Tigers, one of baseball’s most stable and profitable franchises, passed into the hands of a group determined to improve player personnel and win more games.
For the 1956 season, the Tigers, besides Lary, featured two other big winners. Billy Hoeft enjoyed the best mark in his 15-year career, 20-14, with a 4.06 ERA, while Paul Foytack compiled a 3.59 ERA and posted the first of his two 15-13 seasons (his second came in 1958). After Lary, Hoeft, and Foytack, the best Tiger hurlers were veteran Steve Gromek, who was 8-6 with four saves in his final full season; Virgil Trucks, the longtime Bengal right hander back from stints with the Browns and the White Sox, who finished at 6-5; and reliever Al Aber, who compiled a 4-4 mark and a team-high seven saves. Tiger All-Stars included right fielder Al Kaline, who enjoyed a stellar year by hitting .314 with 27 home runs and 128 RBIs; shortstop Harvey Kuenn, who led the league with 196 hits (he paced the AL with 209 and 201 hits in 1953 and 1954, respectively), averaging .332 with seven homers and 88 RBIs; and Ray Boone, the veteran third sacker, who batted .308 with 25 four-baggers and 81 RBIs.
Lary, full of promise after his rookie season, started 1956 on a losing note. By July 4 his record stood at 4-10. For example, on April 17, Opening Day at Briggs Stadium, the right hander gave up a two-run pinch double to Kansas City’s Gus Zernial in the seventh inning and lost, 2-1, despite tossing a six-hitter and hitting an inside-the park homer off the Athletics’ Alex Kellner. On April 27 Lary lost at home again, 4-3, when he gave up a two-run circuit clout to Cleveland’s Bobby Avila in the tenth inning. But on May 2, Lary improved to 1-2 when he stifled New York on a three-hitter, one being Mickey Mantle’s solo homer, to win at Yankee Stadium, 8-1.
Frank continued to feed off the Yankees. On May 16 at Briggs Stadium, the Red Sox hung him with a 4-2 loss, dropping his record to 1-5. But six days later in Detroit, Lary, with Red Wilson behind the plate, beat the Yankees and ace lefty Whitey Ford, 3-2. The Tigers trailed in the ninth, 2-0, but Charlie Maxwell, who had enjoyed a career year in 1956 by averaging .326, led off with a double and moved to third when the ball eluded Mantle in center. Wilson then hit a two-run homer into the lower left-field seats. The victory improved Lary’s record to 2-5. On June 1 the tenacious Tiger earned his fourth victory of the year and fourth straight career win over New York, 6-3, when Bob Kennedy lifted Detroit with a fifth-inning grand slam off Tommy Byrne. Still, Lary lost five more, including a 5-3 defeat to the Yankees on June 19, before he won game number five on July 5. In his loss, Frank blanked the Yankees for six innings, but a pair of doubles by Yogi Berra, one in the seventh and another in the eighth, helped lift the Bombers into a 4-3 lead. New York reliever Tommy Byrne hit a solo homer in the ninth, dropping Frank’s ledger to 4-7 on the season and 5-2 lifetime against New York.
Lary’s low point occurred at Kansas City on July 1 when, after allowing five hits before the sixth inning, he filled the bases by allowing a double, a hit batsman, and a walk. Singles by Joe DeMaestri and Vic Power plated three runs, the tough-luck hurler departed for a reliever, and Detroit lost, 4-3. The loss marked Lary’s fifth straight setback in three weeks and dropped his record to 4-10. Not discouraged, he won at home on July 5, 13-7, when the Tigers pounded right hander Bob Lemon and four Indians relievers for 14 hits and 13 runs. Meanwhile, Lary tossed a few knucklers en route to a five-hitter, although Jim Busby and Al Rosen each homered.
Bucky Harris, who called Lary “my little bulldog,” was pushing the Alabaman to develop a new “let-up” pitch to go with his hard fastball, quick curve, and deceptive slider. One day during his losing streak, Lary went to Jack Tighe, Detroit’s bullpen coach, and said he wanted to try the knuckleball in games. “It made a different man of out him,” commented Tighe, shortly after he was named Tiger manager following the ’56 season.
Lary recalled fooling around with the knuckler for years on the sidelines. He said, “One day I told Frank House, the catcher, to call for it a time or two and he did. I found myself striking out hitters with the good eyes, using my knuckler. I made Ted Williams mad with it. I tried it on Mickey Mantle, and he didn’t get a hit off it.” Sometimes Frank threw a knuckler for the third strike, but often he used it to set up a pitch, notably his good overhand curve.
In any event, Lary’s record from July 5 to the end of the season was a spectacular 17-3. Reminiscent of Buffalo in 1954 when he won ten of his last thirteen decisions, Lary won four straight games. The fourth victory came against the Yankees in the Bronx during the nightcap of a doubleheader, 4-3, thanks to a sixth-inning solo homer by Al Kaline. A youthful All Star at age twenty-one, Kaline also saved the game when, with two runners on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, he made a sensational leaping catch of a high drive by Mickey Mantle that looked as though it would carry over the auxiliary scoreboard in right field. Then, after an 8-6 loss at Boston, Lary won five out of six games before losing at Baltimore, a 3-0 shutout on August 23.
Lary then won eight straight to finish at 21-13. One gem in his streak came with the two-hit 11-1 victory he twirled against the Indians in Detroit on September 23. But his most satisfying win came on September 15 when he beat the Yankees for the fifth time in six decisions, 6-2, as the Tigers erupted for five runs in the seventh frame to ice the game. Although the New Yorkers won the 1956 AL pennant and the World Series, Detroit won their season series, 12-10, and Lary became the first pitcher in years to beat the Yankees five times in a season.
According to Red Wilson, the knuckleball boosted Lary’s success, because the new pitch allowed him to get ahead in the count. “They don’t want any part of it,” Wilson told Hal Middlesworth in The Sporting News, “so they start taking their cuts earlier now. Of course, that works to Frank’s advantage another way. He can put a little more on the fast one and still have the knuckler as a threat in reserve.” Lary finished sixth in the Cy Young Award voting, and the Tigers reportedly gave him a 1957 contract worth more than $20,000.
