Larry Jaster, the Dodgers’ master

In the history of baseball, there are always performances that defy the odds. On any given day, a mediocre hitter can have a big game against an elite pitcher, or a mediocre pitcher can shut down a slugger.

Harder to explain is the phenomenon of certain pitchers who habitually dominate certain teams. A star pitcher dominating a weak team is no great shakes, but when a relatively obscure pitcher dominates a dominant team (not to sound too oxymoronic), then attention must be paid.

There is no arguing with the fact that the Yankees were the dominant team in the American League from 1955 through 1961, as they won the pennant every year save one (1959). Yet during that period, they were treated rudely by Frank Lary, a Tiger pitcher who had a 27-10 record against them during those seven seasons.

Lary’s success flew in the face of the odds, but during the period of his dominance over the Yankees, he was one of the American League’s best pitchers. During that 1955-1961 period, he led the league in wins (117), complete games (115), innings pitched (1,799⅔), games started (242), and batters faced (7,569). He won 21 games in 1956 and 23 in 1961. In 1958, his best season against the Yankees, he had a 7-1 record against them.

After 1961, Lary was plagued with shoulder problems. Over the next four years, he was 11-23 with the Tigers, Braves, Mets, and White Sox. He retired at age 35.

So we can say that Lary was a good pitcher who was great whenever he pitched against the Yankees. He overachieved, but not by that much. That interlocking N and Y logo seemed to motivate him to turn it up a notch.

So how many notches would we need to account for the Cardinals’ Larry Jaster, who pitched five shutouts against the Dodgers in 1966? I wouldn’t go so far as to say he came out of nowhere, but it probably seemed that way to Dodger fans.

Jaster made his debut as a September call-up in 1965, so he was still a rookie in 1966. His future looked bright after three complete-game victories in September 1965 and a 1.61 ERA. This was certainly unexpected, as his record with the AA Tulsa Oilers had been 11-13 with a 3.09 ERA.

In 1966, the Dodgers won the pennant while the Cardinals finished at 83-79, good for fifth place in a field of 10. Subtracting the five games Jaster pitched, the Dodgers were 10-3 against the Cardinals. So the Dodgers were not overmatched by the likes of Nelson Briles, Al Jackson, Ray Washburn, or even Bob Gibson.

Jaster’s five shutouts tied him for the league lead with Jim Bunning, Jim Maloney, Larry Jackson, Bob Gibson, and Sandy Koufax. The latter, in particular, was a formidable foe, as he had led the league in complete games and wins (27), ERA (1.73) and strikeouts (317). It was another Cy Young Award season for Koufax. It was also his last season, though nobody knew it at the time.

Fortunately for Jaster, whenever he took the mound against the Dodgers, he never had to go head-to-head against Koufax. That’s not to say that the pitchers he faced were easy marks. Game by game, here are the pertinent details:

Shutout No. 1 – April 26, five-hit, 2-0 victory over Claude Osteen at Dodger Stadium.

Shutout No. 2 – July 3, three-hit, 2-0 victory over Don Drysdale at Dodger Stadium.

Shutout No. 3 – July 29, five-hit, 4-0 victory over Don Drysdale at Busch Memorial Stadium.

Shutout No. 4 – August 19, five-hit, 4-0 victory over Claude Osteen at Dodger Stadium.

Shutout No. 5 – September 28, four-hit, 2-0 victory over Don Sutton at Busch Memorial Stadium.

All of the pitchers he defeated were worthy opponents. Drysdale and Sutton are both in the Hall of Fame. Admittedly, Drysdale had something of a down year (13-16 with a 3.42 ERA) in 1966. Some speculated that his famed dual holdout with Koufax that spring had affected him. Sutton was in his rookie year (12-12 with a 2.91 ERA), and Claude Osteen was roughly midway through an 18-year career involving almost 400 decisions (196-195). In 1966, he was 17-14 with a 2.85 ERA.

Not having to face Koufax was certainly a boon to Jaster, but I don’t think it tarnishes what he achieved that season. Forty-five innings of scoreless baseball in one season against any team is newsworthy even if the opponent is a tail-ender. In 2012, of course, five shutouts would put Jaster at the top of the list in MLB. In fact, his six complete games would put him at the top of that category with Justin Verlander.

