Frank Lary, Yankee Killer

Frank Lary

Frank Lary won 128 major-league games, not all of them against the New York Yankees. But Lary, who died last week at age 87, won 28 games and lost only 13 against the Yankees, mostly at a time from 1955-61 when they weren’t easy to beat. The Yankees won six pennants in those seven years, but had a hard time beating Lary. Hence he became known as “The Yankee Killer,” long before Lance McCullers did in 2017. Yankees manager Casey Stengel once delayed Hall of Famer Whitey Ford’s start by a day because Ford would have otherwise been matched against Lary. Stengel: “If Lary is going to beat us anyway, why should I waste my best pitcher?” Lary’s 28 wins vs. the Yankees were 10 more than against any other opponent; the Twins/Senators, whom he beat 18 times, were next. Lary beat the Yankees seven times in 1958 and five times in 1956; he started 49 games against the Yankees and completed 24 of them, nearly half. He beat them with his arm (three times by shutout), he beat them with his bat (a ninth-inning homer won a 1961 game, 4-3, and he had six of his career 24 extra-base hits against the Yankees), he beat them with his legs (“he beat a force throw to second to keep a rally alive,” according to a Sept. 4, 1961 Sports Illustrated article on Lary) and he beat them with a bunt (Lary’s bunt single in the 10th scored the winning run in the nightcap of a July 4, 1961 doubleheader). In 1958, the Tigers scored three runs in two games against the Yankees six days apart for Lary, and it was one more than he needed. He shut out the Yankees, who won the World Series and led MLB in runs scored, twice. Detroit Free Press columnist Joe Falls, explained Lary’s mastery of the Yankees in a 1959 column for the Sporting News as only Joe Falls could, citing Lary’s Alabama roots: “As far as Frank Lary is concerned, the war between the states never did end. There merely was an 89-year interlude between Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865 and Lary’s arrival in the major leagues in 1954. The objective has remained the same: rout the Yankees.” Lary’s explanation was no explanation at all: “There’s no answer to it,” he said in the 1961 SI article. “I just pitch another ball game.” It’s perhaps ironic that the most important game Lary pitched against the Yankees was one of his 13 losses. The 1961 Tigers arrived in New York on Sept. 1 one-and-a-half games behind the Yankees and Lary pitched the middle game of a weekend series. The Tigers scored twice in the first, but the Yankees tied the game in the fourth, took the lead in the sixth and drove out Lary with three singles in the eighth which preceded Roger Maris’ second homer, a grand slam off reliever Hank Aguirre. The Yankees won, 7-2, swept the series and finished eight games ahead of the Tigers, who won 101 games. (When compiling a list of great teams which never made the playoffs, the 1961 Tigers should be on it. They won the 101 games, scored an MLB high 841 runs (14 more than the Yankees, despite Maris’ 61 home runs and New York’s 240) and were third in team ERA. They had a run differential of +170. They had the AL leader in batting average (.361), on-base percentage (.487) and OPS (1.148) in Norm Cash; they had Rocky Colavito hitting 45 home runs and driving in 140 and Al Kaline hitting .324 and slugging .515; they had a rotation of Lary (23-9, 3.24), Hall of Famer Jim Bunning (17-11, 3.19) and Don Mossi (15-7, 2.96). And they were eliminated a week-and-half before the season ended. All those numbers weren’t hurt by it being an expansion season.) Nineteen-sixty-one was the only season Lary received Cy Young Award votes and he was seventh in the MVP vote, his highest of three finishes, but it may not have been his best. He led the AL in complete games with 22, won 23 games, had a .650 OPS against and 127 ERA+; but in 1958 he had a 2.90 ERA, .660 OPS against, 139 ERA+ and led the league in innings (260.1) and complete games (19) despite a 16-15 record (he was 7-1 against the pennant-winning Yankees, 9-14 against everyone who didn’t win the pennant); in 1956 Lary led the league in wins (21-13), starts (38) and innings (294), completed 20 games, saved one, had a 3.15 ERA, .685 OPS and 132 ERA+. Lary was on the cover of the 1962 SI baseball preview, but as Bill Dow wrote last week in the Detroit Free Press, “Lary became one of the first victims of the Sports Illustrated jinx.” Lary started the home opener in 1962 against the Yankees, and his seventh-inning triple tied the game. But according to Dow, Lary pulled a muscle running it out, and left the game. Pinch-runner Reno Bertoia scored the winning run in Lary’s 28th and final win vs. the Yankees. He hurt his arm that season trying to compensate for the bad leg. pitched three more years for the Tigers before short stints with the Mets, Braves and White Sox and pitched his final major-league game in 1965. He lost his final three decisions against the Yankees. The 1961 Tigers were as close as he came to the World Series, but he did help the University of Alabama to the College World Series in 1950 (big-league reliever Al Worthington was a Tide teammate). Brother Al Lary pitched 16 major-league games for the Cubs eight years apart, in 1954 and 1962. The two Larys combined for 128 wins. Frank Lary career totals: 128-116, 3.49 ERA, 2,162.1 innings, 2,123 hits, 616 walks, 1,099 strikeouts, 126 complete games, 21 shutouts, 11 saves, 97 hit batters (led the league four times, including 19 in 1960), 197 home runs allowed (the Yankee Killer gave up a high of nine to Mickey Mantle and eight to Rogers Maris, including three of the latter’s 61 in 1961), 114 ERA+, 3.64 FIP, twice an All-Star, three years receiving MVP votes, third in 1961 Cy Young (behind Ford and Warren Spahn), 29.2 WAR, 1961 Gold Glove winner, six home runs hit including one off Hall of Famer Early Wynn.

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