Despite his turnabout in 1956 and his expanded repertoire of pitches, Lary was unable to repeat his 20-win season during the next four years. In 1957, when the Tigers climbed to the first division, finishing in fourth place with a ledger of 78-76, Jim Bunning paced Detroit’s staff. The 6’3″ right hander from Southgate, Kentucky, later a Hall of Famer, came to Detroit alongside Lary in 1955. But Bunning’s rookie record was 3-5, and he spent part of the year at Buffalo, where he posted an 8-5 mark. Jim won five games for Detroit in 1956, but he also went 9-11 for Triple-A Charleston of the American Association. The hard-throwing Kentuckian enjoyed his first stellar season in 1957, leading the league with 20 wins and 267 1/3 innings pitched. Detroit’s second-best hurler was Paul Foytack, who went 14-11. Also, Duke Maas finished at 10-14, and Billy Hoeft, after two strong seasons, saw his record slip to 9-11.
What happened to the “Yankee Killer” in 1957? His pitching style remained the same, and later, speaking to interviewer Bill Ballew, Lary attributed his losing record of 11-16 to insufficient run support. But while his appearances and stats were similar to his 1956 figures, he was less efficient. The quiet-spoken Southerner pitched in 40 games (compared to 41 in 1956), started 35 times (compared to 38), completed 12 (down from 20), walked 72 (well below his ’56 peak of 116), and fanned 107 (down from 165). He fashioned an ERA of 3.98 (up from 3.15), and once again he led the league with 12 hit batsmen.
The Tigers, full of hope, were piloted by Jack Tighe, an aggressive field leader who wanted to develop more young players. Tighe had worked with Lary, and the two had a friendly relationship. Also, Detroit had a winning nucleus, including Ray Boone, now at first base, Harvey Kuenn at short, Frank Bolling at second, and Reno Bertoia, a bonus rookie, at third. With Al Kaline, Bill Tuttle, and Charlie Maxwell in the outfield and a staff of starters like Lary, Bunning, Foytack, Hoeft, and Maas, Detroit looked like a possible pennant contender.
Instead, several key Tigers, including Kaline, Kuenn, and Hoeft, suffered early-season slumps, and Lary compiled a 4-11 record by the All-Star break. Frank lost the season opener at Kansas City, 2-1, but returned to Briggs Stadium on April 20 to shut out the Indians, 7-0. After a no-decision in Cleveland when he lasted just three innings (he was hit on the left knee by a line drive), he lost at home to the Yankees, 7-4, on May 1. Four days later he defeated the Orioles, 3-1, making his record 2-2. Thereafter, he lost five games before saving a 6-3 win against the Yankees on June 7. Three days later, he collected his third victory, working seven frames against the Yankees as the Tigers won, 9-4. After winning number four, a complete-game 3-1 triumph over the Red Sox on June 15, Lary began an eight-game losing string with a 3-1 loss to New York at Yankee Stadium. On August 14, The Sporting News reported that Tighe, following Detroit’s 6-7 mark on the team’s third Eastern trip, sent Lary temporarily to the bullpen. At that point the right hander had started 11 times in a futile quest for a fifth victory. It was the lowest point in his career. But as in 1956, the Tigers came on strong later in the season, led by Kaline, who hit 18 of his 24 homers in the last 54 games. On August 14, Lary won a complete game at Kansas City, 7-4, starting a streak in which he won seven out of eight decisions
On August 18, after Lary won his second straight game, 5-1, tossing a four-hitter against the White Sox, Detroit pitching coach Willis Hudlin said, “All he needed was a few runs.” Actually, only five of Lary’s 16 losses came by one run. In early October, Robert L. Byrnes of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat cited the losing records of Lary (11-16) and Billy Hoeft (9-11) among a handful of other hurlers as “Most Amazing Reversals.” The Yankee Killer, who was 2-1 against the Bronx Bombers in 1955 and 5-1 against them in 1956, posted a mortal 2-2 record against New York’s pennant winners in 1957. Lary’s career against the Yankees now stood at 9-4.
On September 20, Frank’s brother Joe died in an electrical accident, and Frank, who returned home, missed two starts. But he looked forward to a better season for his club and himself in 1958. On November 20, 1957, Detroit made a 13-player trade with Kansas City, sending Bill Tuttle, Duke Maas, Frank House, and four others to the A’s for six players: two former Yankees, infielder Billy Martin and right hander Tom Morgan; two veterans, slugger Gus Zernial and lefty Mickey McDermott; plus catcher Tim Thompson and outfielder Lou Skizas. Meanwhile, Detroit’s front office seemed more stable as John Fetzer became chairman of the board, Jack Tighe got ready for a better season, and Billy Martin was seen as the sparkplug needed to fire up the Tigers in 1958.
But again the Bengals stumbled in the spring, as Kaline, Bunning, Hoeft, and Martin were hampered by injuries. In late May, Detroit lost nine straight and fell into the AL’s cellar. The club’s new general manager, John McHale, recommended a change. On June 10, Tighe was removed as manager and replaced by Bill Norman, then piloting Detroit’s Triple-A club in Charleston, West Virginia. Detroit traded onetime star Ray Boone and ineffective right hander Bob Shaw to the White Sox for outfielder Tito Francona and righty Bill Fischer. Also, the Tigers called up Charleston infielder Ozzie Virgil, a native of the Dominican Republic and the club’s first black player. As sometimes happens with a new manager, the Tigers caught fire and won enough games to rise to second place by July 13. But lacking bench depth and good relief pitching, Detroit gradually slipped into fifth place, this time with a 77-77 finish.
