Hard as it was to understand what the Cincinnati Reds were doing on top of the National League, it was even harder to realize that the New York Yankees had not been able to make a first division all of their own in the American League. But the more home runs Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit and the more games Whitey Luis Arroyo Ford won, the more tenacious became the second-place Detroit Tigers.
This weekend Detroit arrives in New York for three games, first place will likely be at stake and once again the Tigers will have on bold display the big reason they can bother the Yankees: Frank Strong Lary.
Lary, a stocky 30-year-old right-hander who is known as Taters to his teammates, is scheduled to pitch the Saturday game, and as every Tiger fan knows, Taters makes the Yankees grovel. Since joining the Tigers he has won 26 from the Yankees and lost only nine to them. In 1958 he did what no pitcher has done in 42 years—he beat the Yankees seven times. This season his record against them is three and one, and he helped win the three, all by the identical scores of 4-3, with his running (he beat a force throw to second to keep a rally alive) and his hitting (a ninth-inning homer in May and a two-out, two-strike suicide squeeze bunt in the 10th inning in July).
Nor are his one-man conquests of the Yankees all Lary has done for Detroit this year. "I think he's the best pitcher in baseball right now," says Tiger Manager Bob Scheffing. "He's got good stuff and good control. He's a good fielder and a hell of a competitor. He's pitched 18 complete games, more than anyone in either league, and he's won 19. Ford pitches a lot, but he hasn't pitched as many complete games, and he's had a lot more runs to work with. Also, Ford's pitching in the Stadium. The park in Detroit is tougher to pitch in."
Frank Lary is a classic kind of ballplayer—the type, alas, you don't see much of these days. He is a throwback to the Cardinals of the 30's, a cotton pickin', gee-tar strummin', red clay Alabama farm boy, unspoiled by a little college or a lot of success. He is mean on the mound and a joker off it. To strangers he is quiet, but to the Tigers he is the Jonathan Winters of the dugout, keeping them loose and laughing. Sometimes he is a Casey Stengel, his legs bowed, his pants rolled above his knees. Then he is the trainer, complete in white shirt, white trousers and with a Turkish towel wrapped around his head. "He's a droll fellow," says Scheffing.
Lary is the sixth of seven sons born to the J. Milton (Mitt) Larys of North-port, Ala. Mitt Lary, a weathered string of a man, was a semi pro spitball pitcher who didn't get a chance to make the majors because of World War I. But he reckoned he was going to see at least one of his boys make it. From the time they were tots, he had them playing ball on the family farm. When they weren't out plowing behind the mule, they were pitching from the mound Mitt built in the front yard. All except James became pitchers. "We had to have a catcher among us," Frank says. All were fine athletes, and although Frank was the runt of the litter—he was called Shorty around the house—he was as good as any. From the sidelines Pa urged them on. "I always told my boys to play like Ty Cobb," Mitt says. Once a neighboring town challenged another town to a game. The stakes were bales of cotton. The challengers hired Frank to pitch, and after he was ahead 17-0, he dawdled through an inning, giving a run. Mitt met him as he walked to the bench. "Frank," he said, "these folks hired you to come down here and pitch. Now if you ain't gonna, just bring your glove and we're going home. And leave the money."
Along with brothers Al and Ed, Frank played in the backfield of Tuscaloosa County High, and they gave the school its last unbeaten football team. Frank once punted 80 yards. (His wife-to-be was the head cheerleader for the rival high school.)
Frank followed his brothers to the University of Alabama but, unlike them, he didn't play football. Al was a star end (Coach Red Drew called him a better pro prospect than Don Hutson), but Frank concentrated on baseball. In his sophomore year he won 10 and lost one in the regular college season and led Alabama to victory in the NCAA district championships with two wins. Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1950, he signed with Detroit.
Lary pitched in the low minors for a year, served in the Army, then had two good seasons in the International League before coming up with the Tigers late in 1954. In his first full season in 1955 he won 14 and lost 15 and picked up his nickname when he wrote "taters" on a dining-car order blank. "I didn't have room to spell the whole word out," he explains.
Jack Homel, the Tiger trainer and perhaps Lary's closest friend on the club, says, "Taters wasn't traveled, but he was smart. He just kept quiet and listened. You used to see him in the lobby in a sport shirt. So I gave him a bow tie and told him to wear it. He wore that same tie for three weeks, regardless of whether or not he was wearing a brown suit, a blue suit, a gray suit. Finally I said, 'Hey, kid, I was trying to get you to buy some ties.' Now look at him—he's one of the best-dressed players."
In 1956 Lary started poorly. By July 1, he had won only four and lost 10. Then he began using a knuckle ball as a change of pace, and in the second half of the season he won 17 and lost only three for a mark of 21-13. That winter Northport held a Lary family day, honoring Frank, Al, who had won eight for Tulsa in the Texas League, and Gene, who had won 21 for Mobile in the Southern Association. Mayor Hiram (Diz) Darden presented Mitt with a key to the town in the form of a baseball bat, and the Larys helped the festivities by playing mandolins, fiddles and guitars for the square dancing. (Al and Gene are still in the minors. Gene is having a so-so season with Mobile, but Al is doing so well for Houston Detroit may buy him.)
In spite of some arm trouble, this has been Lary's best season. He throws a fast ball ("It's faster than it looks from the stands," says Scheffing), a curve, a sinker and a slider. Some hitters say he also throws a spitter. "He wouldn't use a spitter," says Mitt. He has used the knuckler sparingly because "my other pitches have been working for me a lot better." On the mound, he insists on calling his own game. He'll give a sign of his own, or he'll shake the catcher's sign off until he gets the signal he wants. "When I'm pitching a ball game, it's my game," Lary says. "He throws what he wants to throw," is the word around the Detroit clubhouse. Unless he's hit hard early in the game, which has been seldom, Lary stays to the end no matter how tired he may appear. Scheffing, who doesn't like to change pitchers just for the sake of a change, has learned that Lary is at his best when things look worst, particularly against the Yankees.
Lary cannot explain his success against New York. "There's no answer to it," he says. "I just pitch another ball game." Homel says the Yankees have reached the point, understandably, where they feel Lary is a jinx. "It's become a mental thing," he says. "I've also noticed over the years that when our club goes into the Stadium, it gets hepped up. You see it in the attitude, the speech, everything about the guys. Like a horse that's kicking up its heels before a race."
Lary feels this as much, or more, than anyone. But he still likes to clown around off the mound, even at Yankee Stadium. "You got to have a little fun," he says. Recently a newspaper photographer ran into the clubhouse looking for Norm Cash. "I'm Cash," said Lary, seizing a bat and striking a pose. The photographer shot away. Just before he left, Lary identified himself. "Taters didn't want the guy to get into trouble," Homel says.
In the dugout, Lary responds to a teammate's remarks by cocking his head and crossing his eyes. "He has them crossed half the time," says Homel. "You know that guy who works in the sewer with Jackie Gleason? Yeah, Art Carney. Well Taters can be like him with people. Let somebody ask him for an autograph. Right away he'll get a dumb expression on his face. Then he'll flick both wrists maybe 50 times as though he's warming up to write before he signs his name. Most people don't know what to expect from Lary." The Yankees, however, know too well what to expect.