Al Jackson: The Little Pitcher Who Made a Big Impression

Every time I remember hearing Harry Caray say “Al Jackson”, it was preceded by “Little”. I don’t know that anybody asked Jackson if he liked the nickname, but it was always said with respect and admiration, so I hope Mr. Jackson doesn’t mind if I call him that a few more times.

But “Little” did describe what Jackson looked like on the mound. The record books say that the left-handed pitcher stood 5′ 10″ and weighed in at 160 pounds, but when he pitched for the Cardinals it looked like a good breeze might blow him off the mound. It never happened, and at that point in his career, the only ones who were likely to be blown away were the opposing batters. In particular, the left handed batters. We often hear about current players that demonstrate a bit of old school attitude and we remark that they could have played back in the day. Jackson was the opposite, a player who was a couple of decades ahead of his time. If he were playing today, he would be a left handed relief specialist and would have a long and prosperous career. Arthur Rhodes, anybody ?

A Humble Beginning

Al Jackson was signed out of high school by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955 and immediately put to work as a starter in their minor league system. After a bit of a slow start, he became a head turner with the Lincoln Chiefs (A) of the Western League. An 18-9 record with a microscopic ERA of 2.07 would earn him a couple of looks with the big club in 1959.

Jackson made his major league debut on May 3, 1959 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Even this early in the season, Solly Hemus’s Cardinals were in free fall and still a few players and managerial change away from becoming a contender in the National League. The Pirates were about to make history behind a couple of youngsters named Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente, but in 1959 they would finish the season with a bit better than a .500 record. It was clear that the rebuilding was well under way. A nasty early season double header gave Jackson a chance to show what he could do.

The little left-hander was greeted rather rudely by the Cardinals when he took over for starter Bennie Daniels, who had been lifted for a pinch hitter the previous inning. With the Cardinals leading 2-1 at that point, a pair of Smith’s would beat up on young Jackson. Not Lonnie and Ozzie, in 1959 it was Bobby and Hal. Bobby led off the inning with a double, and would be advanced to third base on a sacrifice bunt by Don Blasingame. Hal Smith would single home Bobby with the third Cardinals run. Even the Solly Hemus Cardinals ran as Hal, who was a catcher, would be caught stealing for for the second out of the inning. Cardinals legend Joe Cunningham would become Jackson’s first major league strikeout victim, ending the inning.

Jackson’s next inning was almost a repeat of his first. Lee Tate would lead off by striking out. Bill White would single, and advance to second base when the Pirates failed to make a play on Lindy McDaniel’s sacrifice bunt – both runners were safe. Unfortunately, the Cardinals didn’t have another Smith they could call on, so Ken Boyer and Gene Green would both make an out to squelch a second rally.

The young lefty would get another chance at the end of the month, this time as a starter. It would not go much better, so he found himself back in the bullpen. He did get another start at the end of June, also against the Cardinals. This time he was staked to a huge lead as Ernie Broglio failed to make it out of the first inning, giving up 5 runs in just 2/3 of an inning. Jackson actually did worse as he only survived 1/3 of an inning, giving up 4 runs of his own. Both of the men that relieved Jackson and Broglio got lit up as well, and the game got out of hand quickly. The Pirates would end up winning this wild one 10-8, but after it was over, Jackson would be heading back to Columbus, where he would just dominate the International League.

Jackson would spend all of 1960 at Columbus and miss out on the Pirates surprising World Series Championship. After a solid, but still learning year in 1960, Jackson turned in another brilliant year with Columbus in 1961, compiling a 12-7 record with a sparkling ERA of 2.89. That would earn the little lefty another chance in the big leagues when the rosters expanded in September. He would get two starts, going 9 innings in each. He would get a no-decision in his first one, but earn his first career win against the Cincinnati Reds with a complete game at the end of the season. It’s the game in between that turned heads as he would pitch 5 2/3 innings of scoreless relief in a loss – this would be typical of the way he would be used later in his career.