Many Tigers enjoyed good individual performances. Lary topped the Tigers’ moundsmen with his 16-15 record, thanks to regaining his mastery over the Yankees–going 7-1 against the pennant winners. But New York’s nemesis was only 9-14 against the rest of the league, although eight of the fourteen were one-run defeats. Detroit’s next best pitchers were Paul Foytack, who was 15-13, and Jim Bunning, who went 14-12. Also, Billy Hoeft, who started 21 games but pitched 15 times in relief, finished at 10-9 with three saves. Right hander Herb Moford, acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals, compiled a 4-9 record in spot starts and relief, while 6’4″ lefty Hank Aguirre, who arrived in a deal with the Indians, went 3-4 with a team-high five saves. Harvey Kuenn batted .319 and adjusted well to center field, a move that allowed Billy Martin, who hit .255, to play shortstop. Kaline, who suffered several minor injuries, slipped to a .313 average, 16 home runs, and 85 RBIs, but the star right fielder won his second straight Gold Glove award.
Lary started 1958 with road losses to the White Sox, 4-3, and the Indians, 4-1. But at Yankee Stadium on April 30, the Tigers unleashed a 14-hit barrage against Whitey Ford and two relievers, winning 10-1 behind Lary’s seven-hitter. The right hander won two more, both complete games, before dropping two straight. With his ledger at 3-4, Lary twirled another seven-hitter to stop the Bronx Bombers in Detroit, 3-2, thanks to a seventh-inning RBI double by Kaline. Four days later, Lary beat the Red Sox, 4-2, before working 6.1 innings in a 6-4 loss to the Orioles. Rebounding, he tossed three straight shutouts, one against Boston, 7-0, and two against New York, 2-0 and 1-0. After improving to 8-5, the Alabama ace had a no-decision against Boston before he lost three straight, thus evening his record to 8-8.
On July 15 Lary proved tough against his favorite opponents, defeating the Bronx Bombers at Yankee Stadium, 12-5. With relief help from Hank Aguirre for the last 1 1/3 innings, Lary beat the Yankees for the fifth time in 1958, upping his season ledger to 9-8 and his career mark against New York to 14-4. Meanwhile, the Tigers led the league’s best team in their season series, 9-4 (Detroit would win the series, 12-10), despite trailing the Yankees in the standings by 12½ games. But eight days later in Detroit, the Yankees thumped the Tigers and Lary, 16-4. In that contest, Lary worked six innings and allowed four runs on seven hits, but Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Norm Siebern all homered, pacing an 18-hit attack off four Tiger hurlers. The loss left Lary’s record at 9-9. From there on, he won seven of his last thirteen decisions, finishing at 16-15.
Perhaps the Alabama star’s season was epitomized by the final defeat, a 2-1 heartbreaker at the hands of the Indians. After spacing five hits and pitching shutout ball for eight innings, Lary gave up two pinch singles, allowing both Cleveland runs to score in the top of the ninth. It was a difficult way to end an otherwise improved season. In The Sporting News for September 3, 1958, Watson Spoelstra quoted Detroit’s John McHale as saying Lary was psychologically ready and always bore down against New York. “If Frank used the same kind of preparation on other clubs, he would be sitting on top of the world,” McHale said. “I’m afraid he’s careless at times when he isn’t stirred by the challenge of the Yankees.”
McHale highlighted Lary’s mindset of rising to the greater challenge. But Frank also pitched better with runners on base than with empty sacks. On March 18, 1959, in The Sporting News, Detroit’s Joe Falls explained that with runners aboard, Lary “becomes a mean, scowling competitor who looks like he’d throw the ball through a batter’s heart if it meant getting him out.” But with the bases empty, “Lary has as much trouble as a lady driver backing into a garage.”
Away from the ballpark, Detroit’s automobile industry boomed in the late 1950s, and the Motor City was a nice place to live. Briggs Stadium, a green cathedral where fans sat close to the diamond and enjoyed seeing the game and talking baseball, was deemed a hitter’s park where batters and fielders could see the ball well and deliver good performances. When the 1959 season ended, the Alabama native returned, as usual, to Northport. During the season Frank and Emma Lou rented a house in Detroit, an arrangement most married players made, paying up to $200 a month. In the 1958-59 offseason, Lary tilled his farm and worked at a Northport haberdashery. In later years, he owned and operated an ice cream store, a filling station, and a rug-cleaning business. In his free time, he liked to hunt, fish, and play his guitar.
The friendly Lary, who treated rookies and veterans alike, delighted in homespun humor and clubhouse antics like riding the laundry cart around the room like a scooter and pantomiming a boxing match. Frank also organized a “hillbilly choir,” joined by Bobo Osborne, Red Wilson, and Gail Harris, to sing country tunes. Later, on a spring morning in 1963, as Lary was ready to test his recovering arm in a Florida exhibition, he clowned around at breakfast at the Lakeland Holiday Inn. When Paul Foytack told the waitress he wanted hot tea, not coffee, reported Joe Falls in Sport, Lary quipped, “Bring him a beer!” The joking comment loosened up the players, all of whom liked and admired Frank. “He’s a class guy, but a down-to-earth guy,” Vic Wertz once observed. “Just having him around gives everybody a lift. The mental part of this game is pretty important and Frank has the knack of keeping everybody loose.”
In 1959 the Tigers again looked good in Florida, but the regular season turned into yet another roller-coaster ride. The White Sox upset the Yankees’ momentum by winning the AL pennant, with the Indians in second by five games and the Bronx Bombers in third by fifteen. The Tigers finished with a respectable 76-78 record, nudging the Red Sox out of fourth place by one game. Meanwhile, Detroit’s management brought in plenty of new faces. Billy Martin and right hander Al Cicotte shuffled off to Cleveland in return for infielder Ossie Alvarez, a Cuban native who would play only eight games for Detroit, right hander Ray Narleski and southpaw Don Mossi, both of whom were effective as starters and relievers. Also, infielders Reno Bertoia and Ron Samford plus outfielder Jim Delsing (in the minors since 1956) went to Washington in a trade for third baseman Eddie Yost, shortstop Rocky Bridges, and outfielder Neil Chrisley. Detroit also sent Tito Francona to the Indians to get 34-year-old slugger Lary Doby, a lifetime .283 hitter who had slugged 253 homers since breaking the AL’s color line in 1947. But Doby was soon finished with Detroit, after averaging just .218 with no home runs in 18 games.
