Will Leitch is running a “Better Than You Remember” column on the MLB site and it’s a great idea. It’s an idea I wanted to steal. Problem: When I tried to think of a player, I couldn’t come up with one. See I have two distinct memories of 90s Cardinals baseballs: Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run and Fernando Tatis’ two grand slams in one inning. That’s pretty much it. Even though I followed baseball all my life, my baseball memory is essentially from 2000 onward.
Because of that my “better than you remember” players are limited to players since 2000 and for a little while after 2000, I was most certainly not underrating players in my mind. I was overrating them. Everyone on the Cardinals during that time has a greater presence than reality. Well except for the MV3, but nobody’s underrating them, except the people who vote on the Hall of Fame. Nobody who reads this blog is underrating them. The stars and scrubs approach doesn’t really lend itself to the “Better than You Remember” post (except JD Drew, who he already took and I’ve long since learned how good he was). Anybody towards the new era is just too recent in my opinion. In ten years or whatever, you can be sure Jaime Garcia is my first subject.
So I’m going to follow the spirit of the post and focus on a player who has pretty much escaped my grasp. Despite my age, I’m pretty familiar with Cardinals history, but only pockets of it. I use to have and may even still have a book on every World Series. Since the Cardinals made the World Series so much between 1926 and 1946, that covers most players who played during that era. And the one great player who somehow avoided any World Series during that time was Johnny Mize, who made the Hall of Fame, and I’d be very disappointed in myself if I had never heard of a Cardinal who made the Hall of Fame.
Thanks to the Cardinals making the World Series three times in the 1960s, reading about the unfulfilled promise of the 1970s Cardinals, reading about the rise of Whiteyball, the fact that the Cardinals made the World Series three times in the 1980s, and the fact that I was actually alive for the majority of the 90s, I probably know most names there too.
But if you noticed, there’s a massive blind spot in my knowledge. Well two actually. I don’t know much of anything about the Cardinals prior to 1926. And I know equally about as much about the 1950s Cardinals. Nobody really talks about the Cardinals in the 1950s. Although to be fair I guess, someone would have to essentially be 80-years-old to remember witnessing that decade so it’s possible they were talked about more in the past. Stan Musial played for the Cardinals that entire decade! And the Cardinals never did anything.
From 1955-1962, this right-handed pitcher threw 1,672.1 IP, which included 209 starts and over 100 relief appearances. He had a 3.67 ERA and even better FIP at 3.55. He posted 2 seasons with 4+ fWAR and 2 seasons with 6+ fWAR. He played six more seasons after he left the Cardinals and was at least a 2+ fWAR player in every one of them before retiring in 1968. I’ve left you in suspense long enough. Larry Jackson is not a name that has really ever come across me, and yet this is a resume worth knowing. Hell, he should probably be in the Cardinals Hall of Fame. He wasn’t even on the ballot and he had a better Cardinal career than everyone except Keith Hernandez. Even Steve Carlton.
Maybe his problem was that he was better after he left the Cardinals. He was traded to the Chicago Cubs after the 1962 season - it was a six-player trade involving nobody I’ve heard of before - and immediately had a 6.6 fWAR season and then a 5.9 fWAR season. In the 8 seasons he was a Cardinal, he was a 28.7 fWAR player. In the six seasons following, he was a 24.6 fWAR player. Which no need to do the math, the latter is on average a better player. And unlike Carlton, he didn’t make the Hall of Fame, so he escaped people’s radar.
Maybe it was the pitching environment he was in, quickly followed by the pitching environment that came to be. As an example, in 1963 (with the Cubs), Larry Jackson had a 2.55 ERA in 275 IP, which resulted in 5.5 RA/9 and 5.1 bWAR. In 1959, Jackson had a 3.30 ERA in 256 IP, which resulted in 6.1 RA/9 and 7.3 bWAR. He threw less innings and had a considerably worse ERA and yet was considered more valuable due the offensive environment of 1959. So it really didn’t take long for his Cardinal career to look a lot less impressive than it was, since baseball was a pitching league by 1963. Jackson had a 3.67 ERA as a Cardinal and a 3.12 ERA after, and while he was a better pitcher after, it wasn’t by that much.
Larry Jackson was born in Idaho, went to Boise High School, attended Boise Junior College, later served four terms in the Idaho House of Representatives, and died in Boise, Idaho. Needless to say, he loved Idaho. He signed with the Cardinals in 1951 at 20-years-old. He led the Class C Fresno Cardinals in strikeouts with 351 in 300 innings and this may be one of the starkest reminders of how much baseball has changed I’ve seen. 300 innings from a 21-year-old prospect. Despite this, he didn’t end up debuting as a Cardinal until 1955, at 24-years-old.
