By: Brian Frank
Frank Lary had a successful 1953 season for Buffalo, going 17-11 with a 4.00 ERA, including a seven-inning no-hitter at Ottawa in his penultimate start of the season. Most expected him to make Detroit’s starting rotation in 1954, but it wasn’t to be.
“I have never been so disappointed in a rookie, after the scouting reports we had on him,” Detroit manager Fred Hutchinson said as Lary struggled with his command in Spring Training. “His fine record indicated that he should qualify to be our fifth starter.”
Lary’s wildness forced the Tigers to send him to Buffalo for another year of seasoning. But for two and a half months in the Queen City, Lary continued to struggle. By midseason, his record stood at a measly 5-9. According to The Sporting News, Lary “couldn’t understand why he was being shelled hard and tiring in the late innings.”
Bisons catcher Al Lakeman noticed that Lary’s “fastball wasn’t breaking and his curve frequently hung.” In mid-July, Lakeman discovered what the problem was and told Lary: “Last year, Frank, you pitched directly overhand. This season you are throwing between true overhand and three-quarters. I think that’s been all your trouble- you lost the groove for your arm.”
Fixing his arm slot made all the difference for the 24-year-old hurler. He regained his form on the mound. After his miserable start to the season, he rebounded and finished the year 15-11 with a 3.39 ERA in 25 starts. He pitched so well that Bisons manager Billy Hitchcock even used him out of the bullpen 16 times between starts. But of all his great starts during the 1954 season, one stood out – a near perfect game in an August 27 start at Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Lary with the Tigers.
Lary’s remarkable outing came in the second game of a doubleheader. In the first game, the Bisons pulled out a 5-3 win despite the fact that Duke Maas allowed 10 hits and seven walks in the seven-inning contest. The nightcap was scheduled to be a full nine-inning game, as Buffalo sent Lary to the mound to face Leafs right-hander Frank Barnes.
The game was a hard-fought pitchers’ duel that was scoreless into the sixth inning, when Dick Gernert led off Buffalo’s half of the inning with a walk. Harvey Zernia followed by belting his 10th home run of the season to put the Herd in front 2-0. That’s all the runs Buffalo would need as Lary continued to make short work of Toronto’s hitters.
As the Maple Leafs entered the ninth inning still searching for their first baserunner, Lary was attempting to join Chet Carmichael (August 9, 1910) and Dick Marlowe (August 15, 1952) as the only Bisons pitchers to throw a perfect game.
The first batter in the ninth was future Yankees star Elston Howard, who was leading the International League in hitting and would go on to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award. But just as he’d done in his previous at-bat, he struck out swinging. Lary then retired Mike Goliat on a “short liner” to center fielder John Baumgartner. Lary had retired 26 consecutive batters, and was one out away from pitching a game for the ages.
Toronto manager Luke Sewell called upon a former Bisons star, Archie Wilson, to pinch-hit in the pitcher’s spot in the lineup. Wilson had won the I.L. MVP for Buffalo in 1951, when he hit .316 with 28 home runs and 112 RBI.
Lary threw a first-pitch curveball that Wilson swung at and missed. Cy Kritzer of the Buffalo Evening News described what happened next, as Lary fired a fastball: “There were 2,042 paying customers in the stadium, but it was as quiet as the dew on the duck marshes after the hunting season… Wilson swung, evenly… The ball sped low past the mound, kicked up the seal-brown clay behind second base and went into center field for a single… It was heart-rending… Silence again… Then the stadium rang with boos”
The perfect game and no-hitter were gone. However, there was still a 2-0 lead to protect, with Maple Leafs leadoff batter Loren Babe stepping up to the plate representing the game’s tying run. Lary quickly composed himself and struck out Babe to end the game.
In Lary’s masterpiece, he threw only 104 pitches and had a full count on just two batters the entire game. He struck out 10 batters, all swinging, and retired seven batters on ground balls, nine on fly balls, and one on a pop up.
Kritzer described Lary’s dominating performance: “There were only four hard-hit balls off Lary. First-baseman Dick Gernert made two nice saves- on (Hector) Rodriguez in the first inning and Lew Morton in the fifth. Shortstop Buddy Hicks came up with a screaming ground-hugger on Ed Stevens in the fifth and Johnny Baumgartner went to the center-field wall for Charles Kress’ drive in the eighth. Nothing else except Wilson’s blow had a label.”
After the game, Archie Wilson, former Bisons hero, but now the night’s villain, told the Buffalo Evening News: “I never saw the ball that I hit. From Lary’s first pitch to me, I realized what he had done to our club. He was invincible. But in baseball, you go up trying and swinging. If he curved me, I was a dead duck.”
Wilson visited the Bisons clubhouse after the game to shake Lary’s hand and tell the Bisons’ ace: “In my book that was the greatest game ever pitched. Somehow, I’m sorry that it had to be spoiled. But we don’t pull our punches ever in baseball.” The humble Lary replied: “Thank you Wilson. I felt it was a base hit as soon as it left my hand.”
Maple Leafs manager Luke Sewell agreed with Wilson’s assessment of Lary’s performance. “It was the greatest pitching I have ever seen, in the majors or minors,” Sewell said. “I’m convinced that with the fastball, curve, slider and change-up he showed us, he could have done the same thing against any club in baseball.”
After a great second half in Buffalo in 1954, Lary finally made the Tigers rotation the following season. He pitched in the majors for parts of 12 seasons. Many fans today know him as “The Yankee Killer,” a moniker he earned because he went 27-10 against the Bronx Bombers between 1955 and 1961. But he was more than just a pitcher who could beat the Yankees – the two-time American League All-Star won 128 career games, led the league in wins in 1956, and led the league in complete games and innings pitched three times. Lary had a great major-league career that had its roots with a pair of seasons right here in Buffalo.
Part two of a two part series. Read part one here.
 Cy Kritzer, “Near No-Hitter Lary Gets Back on Beam with Lakeman’s Aid,” The Sporting News, September 18, 1954.  “Near No-Hitter Lary Gets Back on Beam with Lakeman’s Aid.”  “Near No-Hitter Lary Gets Back on Beam with Lakeman’s Aid.”  “Near No-Hitter Lary Gets Back on Beam with Lakeman’s Aid.”  Cy Kritzer, “Lary Reaches for a Star, Misses with 2 out in 9th,” Buffalo Evening News, August 28, 1954.  “Lary Reaches for a Star, Misses with 2 out in 9th.”  “Lary Reaches for a Star, Misses with 2 out in 9th.”  “Lary Reaches for a Star, Misses with 2 out in 9th.”  “Lary Reaches for a Star, Misses with 2 out in 9th.”  “Lary Reaches for a Star, Misses with 2 out in 9th.”  “Near No-Hitter Lary Gets Back on Beam with Lakeman’s Aid.”