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100 greatest Tigers #36: Frank Lary

"Yankee Killer" Frank Lary went 27-10 against New York between 1955 and 1961.
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Frank Lary served atop the Tiger starting rotation for seven seasons. He accumulated 117 wins during that stretch and earned the nickname “Yankee Killer” for his success against the Bronx Bombers. A leg injury in 1962 changed the pitcher’s fortunes. Lary won just 11 games after 1961, but still currently ranks eleventh on the Detroit win list. If not for injury, the righthander likely would have become one of the top four or five pitchers in Tiger history.

Alabama native Frank Lary went 12-1 for the Crimson Tide in 1950. Scouts noticed his dominating performances in the College World Series that year. In short order, Lary left the University of Alabama for the Toledo Mudhens. He performed well and moved through the minors in 1950, but lost the next two years to military service. Lary returned in 1953, accumulated 32 wins, and pitched a no-hitter over the next two seasons. The Tigers called him to the Major Leagues in September 1954. He pitched 3.2 innings over the span of three games down the stretch.

After the audition, Lary joined the rotation in 1955 at the age of 25. The 1955 Tigers finished 79-75 with the rookie accumulating a 14-15 record in 235 innings. The following year brought dramatic improvement in Lary. He became the first Tiger pitcher since Hal Newhouser in 1948 to win 20 games. The righty led the league in wins (21), starts (38), hit batsmen (12), and innings (294). Interestingly, the Alabama native was 4-10 heading into July and went 17-3 the rest of the season to finish 21-13. Voters noticed and Lary finished 17th on the MVP ballot.

The pitcher did not win 20 games again until 1961, but continued to rack up victories. Between 1957 and 1960, Lary won 11, 16, 17, and 15 games. He pitched over 200 innings each season and led the league twice. The Tiger also led the league in hit batsmen three times in that four season stretch and posted ERA totals of 3.98, 2.90, 3.55, and 3.51. His WHIP improved dramatically dropping from a high of 1.378 in 1956 to 1.181 in 1960.

Lary’s improvement continued in 1961 when he enjoyed his finest campaign. The Crimson Tide dropout went 23-9 with a 3.24 ERA in 275.1 innings, and 1.155 WHIP. He led the league in complete games (22) for the third time in four seasons, made his second All Star team, garnered MVP votes for the third time, won the Gold Glove, and placed third in the Cy Young balloting. Only Whitey Ford outperformed Lary in the American League that season.

Ford’s Yankees provided the impetus for much of Lary’s success. The Tiger earned the moniker “Yankee Killer” for his 27-10 record against New York between 1955 and 1961. These teams boasted Ford, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Roger Maris and won six pennants in seven seasons. Despite this, Lary dominated them. In 1958, he became the first pitcher to defeat the Yankees seven times in a season since 1916. One time, New York field manager Casey Stengel held Ford back a day to avoid facing Lary. In 1961, the pitcher hit a ninth inning home run to down the Yankees 4-3.

Ironically, Lary faced his athletic mortality against the Yankees. On April 13, 1962, he injured his leg tripling against New York. He won the game 5-3, but the injury forced a change in his pitching motion. The change led to arm problems that never subsided. Lary won only five more games for the Tigers after that April victory. After finishing 4-9 in 1963 and starting 0-2 in 1964, they banished the pitcher to the Mets. Lary won five games for three teams in 1964 and 1965 and retired.

Before injury, Frank Lary was a Tiger great. The righthander went 123-110 in his Tiger career, won 20 games twice, always topped 200 innings, and led the league in multiple pitching categories. On top of this, he dominated the New York Yankees dynasty in the middle of their six pennant run. Despite the success, injury cut short his effectiveness. Most likely, Lary would have topped 200 wins with a shot at 250 had he not been injured.