Detroit boasted three 17-game winners, led by Jim Bunning at 17-13 and a 3.89 ERA. Also, Don Mossi, a control specialist, was 17-9 with a 3.36 ERA, and Lary posted a 17-10 mark with a 3.55 ERA. Relief pitching again proved problematic: Ray Narleski topped relievers with 104.1 innings, but he finished at 4-12 with five saves. Tom Morgan went 1-4 with nine saves; righty Dave Sisler, who arrived in an early-season trade with the Red Sox, was 1-3 with seven saves; and lefty Pete Burnside, who came from the San Francisco Giants, went 1-3 with one save. But again Detroit started poorly, losing fifteen of the first seventeen games. The streak convinced John Fetzer to dump Bill Norman in favor of 62-year-old Jimmy Dykes, a veteran of 38 years as a player and/or manager. He became Detroit’s fourth pilot in four years.
On Sunday, May 3, 1959, Dykes took over and, looking for a jump-start, returned Charlie Maxwell to left field in place of Doby. Maxwell responded with his greatest day in baseball, hitting four home runs in four successive official at-bats. With “Ol’ Paw Paw” going 5-for-7 with four circuit clouts and eight RBI, the Tigers swept the Yankees in a doubleheader. Lary also benefited, upping his record to 2-2 by scattering eight hits and winning the first game, 4-2, while Don Mossi evened his mark at 1-1 with a 8-2 victory in the nightcap. The Tigers went on to win 32 out of 46 games to climb within a half-game of first place by late June. Thereafter, Detroit was hindered by a series of injuries, and the club finished in fourth place. Still, the Motor City’s fans were treated to plenty of excitement, as Bunning, Mossi, and Lary paced the pitching staff while Harvey Kuenn (.353) and Al Kaline (.327) finished one-two in the AL batting race.
Lary, who signed for a reported $25,000 in 1959, started slowly, but came on strong. After losing two of his first three starts, he beat the Yankees in Detroit on May 3, thanks partly to Maxwell’s bat. Frank won his next start, beating Boston, 3-1, before losing at Baltimore, 6-1. Facing the Yankees in the Bronx on May 20, he tossed a complete game and won, 13-6, as the Tigers ripped lefty Bobby Shantz and four relievers for 19 hits, including three homers. Lary’s win improved his record to 4-3, and the loss dropped New York into the cellar for the first time since 1940. Lary won his next four decisions before losing to Baltimore, 4-1. He then blanked Kansas City, 4-0, lost three straight, and won six in a row, including two victories over New York.
But Lary faltered late in the season. He developed a “sore elbow,” wrote Hal Middlesworth in The Sporting News, and failed to win a game in September. In fact, the injury caused him to miss his last four starts. Pitching at home on August 19, the Yankee Killer fell by a verdict of 10-5, when the Bronx Bombers defeated him for the only time in 1959. He lasted 4 2/3 innings, allowed seven runs on seven hits, and saw his ledger fall to 15-8. Lary went on to stop Baltimore, 9-5 (he worked 7 2/3 innings), and won a complete game against Kansas City, 6-5. But on September 2, in the opener of a doubleheader in Chicago, he worked four innings and yielded six runs while recording his ninth loss, 7-2. Starting at Briggs Stadium four days later against the A’s, he lasted four innings and gave up six runs on eight hits, but he got no decision when the Tigers rallied to win, 7-6. On September 10 at Fenway Park, his last appearance of 1959, Frank pitched only two innings, giving up four runs on four hits and taking his tenth loss. The Red Sox won, 7-3, leaving Lary’s season ledger at 17-10. However, against the Yankees in 1959, Lary compiled a 5-1 mark, with one no-decision (he hurled 2 2/3 innings in a 6-5 loss on June 3). Thus, the enemy of the Bronx Bombers now had a 21-6 lifetime record against them.
Lary made the All-Star team for the first time in 1960, but the honor was partly a tribute to his 17 victories the previous year. He topped Tiger moundsmen in victories with 15, but he also led the hurlers with 15 losses while posting a 3.51 ERA. Thanks to winning his last four decisions, Lary broke even in a season during which he could not seem to win consistently. Further, the Yankee Killer proved mortal, whether in the Bronx or at friendlier Briggs Stadium. Against the pennant-winning New Yorkers, who rose to the top after finishing third in 1959, Lary split four decisions. He also got no decision after pitching 7 2/3 innings in a July 2 contest that the Yankees won with a three-run rally in the ninth, mainly off Tom Morgan. Overall, the Tigers, with the players edgy as the front office made several trades, struggled offensively, hitting an AL-worst .239 and finishing sixth at 71-83, the club’s worst record since 1954.
The key to Detroit’s disappointing finish began shortly after the 1959 season ended, when the club hired executive Bill DeWitt as president and general manager. The impulsive DeWitt was known as a trader, but he also wanted to stabilize the front office. On April 12, 1960, he made his best move, sending infielder Steve Demeter, who hit .111 in eleven games in 1959, to the Indians for Norm Cash, a left-handed hitter who blossomed in Detroit. Cash took over at first base and averaged .286, blasting 18 homers and producing 63 RBIs. But in 1961 “Stormin’ Norman,” as local scribes dubbed him, surprised the baseball world. He won the AL batting title with a .361 average while slugging 41 homers and droving home 132 runs, both career peaks. Cash remained the Tiger first sacker until he was released in August 1974.