Against the rest of the National League in 1966, Jaster was nowhere near as impressive. Subtracting the victories and innings pitched from his Dodger conquests, he was 6-5 with a 4.64 ERA.

Jaster came of age when pitching was the name of the game, and the Dodgers were nowhere near the offensive force they had been in years past. The 1966 Dodgers hit .256, the league average, but aside from that they were below average. They were 8th in the league in runs scored at 606, surpassing only the Cardinals and the Mets. They tied the Cardinals for 8th place in home runs with 108, surpassing only the lowly Mets with 98. They were shut out twelve times in addition to their match-ups against Jaster.

Outstanding pitching kept the Dodgers in contention and ultimately garnered them the pennant; with just average run production, they might have run away with the pennant.

That 1966 National League pennant went down to the last weekend of the season, when the Dodgers found themselves in Philadelphia, needing just one victory to clinch. On Friday night, the Phillies’ Chris Short gained his 19th victory, defeating Claude Osteen, 5-3. The Saturday game was rained out, resulting in a double-header the next day.

In the first game, Chris Short returned in relief to pick up his 20th victory after the Phillies scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to pull out a 4-3 victory. In the second game his teammate Jim Bunning was gunning for his 20th victory, but his opposite number was Sandy Koufax, coming back on short rest, having defeated the Cardinals 2-1 the previous Thursday, one day after Jaster’s final shutout. Koufax emerged victorious by a 6-3 margin and the Dodgers headed home to face the Orioles in the World Series.

Had Koufax not won that game, the Dodgers would have finished at 94-68, while the Giants were at 93-68. The Giants would have had to play a make-up game against the Reds to see if they could tie the Dodgers, and if they did, then there would be a playoff against the Dodgers. So Koufax’s victory warded off a host of potential headaches for the Dodgers.

You can imagine the Dodgers’ euphoria after that hard-earned final victory in Philadelphia. I don’t have to imagine it, as I saw it person. Along with 23,214 other souls, I attended that end-of-season double-header in 1966. The euphoria, however was ephemeral.

If you don’t remember the Dodger downer that was the 1966 World Series, you might have heard about it. The Baltimore Orioles had finished nine games ahead of the Twins to garner the team’s first pennant, but they were still the underdogs.

The Baltimore upstarts upended the Dodgers in four straight. The Dodger pitchers didn’t exactly fall down on the job, holding the Orioles to 10 earned runs and a .200 batting average. But the two runs the Dodgers scored in the third inning of their game one loss finished their scoring for the series. Jim Palmer, Wally Bunker, and Dave McNally reeled off three straight shutouts in games two through four. The Dodgers hit a paltry .142 for the Series, and their 33 straight scoreless innings was a World Series record. Had the Orioles hired Jaster as an ad hoc pitching coach or what?

The Dodgers must have pondered how their fate would have been different had they been able to handle Larry Jaster. His last shutout on September 28 really hurt. Had the Dodgers managed to clinch before the last day of the season, they could have led off the Series with Koufax, which would assure he could return in game four. Would that have made a difference? The outcome might have been the same but at least they might not have been humiliated.

The Orioles’ success was the first of a string of World Series appearances from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, but for Larry Jaster, there was no second act. He had peaked during his rookie year. In 1967 and 1968 he was 9-7 and 9-13.

The Cardinals left him unprotected in the expansion draft conducted after the 1968 season, and Jaster found himself a member of the inaugural squad of the Montreal Expos. As the starting pitcher for the Expos’ home opener on April 14, 1969, Jaster threw the first pitch in a major league game played outside the United States. The Expos defeated the Cardinals 8-7, but Jaster was not around to garner the victory. A curious footnote to his one season with the Expos was his hitting prowess: 8-for-19, good for a .421 average!

That was pretty much it for Jaster and baseball history. He won one game for the Expos in 1969 and one game each in 1970 and 1972 for the Braves. During that time frame, his MLB innings pitched had dwindled from 77 to 22⅓ to 12⅓. He spent five seasons with the Braves’ organization but logged more time with their AAA affiliate in Richmond than he did with the parent club. He pitched his last big league game at age 28 and retired as a player at age 30.