Expansion and an Opportunity

Jackson had played for some very good Columbus Jets teams in the minor leagues, and was part of a good organization in Pittsburgh. That didn’t prepare him for what would come next, the expansion New York Mets. Jackson would be drafted by the new club and was immediately thrown into the rotation with a bunch of young players and a handful of veterans that were in the declining years of their careers. Jackson would lose 20 games in that inaugural season, but that didn’t even lead the staff. Future Cardinal Roger Craig had that distinction with 24 losses. It’s not that Jackson pitched poorly, or Craig for that matter, the Mets were just that bad. They would lose 120 games in 1962, and wouldn’t lose less than 100 games until 1966. Tough luck losses were going to mount quickly, and Jackson had to learn to deal with that.

Along the way, there were a number of high points.

Jackson would pitch the first shutout for the Mets organization on April 29, 1960 as he defeated the Philadelphia Phillies. But that was nothing like what would happen later in the summer.

On June 22, Jackson would face Turk Farrell and the other expansion franchise, the Houston Colt 45’s. The Colts were not doing as poorly as the Mets and should have won this game easily. Nobody at the Polo Grounds thought much as this game got under way. With one out in the first inning, Joe Amalfitano would single sharply to left, a clean hit. This would become important in just a few moments. Roman Mejias would strike out and then Norm Larker would walk. Again, nobody thought much at this point in the game. Then Jackson would retire the next 22 batters in a row. Hardly anything was leaving the infield – Jackson was on cruise control. The Colts would only get one more base runner in the game, a lead-off walk by Pidge Browne in the top of the ninth inning. If this game had been played in the reverse order, the Polo Grounds crowd would have been going insane. Jackson would finish the game allowing just the one single.

The most insane thing that happened to Jackson, and any pitcher in my lifetime, occurred on August 14. The Mets were an embarrassing 47 1/2 games behind the Giants and Dodgers who were battling it out for the NL Pennant. On this afternoon game against the visiting Philadelphia Phillies, Casey Stengel would earn the Dusty Baker Award for abusing his pitching staff as he would let Al Jackson pitch for 4 hours and 35 minutes and a total of 15 innings. Through 14 innings, Jackson had only given up 1 run and 4 hits. The game unraveled quickly in the 15th inning as Tony Gonzalez leads off with a pop-up on the infield that first baseman Marv Throneberry boots all the way to third base. Two singles and an intentional walk would be the difference as Jackson lost the game, 3-1. While there are no accurate pitch counts for this game, it is estimated that Jackson threw over 200 pitches. If there was an encyclopedia entry for “heartbreaking loss”, it would have the box score for this game and Al Jackson’s photo.

Al Jackson’s name will go in the record books two more times while pitching for the Mets. Jackson would record the last win in the Polo Grounds, on September 11, 1963, with a nifty complete game against the San Francisco Giants. He would also get the first win in Shea Stadium, the Mets new home in 1964. A huge crowd on Sunday, April 19, saw Jackson dominate his former team, the Pittsburgh Pirates as he tosses a complete game shutout.

Nearly a Knockout

On October 2, 1964, Al Jackson nearly did what the Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees all failed to do – keep the Cardinals from winning the World Series. When the Mets came to St. Louis to close out the regular season, the Cardinals were in a virtual tie with the Phillies and Reds with just 3 games to play. The Cardinals were on fire and had just won their last 8, a 5 game sweep in Pittsburgh, and a back-breaking 3 game sweep of the Phillies. All that stood between them and the World Series was a 51-108 Mets team and a little left-hander with a 10-15 record. To make this game all the more poignant, on the mound for the Cardinals was an 18-11 hard throwing right-hander named Bob Gibson. Game over, raise the NL Pennant, right ? Not so fast.