But DeWitt, who wanted younger players, had just begun to trade. One day before the 1960 season opened, he swapped Harvey Kuenn, the 1959 AL batting champ, to Cleveland for flychaser Rocky Colavito, the 1959 AL home run king. DeWitt’s deal of a batting champion for a home run champ was a baseball first. The Tigers won the season’s first five games, and the “Murderer’s Row” of Colavito, Cash, and Kaline looked great. But when the club dropped ten straight and fell to seventh place, fans wondered what had gone wrong. Dewitt made further trades, for example, sending first baseman Gail Harris to the Dodgers in return for veteran outfielder Sandy Amoros, who hit only .149 in his final big league season, and trading Bob Wilson and Rocky Bridges to the Indians for catcher Hank Foiles, who hit .250 in 26 games. But the shocker came on August 3 with a manager-for-manager trade, Detroit’s Jimmy Dykes to Cleveland in return for the Tribe’s Joe Gordon. Afterward, the Tigers lost six of their next seven games.
Meanwhile, Lary led the league in innings pitched with 274.1, games started, 36, complete games, 15, and hits allowed, 262. Frank ranked fourth in strikeouts with 149 and fourth in fewest walks per nine innings (2.03), and fourth in wins behind Cleveland’s Jim Perry and Baltimore’s Chuck Estrada (both had 18), and Kansas City’s Bud Daley (16). Detroit’s other double-digit winner was Jim Bunning, who posted an 11-14 record but had the loop’s second best ERA at 2.79. Don Mossi finished at 9-8, Pete Burnside was 7-7, and Dave Sisler went 7-5 with six saves. Hank Aguirre, pitching mainly in relief, had a 5-3 record and led Tiger relievers with 10 saves.
According to The Sporting News of August 24, 1960, Lary and Bunning were both struggling to achieve winning seasons. Bunning, then 7-8, had a “commendable” 2.70 ERA. Lary, who had remained above .500 for the past two years, beat the Athletics on August 17 with a complete-game six-hitter, 5-2, boosting his ledger to 11-12. The Tiger star already recorded his season mark of 2-2 against New York. In Kansas City on the final day, September 30, in a game meaningless in the standings for both clubs, Lary, after three straight wins, squared his record at 15-15 by hurling seven innings and allowing ten hits and three runs against an A’s lineup made up largely of rookies. But Frank’s highlight in 1960 came on May 11 when he pitched an 11-inning shutout against his second-favorite team, the Senators (he was 18-15 lifetime against the Washington-Minnesota franchise), with the game-winner coming on Al Kaline’s home run.
In 1961 the American League’s landscape changed. Calvin Griffith moved his Washington Senators to Minneapolis and renamed them the Twins. The nation’s capital received an expansion franchise named the Senators. Los Angeles also received an expansion franchise, the Angels, thus adding the West Coast to the AL’s schedule. The circuit moved from a 154-game season to 162 games, while the National League added two teams and moved to the 162-game schedule in 1962. In the first expansion season, the Twins, led by three different managers, finished seventh at 70-90, the Angels placed eighth at 70-91, and the Kansas City Athletics tied the new Washington Senators for ninth at 61-100.
In Detroit, John Fetzer, needing stability, hired a field manager. When Casey Stengel, dropped by the Yankees after the 1960 season, was unavailable due to health reasons, Detroit signed Bob Scheffing, former catcher and manager of the Chicago Cubs. With Scheffing’s leadership, better hitting, led by Norm Cash, Rocky Colavito, and Al Kaline, and improved pitching, paced by Lary, who enjoyed his career-best record of 23-9, the Bengals battled the Yankees on even terms.
The end for Detroit came on the first weekend of September, when New York won a crucial three-game series at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees continued to surge, winning ten more games in a row, while the Tigers lost five straight before winning again. In the end, the expansion season was fueled by the home run race between New York’s Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, who broke Babe Ruth‘s record of 60 with his 61st home run on the season’s final day. Partly as a result, the powerful Bronx Bombers hit a then-record 240 home runs (the Tigers hit 180) and won the pennant with a 109-53 ledger. Detroit, finishing second by eight games, still posted an impressive 101-61 mark, matching the team’s best-ever 101 wins when Mickey Cochrane‘s 1934 Tigers won the pennant but lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Tigers fielded a strong pitching staff. The big three were Lary, now thirty-one, with his 23-9 record, fastballing Jim Bunning, who fashioned a 17-11 mark with an ERA of 3.19, and lefty Don Mossi, who went 15-7 with a 2.96 ERA. Bob Scheffing’s spot starters included Paul Foytack, who was 11-10 in his seventh full season as a Bengal, and Phil Regan, who was 10-7 in his second season with Detroit. The Tigers bullpen featured Hank Aguirre, who was 4-4 with eight saves, and Terry Fox, a right hander who went 5-2 with a team-high 12 saves. Detroit had a first-rate outfield with Kaline in right, Colavito in left, and fleet center fielder Billy Bruton, acquired with Terry Fox and Dick Brown from the Milwaukee Braves in a trade that sent Frank Bolling and Neil Chrisley to Milwaukee. The infield had slugger Norm Cash at first, rookie Jake Wood at second, journeyman Chico Fernandez at shortstop, Steve Boros at third, and a pair of 6’2″ right-handed batting catchers, Dick Brown and 30-year-old rookie Mike Roarke.
Detroit led the league in hitting with a .266 average and in runs scored with 841, while the speedy Wood and Bruton set the table, hitting 1-2 and stealing 52 bases. Behind the potent offense, Lary got off to his best start ever, winning his first four games, including a one-hitter against the White Sox on April 14. He suffered his first loss on May 3 to the expansion Senators, 5-4, working six innings and allowing all five runs on six hits and a walk. But after pitching six innings for no decision in an 8-6 win in Chicago, he rebounded on May 12 with a complete-game 4-3 victory over the Yankees in the Bronx. In fact, the Yankee Killer won his own game by hitting a solo homer to left in the ninth to break a 3-3 tie, on a day when Rocky Colavito went into the stands to protect his father against fan abuse. After a pair of losses in late May, Lary won three straight. He lost for the fourth time on June 18 when the Yankees batted him out after 2 1/3 innings. New York pounded Detroit, 9-0, at renamed Tiger Stadium. But Lary responded with three straight wins, the second being his 4-3 win over the Yankees in New York in the July 4 doubleheader when the Tiger ace bunted home the winning run in the tenth inning.