Normally, anyone with a career big league record of 35-33 and a 3.64 ERA would not loom large in the annals of baseball. Those five shutouts against the Dodgers (he had seven for his career) make Larry Jaster the exception. The Dodgers were not a hard-hitting team, but they did win the pennant in 1966, so Jaster’s achievement is one for the books.

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Comments

  1. Paul G. said...

    I had not heard of Jaster.  Thank you for the education.

    One quibble.  The Dodgers were not a bad offensive team; they played in a fairly extreme pitchers park.  The rule change to limit the height of the pitcher’s mound is often attributed to the creative groundskeeping of the Chavez Ravine.  Alston’s team is slightly above average in team OPS+, clearly above average by wRC+.  I’m not sure if that is including the pitchers’ contributions with the bats or not.

  2. Andrew Torres said...

    Thank you for writing this piece.  Jaster’s dominance of the Dodgers is imprinted in my memory as one of those strange things that happen in baseball.  I do have to disagree with Paul G. a bit—the Dodgers were not a very good offensive team.  In Los Angeles, the 1966 season is remembered as Koufax’s last season as well as the season that journeyman Sweet Lou Johnson was arguably the Dodgers’ best position player.  They platooned Junior Gilliam and John Kennedy at third base.  Gilliam was on his last legs, and Kennedy was a poor hitter—you could have given his at bats to Drysdale or Osteen and gotten more production.  One other major contributor to that season was Phil “The Vulture” Regan.  Check out the back of Jaster’s 1967 rookie card here…

    http://www.tradingcarddb.com/ViewCard.cfm/sid/66/cid/13963/1967-Topps-356-Larry-Jaster

    And more on Jaster from the LA Times last year.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jun/26/sports/la-sp-crowe-20110627

    Thanks again.

  3. Hal said...

    I was at the July 3rd game in the left field pavilion.  I remember the old message board in LF that used to spell things out.  “Meanwhile, up at Candlestick……”

    That was also the day that Tony Cloninger hit two grand slams against the Giants at Candlestick.  The Braves beat the Giants 17-3.  1966 was the Braves first season in Atlanta.

  4. Andrew Torres said...

    You’re absolutely right.  Looking at Baseball Reference, I see that the Dodgers were 25 games over .500 at home that season.  The park was not kind to the Dodger hitters, but it was worse for the opposition to have to go there to face the Dodger pitching.  Something I noticed about Maury Wills—in 1962, he had 104 steals and was thrown out only 13 times (which still led the league).  In 1965, he had 94 steals and was thrown out 31 times.  The Dodgers won the World Series that year, and Wills was 3rd in the NL MVP voting, but his only real significant stat was stolen bases—yet he led the league in times caught stealing!  Then, in 1966, he stole only 38 bases and was caught 24 times (injury? soggy infields when the Dodgers came to town?).  Over his career, Wills led the league in steals 6 times while leading the league in caught stealing 7 times.

  5. Paul G. said...

    True, that third base platoon was quite brutal.  But by the OPS+ standard pretty much all the other starters on that team were above average hitters save Maury Wills, who I suspect was not bad for a shortstop.  Keep in mind that the park factors for 1966 Dodger Stadium are roughly equivalent to the Astrodome in the late 1970s.

  6. Cliff Blau said...

    Koufax was a good pitcher, but I don’t think he ever won a game in which the Dodgers didn’t score a single run, so it probably wouldn’t have made a difference if he’d matched up against Jaster, or pitched game 4 of the 1966 World Series.

  7. Paul E said...

    Frank:
        I get the impression from this article you are a Philadelphian? And, perhaps Bruce Markusen as well? I do recall that final series in Philadelphia – pretty disappointing. In later years, 1B Bill White claimed that the ‘66 Phillies were as good as any team he had ever played with – including the ‘64 Cardinals! They had a boatload of veterans and a nice mix of young talent as well. I can also recall Jaster’s success against the Dodgers and the young Orioles’ pitchers dominating the ‘66 WS….
        Harry Coveleski (Stan’s brother) was called the “Giant Killer” for pitching a bunch of shutouts against them (for the Phillies, no less)as they were pursuing a pennant in ? 1908 ? maybe?
        Thanks for the great article

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