Oh, Gibson was brilliant, as he had been since catching fire back on August 6. In 8 innings of work, he would allow a lone run in the third inning on a single and stolen base by former Cardinal George Altman and an RBI single by Ed Kranepool. Along the way, Gibson would strike out 7 while walking none. This had been typical of Gibson lately, and we would enjoy a lot more of this over the next decade.

But, and there’s always a but, Al Jackson matched Gibson pitch for pitch. Not only that, he did a little better. The Cardinals got nothing on the little left-hander, and he would win the game 1-0, derailing the Cardinals pennant run for a day. When Ray Sadecki got bombed the next day, it seemed like dream of a Cardinals/Yankees World Series was just that, a dream. It took a miraculous pitching effort on the last day of the regular season by Curt Simmons and Bob Gibson and some timely hitting by Bill White, Ken Boyer, Dick Groat and Dal Maxvill – yes, that’s right – Dal Maxvill, and a home run by Curt Flood to propel the Cardinals into post-season. But the sting of that 1-0 defeat at the hands of Al Jackson would continue to haunt the Cardinals.

Free Al Jackson

Jackson would continue to pitch well for the Mets, but would lose 20 games for the second time in his career in 1965. As before, another hurler would lose even more, time it was Jack Fisher with a mind-boggling 24 losses to lead the staff. Fortunately for Jackson, his career was about to take off, but not with the Mets.

Immediately following the 1965 season, the Cardinals traded future Hall of Famer, Ken Boyer, to the Mets for third baseman, Charley Smith and left-handed starter Al Jackson. General Manager Bob Howsam was following Branch Rickey’s rule:

Always trade a player one year too early rather one year too late

It was hoped that Smith would be able to take over for Boyer at third base, but it was Jackson that the Cardinals wanted in the deal. Smith would have a disappointing season in 1966, but would be part of one of the most famous trades in Cardinals history when he was sent to the New York Yankees for Roger Maris in one of Bob Howsam’s last deals before leaving the club prior to the start of the 1967 season.

Unlike Smith, Jackson did not disappoint. He would start the ’66 season in the bullpen and would only allow a single run in April. Jackson would earn his first victory as a Cardinal in early May, in a nice piece of long relief against his former club, the New York Mets. Oh, there is much more irony left in the Al Jackson story.

That performance would earn him a start on May 13 and he would go the distance in an 8-0 shutout against the Atlanta Braves. Four more quality starts before Jackson’s first rough outing included some dominating wins against Cincinnati and Philadelphia plus a couple of hard luck losses. Even this early in the season, the improved defense behind Jackson in St. Louis was making a huge difference. By the end of July, Jackson had run his record to 11-8 including two huge wins against the defending World Series Champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers. His ERA was also two runs lower than it had ever been in New York.

The season wouldn’t end well for Jackson in the win-loss record, but his pitching had been exceptional. He would finish with an 13-15 record, but it’s the ERA of 2.51 that shows how well he pitched. Of the starters, only Bob Gibson had a better ERA, and just barely at 2.44.

Déjà vu all over again

The Cardinals would start the 1967 with an amazingly strong rotation of Bob Gibson, Ray Washburn, rookie Steve Carlton, the 1966 rookie phenomenon Larry Jaster and Al Jackson. Jackson’s first two starts of the season were somewhat of a tale of two cities with the first being a nice win against the Dodgers, but he got shelled in the second start. That brings us to the early season surprise of 1967, when Al Jackson faced the Houston Astros on April 25. Yes, this is the same Houston team that he nearly no-hit back in 1962. And he nearly did it again, but this time he kept 10,000 Houston fans in total suspense for nearly two hours as he retired one batter after another. Until Bob Aspromonte led off the home half of the eighth inning with a no-doubter single to left field. Little Al Jackson toughened and retired the next six batters, for his second career 1 hitter.

