Monday, January 13, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Al Jackson

In 1962, the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s entered the National League as expansion franchises.  The previous October, a special draft was held so that the two teams could stock their rosters with major league talent.  Houston decided to draft younger players who had bright futures.  The Mets, on the other hand, felt like the best way to go was with veteran players, including several who had ties to New York.  That's just a nice way of saying the Mets drafted older players who had bright pasts.

Roger Craig, Gil Hodges and Don Zimmer - all former members of the Brooklyn Dodgers - were drafted by the Mets in the expansion draft.  By the end of the 1963 season, they were all former Mets.  The Mets also drafted just three pitchers with their first ten selections, so when it came time for the team to announce its 11th pick, the Mets set their sights on a 26-year-old southpaw who had pitched beautifully in the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league system for half a decade, but had never been afforded much more than a cup of coffee at the major league level.

From 1958 to 1961, he posted a 55-34 record in the minors with a brilliant 2.58 ERA.  But despite his success, he only took the mound for the Pirates 11 times over those four years, making just five starts and six relief appearances.  Needing a left-handed starting pitcher after drafting three right-handers in their first ten picks, the Mets took a chance on the talented, but inexperienced pitcher.  A few years later, he became the team's first ace, or what passed for an ace on a last-place team.

Al Jackson was the best he could be for a team that was the worst anyone did see.

Alvin Neill Jackson wasn't a very tall pitcher.  Listed at 5'10", Jackson was never going to be an intimidating presence on the mound.  But he knew how to pitch, and he gave the fledgling Mets their best chance to pick up a rare victory during their seminal seasons.

Jackson's career as a Met didn't start out very well.  But then again, neither did the Met careers of most of his teammates.  Jackson started the third game for the Mets in 1962, allowing six runs in his first outing for New York, a loss against the team that gave up on him just six months earlier.  He followed that up by allowing another half-dozen tallies in a 9-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.  But after two scoreless relief appearances, Jackson was tapped by manager Casey Stengel to start the first game of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 29.  Jackson responded by tossing the first shutout in Mets history, scattering eight hits in the team's 8-0 victory.

Despite ending April on a high note, the month of May was not very kind to Jackson.  By the end of the month, Jackson had a 2-6 record and an ERA approaching 6.00.  But his fortunes turned once the calendar turned to June.  From June 6 through August 28, Jackson made 18 starts, allowing two runs or less in ten of them.  Jackson actually won five of those ten games, which was quite an accomplishment on a team that went 28-101 after starting the season with a 12-19 record.  Three of the five victories were shutouts, including the first one-hitter in franchise history on June 22, but one of his better performances came in a game he actually lost.

On August 14, 1962, the Mets hosted the Phillies at the Polo Grounds.  Jackson was dominant in the game, allowing one run on two hits through nine innings.  But Phillies starter (and future Mets manager) Dallas Green was just as stingy, holding the Mets to just one run through the first nine frames.  Green was lifted from the game in the 11th, but Jackson soldiered on, scattering two hits in five scoreless innings from the 10th through the 14th.  Incredibly, Jackson had gotten the Phillies to ground out a whopping 25 times in the first 14 innings.  He appeared to have his 26th ground ball out when Tony Gonzalez led off the 15th inning by hitting a roller to Mets third baseman Sammy Drake, who had entered the game as a pinch-runner for regular third sacker Felix Mantilla six innings earlier.  But Drake's throw was mishandled by first baseman Marv Throneberry, allowing Gonzalez to reach second base.  Jackson then allowed two singles wrapped around an intentional walk, giving the Phillies a 3-1 lead.  Jackson stayed in the game to complete the 15th inning, but the Mets failed to rally for him in the bottom of the inning.  Jackson's final line: 15 innings, three runs (two earned), six hits, five walks, six strikeouts, another loss.  It was as typical as the 1962 Mets got.

For the season, Jackson went 8-20 with a 4.40 ERA.  But those numbers don't accurately represent how good Jackson was for a team that wasn't good at all.  From June 1 through September 10, Jackson posted a 3.38 ERA and was credited with six victories.  The Mets won seven of Jackson's 20 starts during that three-month time period.  They were a woeful 16-66 in the 82 games not started by Jackson from the beginning of June through the middle of September.  Jackson led the 1962 Mets in ERA and tied for the team lead with 118 strikeouts.  He also pitched the only four complete-game shutouts the Mets recorded in their inaugural season.  Considering the team of misfits he played for, Jackson pitched very well in 1962.  The Mets took a small step forward in 1963, but it was Jackson who made the greatest strides in the team's sophomore season.

In Jackson's second season with the Mets, he posted a 13-17 record with a 3.96 ERA and a team-leading 142 strikeouts.  His 13 wins represented 25.5% of the team's 51 victories in 1963.  To this day, Jackson remains one of only five Mets pitchers who were credited with victories in more than one-quarter of the team's wins in a single season.  The other four are Tom Seaver (1967, 1972, 1975), Jerry Koosman (1968), Bret Saberhagen (1994) and R.A. Dickey (2012).  Jackson was particularly strong over the final two months of the season, going 7-3 with a 2.49 ERA over his last 11 appearances (10 starts).  Unfortunately, the team went 9-29 in games Jackson did not appear in over that same stretch.

