Saturday, August 22, 2015

60 Years Ago (1955)--Frank Lary: Yankee Killjoy

On August 23, 1955, the Yankees' lost their half-game lead in the standings when they were beaten in Detroit by the score of 7-2. They were now tied for first with the White Sox, and the Indians were only a game behind. The winning pitcher for the Tigers was 25-year-old rookie right-hander Frank Lary. He had now beaten the Yankees twice in four starts, which included a loss and a no-decision in a game Detroit lost after he left the mound. It was the beginning of Frank Lary's career as . . . "The Yankee Killer."

Frank Lary—Yankee Killjoy

Frank Lary, who relieved in three games at the very end of the 1954 season, was not even mentioned by Robert Creamer in his preseason American League preview for SI. The Tigers, according to Creamer, did have "three or four reasonably dependable starting pitchers," although he named only veterans Ned Garver—whose career has been unappreciated in part because he pitched for bad teams—and Steve Gromek. Beyond that, Detroit manager Bucky Harris's challenge was to "find starters and relievers from an unholy mess of rookies and proven undependables." (Nice turn of phrase, that.)

The Tigers opened the 1955 season with Garver, Gromek, Billy Hoeft, and the rookie Frank Lary as their four principal starting pitchers. Lary stayed in the rotation all season long, ending his rookie year with a 14-15 record, a 3.10 earned run average, 16 complete games in 31 starts, and a team-high 235 innings pitched.

Lary took the mound against the Yankees on August 23 having lost his previous start five days before against Cleveland. He entered the game with an 11-12 record and 3.38 ERA. This was the fourth time he would be facing the Yankees. Apparently not intimidated by the Yankees' lore, Lary beat them in a 3-1 complete game the first time he faced them on June 8 and the next time, on June 16, took a 2-0 lead at Yankee Stadium into the bottom of the ninth. Unfortunately, Yogi Berra's two-run home run to tie the game and Elston Howard's walk-off pinch-hit single with the bases loaded did him in. In Lary's 24.1 innings against them, the Bronx Bombers had scored just 6 runs on 21 hits.

Opposing him was hard-throwing right-hander Bob Turley, who the Yankees had acquired over the winter to be one of their aces. He came into the game at 13-11, probably a disappointment given the Yankees' expectations. This day, Turley failed to escape the second inning. After giving up a run on two walks and a single in the first, Turley hit the first batter he faced in the second, walked the next two (the second of who was his pitching opponent, Lary) to load the bases with nobody out, and then took a walk himself to the showers when Stengel brought in Johnny Kucks to try to control the situation. Two of Turley's base runners scored. 

Lary did fine protecting Detroit's lead on his way to a complete game victory. He walked just two, while the four Yankee pitchers Casey Stengel used that day were definitely not in control, walking a total of 11 Detroit Tigers in addition to the 8 hits they surrendered.

Every now and again a pitcher for a noncompetitive club emerges who seems unbeatable against an elite team. In his rookie season of 1908, the fourth-place Phillies' Harry Coveleski beat the New York Giants three times in five days to earn his enduring nickname as the "Giant Killer." Coveleski won only four games that year and by the end of the season had appeared in only 10 major league games. But while the chaos that ensued in the Fred Merkle game may have cost the Giants the 1908 pennant, Coveleski's three takedowns of McGraw's team in the final week of the season is what really denied them the top prize.

There would be nothing so dramatic about Frank Lary's ritual takedowns of the New York Yankees. There were no pennants denied the Bronx Bombers because they couldn't solve the mystery of Frank Lary. Lary's reputation as the "Yankee Killer" was nonetheless well-deserved, particularly because the Yankees were such a dominant club at the time he pitched for the Detroit Tigers: 

·        Lary pitched nine complete seasons in Detroit, from 1955 to 1963, and the Yankees won the pennant in eight of them.
·        Lary won 123 games with the Tigers, 28 of them against the Yankees. His highest victory total against any other team was 18 at the expense of the Senators-Twins franchise, who were one of the worst teams in baseball in the first six of Lary's years in Detroit, when they were in Washington before their move to Minnesota.
·        Lary’s 28-13 career record against the Yankees gave him by far his highest winning percentage (.683) against any team, and was very substantially higher than his career winning percentage of .528 (123-110) in a Tigers uniform. His career mark against the Senators-Twins was 18-15 (.545).
·        Indeed, the Yankees and the Senators-Twins were the only non-expansion franchises that Frank Lary had a winning record against. He was 14-14 in his career against both the Red Sox and White Sox, and had a 3-1 mark against the expansion Los Angeles Angels. Against the four other pre-expansion-era AL franchises and the new expansion team in Washington (also called the Senators), Lary had a losing record.

The Yankees had been riding a hot hand when they were beaten by Frank Lary. They had won 10 of their previous 11 games. But their winning ways had meant just one game in the standings, from a game behind the the White Sox on August 9 to tied with the White Sox on August 23, and Cleveland was just a game back. 

For the Yankees at 75-48, it was now 123 games down with 31 left on the schedule in a tight race in which all the contenders were playing well. There might well have been relief in the Yankee clubhouse that they had just one two-game series remaining with the Tigers, meaning they would have to see Frank Lary starting against them only one more time at most.   

The Tigers at 63-60 had also played 123 games, but they were 12 games back and playing out the string. Perhaps mercifully for the Yankees, since they trailed by a game-and-a-half when they next played the Tigers in mid-September, Lary had started against the Senators the game before that series began, and so the Yankees did not see him again until next year.

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