In an interesting turn of events, a rough month of May might have been the best thing for Jackson and the Cardinals. With the lefty failing to get deep into his starts, Red Schoendienst decides to move Jackson to the bullpen to make room for a suddenly dominating Dick Hughes, who nearly threw a perfect game of his own on May 30 in Cincinnati. The move to the bullpen was working out quite well for Jackson and the Cardinals. In shorter relief appearances, opposing teams just were not able to score runs against the little left hander. He got better as the season went on, being particular effective in the final push for the NL Pennant, posting a 2.15 ERA over August and September. The wins started coming in bunches too, and Jackson would finish the season with a 9-4 record, the only winning season in his career. The only time that Jackson struggled was in his spot starts, which became a bit more frequent after losing Ray Washburn and Bob Gibson to injuries. Red Schoendienst had learned in 1967 what would become a common approach today – a hard throwing lefty with a good curve can cause a lot of trouble to the opposing teams late in the game, especially against left handed batters. Al Jackson had just become one of the Cardinals first LOOGYs.

1967 was another first for Al Jackson – the first time he was on a World Championship team – but he would not see any action in the Fall Classic. With a starting rotation of Bob Gibson, Dick Hughes, Nelson Briles and Steve Carlton and a pair of strong lefties in the bullpen (Joe Hoerner and Hal Woodeshick), there just wasn’t any room for Jackson.

A Bad Break

1967 would be the final year for Al Jackson as a Cardinal. When Bob Gibson suffered a broken leg against the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 15, perhaps it was on omen when Al Jackson took over when Gibson was unable to continue in the game. The New York Mets came into town the next day and just before the teams arrived at the stadium, a deal was made sending the Mets pitcher Jack Lamabe to the Cardinals for a player to be named later. Lamabe walked from the visiting locker room over to the home team’s facilities and introduced himself. His first outing was a little rough, but he became a huge part of a strong bullpen that kept the Cardinals in games while Gibson healed. There would be a huge price to pay though, and after the end of the 1967 season, the Mets took back Al Jackson.

Even though he was used sparingly in 1968, he pitched well for the Mets. His 3-7 record was more of a reflection of the Mets throwing Jackson back into the rotation instead of letting him thrive in the bullpen. Like with the Cardinals the previous season, in short and medium relief, Jackson was superb. Even with the huge number of starts, his ERA of 3.69 was very respectable, but would have been a run or more lower if he’d worked out of the pen exclusively.

Jackson would start the 1969 season with the Mets in the bullpen, but would struggle. He would also miss out on the excitement of the Mets amazing World Series Championship when he was sent to Cincinnati in June for cash. He would finish out his career with the Reds, appearing in 33 games that summer, all in relief. One final piece of irony in the story of Little Al Jackson. He would earn a win in his last major league appearance, in long relief against the Houston Astros. In 3 2/3 innings, he would allow just a single hit.

The Story Continues

Even though Jackson’s playing days were over, his baseball career would continue. Not only had Jackson pitched with some of the best in the game (Gibson, Seaver), he was a heck of a pitcher himself, so it was no surprise when he turned up next as the Boston Red Sox pitching coach, a job he would hold from 1977 to 1979. A decade later he would re-appear with the Baltimore Orioles in 1989, serving until 1991. And as if scripted by Abner Doubleday, Jackson’s last coaching job would be with the New York Mets, in 1999 and 2000. He has recently been a special assistant for the Mets and remains active in events such as fantasy baseball camps. He was also present at the Amazing Mets 40th anniversary as well as the closing ceremonies for Shea Stadium.

Mets fans remember Jackson fondly as the ace of a very poor team, that professionally took the baseball every four days and gave it his best. They look past his win-loss record and remember him for the quality pitcher that he was. Even though he was in St. Louis for such a brief time, the Little man from Waco, Texas sure left a huge impression. I hope that if Jackson ever appears at a Cardinals event, he will be remembered just as fondly.

Bob Netherton covers Cardinals history for i70baseball.com and writes at Throatwarbler’s Blog. You may follow Bob on Twitter here or on Facebook here.

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