In his first season, he wasn’t particularly good. He seems to have basically gotten a starting role at some point, and it’s hard to say how long he was a full-time starter, since back in the 50s, it was pretty common to use your starters in relief as well. He threw 177.1 IP with a 4.31 ERA and 4.58 FIP, which was pretty solidly a below average pitcher, though not a bad one. In his second season, he spent nearly the entire season in the bullpen, throwing only 85.1 iP. He too wasn’t particularly great here either.
He started 1957 in the bullpen as well, but he was so dominant that they moved him into the rotation and in fact made his first All-Star team. In his breakout season, he pitched 210.1 IP despite only 22 starts (19 relief appearances) and with a 3.47 ERA and 3.71 FIP, had a 2.7 fWAR season. He never again had a season below 2 fWAR for the rest of his career. In 1958, he basically had an identical season, with 23 starts and 26 relief appearances. He had a worse ERA (3.68), but a better FIP (3.53), so despite less innings, he was a 3.3 fWAR pitcher.
With new manager Solly Hemus, Larry Jackson was named the ace and boy did he deliver. He had what ended up being his career best season, although he had a couple others at least challenge it. He had a 3.30 ERA and 2.87 FIP across 256 IP. He strangely missed the All-Star game this year - he made the two previous All-Star games. He pitched a league leading 285 IP in 1960 for his followup season, although a slightly worse ERA (3.48) and FIP (3.10) led to a lower fWAR total (6.1).
His 1961 season was derailed in a spring game when a sawed off bat broke his jaw, which caused him to “only” throw 211 IP, but he still had a very good season with 4.0 fWAR. In 1962, he was healthy all year, but comparatively speaking, it was a bit of a down year for him, since he only had 4.1 fWAR, thanks to a 3.75 ERA and 3.85 FIP. At this point, he was 31-years-old, and seemingly on the decline, plus they had 26-year-old Bob Gibson, 26-year-old Ernie Broglio, 24-year-old Ray Washburn, and 21-year-old Ray Sadecki.
On October 1962, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs. Coming to the Cubs with Jackson was a reliever and a backup catcher. The Cardinals received 30-year-old George Altman, who was coming off two straight All-Star appearances. He had a disappointing 2 fWAR season, and the Cardinals traded him right away to the Mets for Roger Craig, who had 2 fWAR of his own before being traded the season after for the tail end of Bob Purkey and that’s where the particular trail ends. They also got 27-year-old pitcher Don Cardwell, who never pitched an inning for the Cardinals, as he was traded a month later for Dick Groat, who had an unbelievable 1963 (7.2 fWAR), and a couple average ones, before being traded with Bob Uecker for three guys I’ve never heard of. Cardinals made a lot of trades then.
The rumor mill at the time suggested Jackson was traded because he hadn’t lived up to his potential, an absolutely ridiculous belief, but this rumor reached Jackson. Jackson said the Cardinals poor defense was dragging down the pitching staff and they didn’t develop any power hitters to support Ken Boyer. I doubt anyone remembers this now, but I’m sure he never got invited to any Cardinals events while he was alive, so people forgot about him.
He left baseball when he was drafted by the Montreal Expos in their expansion draft. He chose to retire instead of continue playing, which didn’t make anybody happy at the time. For as good of a player as he was, he was not particularly memorable. He was considered a dull interview. Bill James wrote about him “In his entire career, as best I can determine, Larry Jackson was never in the vicinity of a humorous anecdote.” He also has the dubious record of having the most wins by a pitcher (194) who never once played for a first place team.
So there’s a pretty good reason Larry Jackson is a name that I’ve missed. He seemed to be quickly forgotten at the time, as he was on mediocre or worse teams and right after he left, the Cardinals won a World Series. He got disrespected at the time, so of course he’s disrespected now. He died pretty young, at 59-years-old in 1990, so there was nobody to campaign for him either, not that it seems like he would have ever done that himself. He quickly made two All-Star teams, was a vastly better pitcher after those two years, and only managed to make three more after, and two of those were in the same year. He didn’t even make the ASG game in the year he finished 2nd in Cy Young voting.
Jackson is 7th all-time in career fWAR for the Cardinals among pitchers. Five of them are in the Cardinals Hall, one of them is Adam Wainwright, and the other is Max Lanier, who pitched for the Cardinals for 12 seasons and had just 0.4 fWAR more (and should get in too at some point). Five pitchers have less than him who are currently in the Hall, which includes two relievers but also Chris Carpenter, Bob Forsch, and Mort Cooper. (For bWAR he has the same bWAR as Cooper and better than the other two as well). It’s a similar story if you include the hitters. Among hitters with 28.7 or more fWAR, there’s just Tip O’Neill, Keith Hernandez, and Matt Carpenter. Hernandez is making it, Carpenter will, and O’Neill played for the Cardinals when they were the Browns and died while Woodrow Wilson was in office. He also has more career fWAR as a Cardinal than either Scott Rolen or Mark McGwire.
I set out to talk about an unknown to me great player and I ended up campaigning for him to make the Cardinals Hall of Fame. So I hope I can at least introduce some people to this forgotten Cardinal.