One of the most dominant pitchers and one of the funniest characters in Tiger history was right-handed hurler Frank Lary, nicknamed “Taters”, “Mule” and most famously, “The Yankee Killer” for his dominance over the perennial World Champion New York Yankees.
Signed by the Tigers in 1950, Lary toiled in the minors, and served in the Army before joining Detroit in 1954 where he would become a one of the best and most dependable pitchers in the American League. From 1955 to 1961 the two time All Star and ’61 Gold Glove winner led the American League in wins (117), complete games (115), innings pitched (1,799-2/3), games started, (242) and batters faced. (7,569)
Armed with a nasty slider, a curve, sinker and fastball, the stocky right hander first earned the nickname “the Yankee Killer” when during a two year stretch from 1957 to 1959 he posted a 13-1 record against the Bronx Bombers. In 1958 he beat New York seven times, something no pitcher had done since 1916. Over the course of his career Lary compiled a lifetime record of 28-13 against New York.
Lary known for his wit
Lary was also one of the team’s wittiest players who kept the clubhouse loose. Teammates never knew what the “Yankee Killer” might say or do.
“Taters” was such a good man and he had a wonderful sense of humor,” former teammate Paul Foytack told me in 2017. “I remember once in a pre-game meeting we were talking about a certain hitter that we didn’t want to beat us. Someone said ‘we should just walk him.’ Frank said, ‘hell, why don’t we just hit him,’ Foytack said laughing at the memory.
Former Tiger slugger Rocky Colavito laughed when recalling the day Lary commandeered a team bus.
“We were standing by the bus but the driver wasn’t there, maybe he was taking a leak,” said Colavito. “So, what does Frank do? He jumps into the bus and goes for a ride.”
Sports Illustrated cover boy
Lary’s greatest year was in 1961 when he posted a 23-9 record, and a 3.24 ERA while finishing third in Cy Young voting.
With a strong staff of Lary, Jim Bunning, Don Mossi, and Foytack along with sluggers Al Kaline, (.324 ave.) Rocky Colavito (45 HRs, 140 RBIs), and ’61 batting champ Norm Cash (.361), manager Bob Scheffing’s Bengals battled the Yankees all year for the pennant until New York pulled away in September to win it.
The following season when Sports Ilustrated’s annual baseball issue hit the newsstands on April 9, 1962, it was Frank Lary on the cover.
Sadly, Lary became one of the first victims of the infamous “Sports Illustrated Jinx.”
Four days later on Friday the 13th in the Tigers’ home opener against New York, in 30-degree weather with rain and snow, Lary pulled a muscle in his leg while running out a triple in the bottom of the seventh that drove home the tying run.
The Tigers won the opener 5-3 and Lary who extended his winning record against the Yankees, bit. But henceforth he was never the same pitcher. After slightly altering his arm motion to compensate for his ailing leg he experienced a series of arm problems that eventually led to the end of his career three frustrating years later.
In just 28 starts and a combined record of 6-15 in ’62 and ’63 due to his arm problems, Lary began the 1964 campaign with two losses.
Tiger Stadium Exit
Then on Memorial Day 1964, the same day that drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald died in a fiery crash at the Indianapolis 500, the Tigers sold Frank Lary to the New York Mets for $30,000 just before the contest against the White Sox at Tiger Stadium.
In the second inning Frank Lary bid farewell to Detroit in his own, bizarre way.
With Chicago’s Mike Hershberger standing at home plate to face Tiger pitcher Hank Aguirre, suddenly Frank Lary, dressed in civilian clothes walked out of the Detroit dugout to home plate to shake hands with Tiger catcher Mike Roarke and umpire Joe Papparella who said “good luck Taters.” The “Yankee Killer” then walked into the Chicago dugout and shook hands with manager Al Lopez before exiting Tiger Stadium.
Tiger General Manager Jim Campbell told the Detroit Free Press, “I was flabbergasted. At first, I thought it was a drunk coming onto the field.” Added longtime Tiger executive Rick Ferrell who played 18 years in the major leagues during his Hall of Famer career: “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
Upon finishing his career in 1965 after making limited appearances with the Mets, Braves, and White Sox, Lary returned to his native Alabama where he did scouting, owned a few small businesses and retired in 1990 from the Tuscaloosa County Road and Bridge department.
In the 1999 book A Place for Summer about the history of Tiger Stadium, the “Yankee Killer” reminisced with author Richard Bak about his time in the Motor City.
“The thing I remember most about baseball and Detroit were the fans,” Lary told Bak.
“They were the best fans I ever played under. Me being from the south may have helped. There were a lot of southern people working in those plants up there then. I felt like I was playing at home with the Tigers. I really enjoyed the fans.”
Frank Lary died on December 13, 2017, at a hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama from pneumonia at the age of 87. Upon his death, Al Kaline said, “It’s really tough when you lose one of your teammates. Frank was a great guy and a real character.”
8 replies on “Remembering Former Tiger Hurler Frank Lary’s Bizarre Exit from the Tigers“
Frank Lary, “the Yankee Killer” and his 1958 season are the reason I am still a Detroit Tiger fan today. Wonderful article. Thanks.
Brian Beebe in Houston TX.
Great story about one of my favourite Tigers. Also a great era in the history of the Tigers. Enjoyed it very much.
Born and raised a Tiger fan, I remember at a young age when my dad told me about the Yankee Killer. His history with the team and record against the Yankees one of many reasons I’m a forever Tiger fan to this day.
I don’t think I ever heard this story before, but I remember the day well due to the tragedy at Indianapolis. After Lary left the Tigers, a young right-hander who had been called up the previous September changed his number from 34 to Lary’s 17. Denny McLain.
Lary was a great hitter, too. Awesome article!
McLain, after starting the ’64 season in the minors, made his Tigers season debut on June 6 against the White Sox. It appears as though he was Lary’s replacement on the roster and as number 17.
Wow, never had heard this before. A unique exit… Also these replies are something else . I actually started following the Tigers from 1961/1962 at age 8. This is such good stuff to read about thank you . Keep them coming.
I was 10 years old in 1961, living in Detroit and already a big Tigers fan. Those guys are still my second favorite Tigers team, after the ’68 team but ahead of the ’84 World Champs. Norm Cash is still my all-time favorite Tiger. I remember Lary vying with Whitey Ford for the Cy Young and savored every time he beat the hated Yankees. Ford had Arroyo to close out his games, but we had Terry Fox and Hank Aguirre. I was so enthralled with the team because I had cousins in London, Ontario who were big Yankees fans and never let me forget it. Just once I wanted our team to win a pennant ahead of the Yanks. They hadn’t won anything in my lifetime. That series in September at Yankee Stadium was such a disaster for us. I felt terrible. Still do.
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