Lary’s changed style helped account for his fast start. After he beat the Yankees 4-3 on April 24, pitching coach Tom Ferrick told Watson Spoelstra that Lary was no longer trying to overpower hitters. Instead, he was keeping his pitches low and throwing more breaking balls. “He’s less vulnerable than when he keeps blazing away with his fast ball. They can hit the high fastball out of the park. Lary has the curves, sliders and sinkers to do the job.”
Lary continued to win, despite a pair of injuries. On July 23, early in the nightcap of a twin bill in Kansas City, Lary and Boros collided while fielding a bunt. The accident put Boros on the disabled list with a fractured collarbone and left Lary on the bench with a charley horse. Detroit won, 17-14, but Lary lost a chance for win number fourteen. According to Watson Spoelstra in The Sporting News for August 16, “Lary, pitching despite pain and shrugging off a sore elbow, showed a record of 15-6 and a 3.64 earned-run-average on August 7 as the Tigers ended a short homestand that produced a 5-2 record for the week following the Boston All-Star game.”
In the end, Detroit’s season hinged on a three-game series at Yankee Stadium starting on Friday, September 1. On an evening with near-100 degree heat in the Bronx, Mossi, with rookie Mike Roarke behind the plate, hurled a fine game, mixing fastballs, sliders, and curves, and blanking Maris and Mantle. The left-hander, displaying excellent control, tossed a shutout until the ninth. He began by retiring Maris on a fly out, and Mantle took a called third strike. But Elston Howard singled to center field. Yogi Berra, the 35-year-old catcher turned outfielder, singled to right. On a 1-1 count to right-handed hitting Bill Skowron, Mossi delivered what he later called a “lousy curve,” a pitch that hung too high. Skowron chopped a single between short and third, scoring Howard to clinch a crucial 1-0 victory, causing 65,000-plus fans to erupt into a noisy celebration, and giving the Yankees a 2½-game lead over the Tigers in the pennant race.
On Saturday, another sweltering afternoon before a crowd of more than 50,000, Lary, sporting a lifetime 26-9 ledger against the Yankees, took the mound. Staked to an early lead by Colavito’s fortieth homer, a two-run blast in the first inning, Lary gave up a run in the second when Mantle walked, moved to second on a sacrifice fly, and scored on Skowron’s double. In the fourth Maris doubled to right center, took third on a passed ball, and scored on Mantle’s drag bunt. Maris put the Yankees ahead in the bottom of the sixth with homer number fifty-two, hitting Lary’s 3-2 pitch for a “Yankee Stadium specialty,” a towering fly ball to right center that landed a few rows back in the lower deck. In the eighth, Lary retired the first hitter, but then allowed rotund reliever Luis Arroyo a single to right field. Bobby Richardson followed with another single to right, and he continued to second base when Kaline’s throw to third arrived too late to nip Arroyo.
With the infield drawn in and Lary “obviously tiring,” wrote Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press, Tony Kubek punched a single through the box for two runs. Facing Maris, Lary threw two pitches wide of the plate. Bob Scheffing had seen enough, and he called Hank Aguirre from the pen. But Maris greeted the lefty with his fifty-third homer, touching off a wild celebration. When Arroyo retired the Tigers in the top of the ninth, the Yankees had another big victory, 7-2, and Lary’s record against the Bombers slipped to 26-10.
On Sunday, New York swept the series, thanks largely to good hurling, a pair of circuit clouts by Mantle, his forty-ninth and fiftieth of the year, and a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth by Howard, a blast that broke a 5-5 tie and lifted the Yankees toward the World Series. But Lary persevered. On September 16 he threw a complete game and beat New York, 10-4. Although yielding Maris’ fifty-seventh homer, Frank boosted his season record to 21-9 and his career mark against the Yankees to 27-10. But he was worn out. “My arm is awful tired,” he told writer Ray Robinson. The Tiger hero won his last two starts, but the pennant race, once so real, had ended in early September. Or as the subtitle of Lyall Smith’s Free Press story of September 4 stated, “Tigers Agree Pennant Dreams Just Gotham Nightmare.”
After an offseason spent mainly working the farm, operating his gasoline station, and limbering up two or three times a week at the Tuscaloosa YMCA, Lary came to Detroit’s 1962 spring camp expecting another great season. Instead, he battled injuries, suffered a sore arm for most of the year, and won only two games. Observed Joe Falls in The Sporting News for April 11, Lary, Bunning, and Mossi had not yet displayed their 1961 forms, “and Lary was troubled by a sore shoulder which lingered through most of the training season.” In fact, Frank first experienced the arm problem late in the 1959 season. This spring he needed cortisone (the usual treatment for sore arms during that era) to relieve the pain before the club left Lakeland for Detroit.
On April 13, Opening Day at Tiger Stadium, a cold afternoon with temperatures in the mid-30s and rain and snow falling, Lary faced the Yankees. Throwing hard and going all out as usual, he worked seven frames, allowing three runs on seven hits. In the bottom of the seventh, Frank belted what turned out to be a triple, driving home the tying run. But rounding first base, he tore a muscle in his right knee. Lary had to leave the game. Bunning worked the final two innings, the Tigers rallied to win, 5-3, and Lary got credit for the victory. In his next start, at Fenway Park on April 21, Frank’s knee bothered him, and he didn’t have his fastball working. He couldn’t push off his right leg, Watson Spoelstra pointed out, so he threw mostly knuckleballs. The Tigers lost, 4-3, as Lary lasted eight innings and gave up all four Bosox runs on eight hits. In Detroit five days later against Kansas City, Bob Scheffing removed the former Alabama star after he gave up five runs on five hits in 1 1/3 innings. Detroit won, 11-7, with seven runs in the seventh, and Hank Aguirre got the victory.
