Tigers’ Frank Lary, ‘The Yankee Killer,’ dies at 87

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Long-time Tigers pitcher Frank Lary, with 28 of his 128 career wins coming against the New York Yankees to earn him the nickname “The Yankee Killer,” died Wednesday in his home state of Alabama. He was 87.

Lary pitched 12 seasons in the major leagues, from 1954-65, and nearly 11 of them with the Tigers.

For his career, the right-hander was 128-116 with a 3.49 ERA. Against the Yankees, he was 28-13 with a 3.32 ERA in 56 games (49 starts). That included three shutouts, and he also had two of his 11 career saves against the Yankees. At Yankee Stadium, he was 12-6 with a 3.11 ERA in 24 games (21 starts).

“The Detroit Tigers are saddened to learn of the passing of Frank Lary,” the ballclub said in a statement. “A three-time All-Star and a Gold Glove winner in 1961, Frank spent 11 years of his 12-year major-league career in Detroit. The Tigers organization extends our deepest sympathies to Frank’s family.”

Lary, a native of Northport, Ala. — where he still lived when he died — broke into the majors in 1954, after a successful run at the University of Alabama, which he helped to its first College World Series appearance in 1950.

He signed with the Tigers organization for a $6,000 bonus, and his first full season in the major leagues was 1955, when he was 14-15 with a 3.10 ERA. The next year, he won 21 games in finishing 17th in the American League MVP voting.

His best season was 1961, when he was 23-9 with a 3.24 ERA and a league-best 22 complete games. He was third in the Cy Young voting, behind winner Whitey Ford of the Yankees and Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves. By today’s standards, Lary probably would’ve won, given his WAR (4.3) was higher than Ford’s and Spahn’s.

“He is mean on the mound and a joker off it,” Sports Illustrated wrote in a 1961 profile of Lary, who also had nicknames “Taters” — after he once placed an order on a dining cart for “Taters,” or potatoes — as well as “The Mule.”

Lary also could hit a little bit, with six home runs and 54 RBIs in his career. His most memorable homer came against — you guessed it — the Yankees. On May 12, 1961, at Yankee Stadium, the game was tied at 3 when Lary led off the top of the ninth inning with a solo shot to left field. He then worked the bottom of the ninth inning for the complete-game victory.

Lary had brief stints with the New York Mets, Milwaukee Braves and Chicago White Sox after departing the Tigers in 1964. He coached and scouted briefly following his 1965 retirement before returning home to start a construction business.

Lary’s older brother, Al, played briefly in the major leagues, as a pitcher with the Chicago Cubs in 1954 and 1962. He died in 2001.

Lary was the youngest of seven boys, all of whom were taller than his 5-foot-11 frame.

“That’s one thing that made him so competitive,” Joe Lary told the Tuscaloosa News. “He didn’t want his older brothers showing him up in sports.”

According to the Tuscaloosa News, a funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in Northport, just south of Tuscaloosa.