If Frank Lary had tried to pitch in today’s game, he might not have made it. He was all of five-foot-11 and 175 pounds, which would have made him small among today’s pitchers. Given his lack of stature, today’s scouts probably might have been turned off. And they would have been wrong. Lary could pitch—back in the 1950s or today. You don’t win 128 games in the major leagues, and enjoy a seven-year run of dominance for the Detroit Tigers, without being good.
When I heard the news that Lary died earlier this month at 87 after suffering a bout with pneumonia, the words “Yankee Killer” immediately came to mind. I’m sure they came to the minds of fans my age and those a bit older, too. That dominance of the rival New York Yankees is how most fans seem to remember this veteran right-hander, but his story encompasses so much more than that.
Lary pitched for four teams over his long career, but almost all of his success came with the Tigers. They signed the native of Alabama as an amateur free agent prior to the 1950 season; four years later, he made his big league debut by pitching effectively in three relief appearances. In 1955, the Tigers moved him into the rotation, where Lary would settle in as one of the most durable and effective starters in the American League.
As competitive as Lary was on the field, he was a fun loving spirit away from it. With his Alabama drawl and his keen sense of humor, he became popular with teammates. Known for his one-liners, Lary roomed with Norm Cash during the latter stages of his career. The two became known for their jokes and pranks, making for a memorable combination at the team hotel and in the clubhouse.
Lary won 14 games in 1955, buttressed by the addition of a knuckleball to his repertoire of fastball, curve, and slider. For the most part, Lary resembled a power pitcher. He threw hard, especially for that era, but sometimes struggled with his control. In 1956, he greatly improved his ability to throw strikes, dropping his walks total from 116 to 72, allowing him to win 21 games. Not only did he lead the league in wins, but he set the pace in starts (with 38) and innings pitched (294). There was no Cy Young Award to compete for at the time, but Lary did receive some support for MVP, finishing 17th in the voting. With a better team behind him, Lary might have finished even higher.
After a bit of an off year in 1957, a season that saw his ERA rise to 3.98, Lary returned as the staff ace in 1958, ahead of Paul Foytack and even ahead of Hall of Famer Jim Bunning. He won 16 games overall, with seven of the victories, or nearly half, coming against the Yankees. Yankee manager Casey Stengel called Lary “Bulldog,” a tribute to his tenacity, which always seemed to be on full display against New York.
For his career, Lary would win 28 games against the Yankees, while losing only 13 times. Lary was often asked for the reasons behind his success against New York, but never offered a clear-cut answer. One of his teammates, Hall of Famer Al Kaline, provided a more precise line of reasoning when he learned about Lary’s death. “He really was a different pitcher against the Yankees. Frank had a strong slider,” Kaline told the Detroit Free Press, “and Mickey Mantle always had a tough time against him.”
Lary would remain consistently effective from 1959 to 1961, culminating in arguably his finest season. During the summer of ’61, he won 23 games, posted an ERA of 3.24, and led the American League with 22 complete games. By now, there was a Cy Young Award, for which Lary received some support. He finished third in the voting, while also making the All-Star team.
For some reason, Lary did not pitch as well against the Yankees that summer. His ERA against New York rose to 4.34, and he lost a key game to the Yankees in early September when the Tigers still harbored hopes of winning the pennant. In the end it mattered little, as the Yankees won the title by eight full lengths.
Lary’s overall workload in 1961 typified his ironman ways. He logged 275 innings that summer, the second highest total of his career, despite being plagued with a sore elbow. From 1955 to 1961, he never pitched fewer than 223 innings. On three occasions, he led the league in innings pitched. In an era when starters tended to dominate the game, Lary typified the approach, taking the ball again and again and again.
Unfortunately, the heavy load of pitching took its toll on Lary. During spring training in 1962, he came down with a sore arm. The Tigers gave him a cortisone shot prior to the start of the regular season, allowing him to start on Opening Day. On a cold, rainy day at Tiger Stadium, he tore a muscle in his leg while running out a triple. The injury forced him to leave the game. Lary made his next start, but couldn’t push off the mound properly, so he relied mostly on knuckleballs. Realizing that Lary’s knee wasn’t sound, the Tigers kept him out of action for the next 18 days.
Lary tried to come back and pitch, but he favored the knee so much that he developed a sore arm. For the season, he won only two games and posted an ERA of 5.74. He would never be the same again.
In 1963, Lary agreed to spend part of the season pitching for Double-A Knoxville, where the Tigers hoped the warmer weather would help their ailing veteran. Lary returned to the Tigers in midseason and pitched better, spinning an ERA of 3.27, but winning only four of 13 decisions. Lary then started the 1964 season with the Tigers, but an ERA that once again rose above 5.00 brought his time in Detroit to an end. In June, the Tigers sold him to the New York Mets, where he was ineffective. The Mets then traded him to the Milwaukee Braves. From there, he returned to New York, splitting his final season between the Mets and Chicago White Sox. As the 1965 season came to an end, so too did the career of Lary.
With his playing days over, Lary turned to coaching, not surprising given his high intelligence. As a pitcher, Lary had sometimes called his own game, taking over that responsibility from his catcher. (He also worked with a young Denny McLain on refining and improving his curve ball.) So he went to work as a roving instructor with the Mets for a few seasons and also put in some time as a scout before leaving the game to start his own construction business.
For the most part, Lary kept a low profile in his post-playing days, but fans who date back to the 1950s and the early sixties never forgot the determined success of the Tigers’ onetime ace. Fans of the Yankees of that era could also tell you about Lary, though perhaps not as fondly.
When it came to being tenacious and competitive on the field, few pitchers of that or any other era could match those qualities to the degree of Frank Lary.