After resting for eighteen days, Lary started on May 15, 1962. He tossed eight strong innings against the Minnesota Twins, finally losing 4-2. Watson Spoelstra’s item had the title, “Lary Buoys Bengal Spirits with Strong-Armed Effort.” Despite seeing his record slip to 1-2, Frank claimed his arm was all right and his spirits good. He got no decision in his next two starts, but his record fell to 1-3 when he lost to right hander Jim Perry and the Indians, 7-1, on June 1. In that effort Lary gave up six runs on 10 hits in 7 1/3 innings, before three relievers finished the contest.
Lary pitched off and on with a sore arm, a problem likely compounded by favoring the weak knee. On July 29 he gave up five runs on four hits in only two innings, and Detroit lost the second game of a twinbill to the Los Angeles Angels, 12-8. The next day the sore-armed Tiger went on the disabled list until September. He pitched on September 8 and started on September 11, and, though he got no decision, he didn’t last five innings in either game–both Tiger losses.
A hard-working, positive-thinking athlete who averaged more than 250 innings pitched for seven straight years, Lary was disappointed in 1962. After completing an AL high 22 of 36 starts and working 275 1/3 innings in 1961, he made just 14 starts, hurled 80 innings, completed two games, and pitched one shutout in ’62, finishing with a 2-6 record and a career-high 5.74 ERA. He defeated the Yankees in the season opener, but won only one more, a 5-0 whitewash of Washington on June 19. Against New York on September 11, he pitched three innings and gave up four runs. Detroit lost, 8-7, and Lary didn’t pitch again in 1962. The ballclub left in October for a six-week exhibition tour, mainly in Japan, but Frank stayed home to take care of his arm.
After an offseason spent working out and handling his business activities, Lary seemed in better shape in 1963. By the first week of May, he had lost his first two starts, giving up seven runs and 14 hits in only nine innings. He agreed to go to Knoxville of the Double-A South Atlantic League, where the warmer weather might help his arm. Evidently the climate did help, as Frank posted a 7-2 mark in 11 games. He returned to Detroit and pitched his next major-league game on July 7. Overall, he was a bit more effective than in 1962, completing six of fourteen starts and posting a 3.27 ERA in 107 1/3 innings. Relying mainly on breaking balls, he finished with a 4-9 record. Observed Mike Roarke in 2007, “Frank came back after his arm healed, but he wouldn’t pitch the same way. He stayed outside on the hitters, but before he wasn’t afraid to bring it inside.”
Still, the baseball dream dies hard, and Lary was savvy enough to pitch two more seasons in the majors. After beginning 1964 with Detroit, he was sold to the New York Mets and then traded to the Milwaukee Braves, working 87 2/3 innings and compiling a mark of 3-5 with a 5.03 ERA. With New York, Frank watched from the dugout as his longtime teammate Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game against the Mets on June 21, 1964. Lary had enough left in his arm to pitch his last shutout, a two-hitter that he won, 3-0, on July 31 against the Houston Colt .45s. In 1965 he began with the Mets, but he was traded to the White Sox. Hurling for Chicago, he won his last major league game against the Tigers, 4-3, on July 31. Overall he tossed 84 innings and went 2-3 with a 3.32 ERA. When the season ended, Frank knew his baseball dream was over. He returned to Northport. After serving as a roving pitching coach for the Mets and his ex-manager, Bob Scheffing, and doing some scouting for a couple of seasons, Lary resumed private life.
The anchor of Detroit’s staff from 1955 through the 1961 season, Lary was one tough competitor. “He won games because he was a real tiger out there,” observed teammate Paul Foytack in 2007. Frank was also a fun character on the practice field as well as in the clubhouse and the dugout. He finished his career with a lifetime record of 128-116, but his mark as a Yankee Killer was 28-13. Looking at his full seasons through 1961, his record was 117-93. During those years his performance against the Yankees was 27-10. Unfortunately, on September 2, 1961, a day when Detroit needed to defeat the Bronx juggernaut, Lary could not get the job done. While it was hardly a disgrace to give up the tiebreaking home run to the great Roger Maris, who was enjoying, and enduring, one of the most remarkable slugging seasons in baseball history, Lary walked to the showers feeling he had let down his teammates.
Regardless, even though Jim Bunning enjoyed a better season in 1957, Detroit fielded no better pitcher than the soft-spoken Alabama native for the years 1955 through 1961. In the issue dated December 14, 1960, The Sporting News published a chart showing that sixty-one American League hurlers earned ten or more decisions from 1956 through 1960. But besides Lary, only five pitchers, Tom Brewer of the Red Sox, Whitey Ford of the Yankees, Billy Pierce of the White Sox, Pedro Ramos of the Senators, and Early Wynn of the Indians and White Sox won at least ten games in each of those five seasons. Pierce won the most games, 85, Wynn was second at 82, and Lary ranked third with 79 wins. What Frank might have achieved if he didn’t, in effect, wear out his strong right arm by 1962 remains a topic for debate. Ironically, the right hander from Northport appeared in his first big-league game on September 14, 1954, against the Yankees, and he pitched in his last game on September 21, 1965, against the Tigers, the two ballclubs that were his nemesis and his legacy. Indeed, he obtained his final victory against Detroit on July 31, 1965. But Tiger fans of baseball’s Golden Era still remember Frank Lary for his pitching heroics, his bulldog tenacity, his low-key demeanor, and his diamond leadership during a time when an American League pennant was only a distant dream in Michigan’s Motor City.
Acknowledgement: Gary Fink, longtime SABR member, made an invaluable contribution to this article. He compiled major league statistics and highlights for Frank Lary’s entire career, notably for 1955 and 1956, since neither season is covered by Baseball-reference.com. Further, Gary researched Lary’s career in the minor leagues and at the University of Alabama.
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Falls, Joe, “Frank Lary En Route to ?” Sport, June 1963, pp. 15-16, 76-78
Klein, Moss, “Frank Lary Recalls His Days as a ‘Yankee Killer,’” Baseball Digest, July 1978, pp. 72-74
Middlesworth, Hal, “The Tiger That Growls Like A Bulldog,” Baseball Digest, March 1956, pp. 69-78
Richman, Arthur, “Even Lary Can’t Explain How He Hex-Rays Yanks,” Baseball Digest, June 1959, pp. 57-58
For Lary’s games with Detroit in 1954, see New York Times, September 15, 26, and Chicago Daily Tribune, September 20.
For Lary’s 1955 games, see Chicago Daily Tribune, April 16, and New York Times, April 25, June 9, 17, August 24. For Spoelstra’s comment on Red Wilson, see The Sporting News, June 15, 1955, p. 8. Spoelstra also called Lary Detroit’s “best hope” for a 20-game winner, although he doubted the rookie would make it; see The Sporting News, June 22, 1955, p. 12. I also used the game logs and notes for each of Lary’s games in 1955 and 1956 as researched and compiled by Gary Fink.
For Lary’s 1956 games, see Spoelstra, “Knuckler Change-Up Helps Change Lary Into Winner,” The Sporting News, August 29, p. 11, and Spoelstra, “Lary Started Soaring on Butterfly Ball,” The Sporting News, November 21, p.5, 1956, and Bisher, “How Frank Lary Learned,” Sport, p. 58. For other 1956 game stories, see New York Times, April 17, 28, June 2, July 2, 9, 15, 19, August 6, 12, 20, 24, September 2, 16, 20, 24; Chicago Tribune, May 3, August 29, September 7; Washington Post, May 17, 23, July 6, September 30; Hartford Courant, June 20, July 23, 28, August 1, 8, 16; and Los Angeles Times, September 12. Also see The Sporting News, July 11, p. 23, August 8, p. 19, August 15, p. 21, September 5, p. 19, September 19, p. 17, September 26, p. 8, October 3, p. 7, November 14, p. 1, November 26, p. 8. For the Knorr group’s purchase of the Tigers and appointment of Tighe as manager, see The Sporting News, July 18, p. 6, July 25, p. 3, October 10, p. 17, October 17, p. 15.
For Lary and the Tigers in 1957, see New York Times, May 2, June 8, 11, 21, July 17, 28, August 27, 1956. Also see The Sporting News, May 1, p. 14, May 22, p. 11, May 29, p. 10, June 5, p. 19, June 12, p. 18, June 19, p. 18, June 26, p. 8, July 10, p. 16, July 17, p. 18, July 24, p. 18, July 31, p. 29, August 7, p. 10, August 14, p. 22, August 21, p. 14, August 28, p. 17, September 4, p. 19, September 11, p. 11, September 18, p. 14, October 2, p. 27, October 9, p. 17, 1957. On Lary’s game logs for 1957 and later seasons, see the Baseball-reference.com for statistics.
For Lary and the 1958 season, see New York Times, May 1, June 16, 22, July 24, August 25, September 17, Washington Post, May 25, Chicago Tribune, July 16, September 21, 1958; and see The Sporting News, April 23, 9. 7, May 7, p. 5, June 11, p. 10, June 18, p. 8, June 25, p. 8, July 2, p. 5, July 23, p. 8, July 30, p. 7, August 6, p. 14, August 20, p. 14, August 27, p. 6, September 3, p. 16, September 10, p. 7, September 17, p. 29, October 8, p. 11, November 5, p. 16, 1958.
For Lary and 1959, see Chicago Tribune, May 4, 21, July 27, Hartford Courant, June 4, Los Angeles Times, June 15, New York Times, August 5, 20, 1959, and see The Sporting News, February 25, p. 16, March 4, p. 3, March 18, p. 5, March 25, p. 10, April 1, p. 5, April 22, p. 11, May 13, p. 5, July 8, p. 12, July 22, p. 9, August 9, p. 18, August 26, p. 10, September 23, p. 15, October 7, 1959, p. 7.
For Lary and the 1960 season, see Washington Post, May 5, New York Times, June 22, October 1, Chicago Tribune, July 3, Los Angeles Times, July 18. Also see The Sporting News, February 17, p. 15, March 30, p. 21, April 6, p. 15, April 27, p. 13, May 13, p. 17, June 8, p. 10, June 15, p. 18, June 22, p. 11, June 29, p. 7, July 13, p. 24, July 20, p. 7, July 27, p. 10, August 3, p. 15, August 17, p. 6, August 24, p. 10, September 21, p.6, October 12, p. 7, October 26, p. 19, December 14, 1960, p. 11.
For Lary and the 1961 season, see Los Angeles Times, May 13, Chicago Tribune, September 2, 3, 4, New York Times, September 2, 3, 4, and Detroit Free Press, September 1-5, 1961. Also see The Sporting News, March 1, p. 15, April 12, p. 27, May 3, pp. 3-4, May 16, p. 18, May 24, pp. 1-2, May 31, p. 9, June 21, p. 12, July 12, p. 16, July 19, p. 4, July 26, p. 7, August 2, p. 11, August 16, p. 7, August 23, p. 9, September 6, p. 4, September 13, p. 5-6, September 20, p. 7, September 27, pp. 5, 8, October 11, pp. 12, 16, October 25, p. 6, November 1, p. 4, 1961.
For Lary and his final four seasons, 1962 through 1965, see baseball-reference.com for game logs. Also see Chicago Tribune, April 27, 1962, and The Sporting News in 1962 for April 4, p. 12, April 11, p. 14, April 18, p. 28, April 25, p. 29, May 2, pp. 1, 10, May 16, p. 19, May 23, p. 20, June 2, p. 21.
Baseball-reference.com has game logs for Lary (and for all pitchers), starting with 1957 season
Roarke, Mike, June 2007
Foytack, Paul, June 2007
Wilson, Red, June 2007
The Topps Company
Frank Strong Lary
April 10, 1930 at Northport, AL (USA)
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