The Mets combined to win just 91 games in 1962 and 1963, but Jackson won 21 of them, more than any other pitcher on the team.  When the team moved from the Polo Grounds to Shea Stadium in 1964, Jackson found the new digs much to his liking.  Although Jackson's final record (11-16, 4.26 ERA) wasn't overwhelming, he pitched his best games that year at Shea.  Included among them was the first shutout (as the well as the first victory) in Shea Stadium's short history, a 6-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 19.  Overall, Jackson went 7-5 with a 3.68 ERA at the new park in 1964.  But he didn't save all his best games for the home fans.

On October 2, Jackson won a 1-0 pitcher's duel over future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in St. Louis.  It was the second time Jackson had defeated Gibson by that score in three seasons, having previously accomplished the feat on July 27, 1962, also in St. Louis.  Those twin shutout victories by Jackson over Gibson were the only two times the Mets defeated the Cardinal legend from 1962 to 1966, as Gibson went 15-2 against New York in the years prior to the debut of their own Hall of Famer, Tom Seaver.  But by the time Seaver came aboard, Al Jackson was already gone.

After two seasons in which he led the team in wins, Jackson lost 20 games for the second time in 1965.  Jackson's ERA also went up to 4.34, while his innings decreased to 205⅓ - his lowest total in four seasons as a Met.  Although his 8-20 record said otherwise, Jackson wasn't horrible in 1965.  He still tossed three complete-game shutouts and posted a career-best 1.354 WHIP.  It was the team around him that got worse, especially when Jackson was on the mound.  Jackson made 31 starts in 1965.  The Mets scored two runs or less in 15 of those starts, putting extra pressure on Jackson to be as flawless as possible.  Even in his three complete-game shutouts, the Mets only managed to score a total of five runs for him.  And all but one of Jackson's eight wins in 1965 came in complete-game efforts.

By the end of the 1965 season, the Mets realized they needed two things.  They needed to abandon their "let's go with the proven veterans" philosophy.  They also needed a third baseman, a need that continued to haunt them into the 1970s when they inexcusably traded away future All-Stars like Nolan Ryan and Amos Otis in order to get help at the hot corner.  Apparently, their need for a third baseman was greater than their need to get younger.

Just weeks after the 1965 campaign ended, the Mets traded Jackson and Charley Smith to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ken Boyer, an 11-year veteran who was the league's MVP just a year earlier.  But after winning the award following a 1964 season in which he hit .295 with 24 homers and a league-leading 119 RBI for the World Series-winning Cardinals, Boyer regressed in 1965, batting .260 with 13 homers and 75 RBI.  Still, that didn't stop the Mets from trading Smith and their 29-year-old left-handed starting pitcher, who was also the team's all-time leader in wins at the time.

Boyer performed miserably as a Met, batting .258 with 17 homers and 74 RBI in one-and-a-half seasons in New York.  Meanwhile, Jackson went on to post his best season in the majors with the Cardinals in 1966, going 13-15 with a career-best 2.51 ERA and 1.148 WHIP.  Jackson finished 6th in the league in ERA in 1966 and 10th in WHIP.  He followed up his 1966 campaign by going 9-4 in 1967, although the 31-year-old Jackson was used mostly in relief by the team.  The Cardinals returned to the World Series that season, but by then, Jackson had already fallen out of favor with the team.  One day after St. Louis won their second championship in four seasons, Al Jackson was traded back to the Mets.

By 1968, the Mets had a young and talented starting rotation, led by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.  New manager Gil Hodges liked the youth in his starting rotation, which eventually also included 21-year-old Nolan Ryan and two 24-year-olds in Dick Selma and Jim McAndrew.  As a result, Al Jackson was only allowed to start nine games for the Mets in 1968.  He did not fare well as a starter in his second go-round with the Mets, going 2-6 with a 4.42 ERA.  But he did have great success coming out of the bullpen.  In 16 games as a reliever, Jackson posted a 2.52 ERA and 0.981 WHIP, holding opposing batters to a .257 on-base percentage.  Jackson had found a new home with a Mets team that was clearly better that they were when he left them after the 1965 season.  But his homecoming didn't last very long.

Jackson was brutal to start the 1969 season, recording a 10.64 ERA in nine relief appearances.  In five of those nine games, Jackson allowed two or more runs.  The final straw came on May 22, the day after the Mets had reached the .500 mark for the first time in team history in the month of May.  In that game, a 15-3 loss to the Braves, Jackson came into the game in the seventh inning with the Mets already trailing by ten runs.  By the time the inning was over, the Mets were down by two touchdowns, as Jackson allowed an inherited runner to score, plus three of his own runners.

Soon after his meltdown in Atlanta, the Mets rolled off a team-record 11-game winning streak, but Jackson did not pitch in any of those games.  With the team feeding off its young pitchers, Jackson was no longer needed, so he was sold to the Cincinnati Reds on June 13.  The Mets went on to win the World Series without him, and Jackson went on to finish his career as a Red, as Cincinnati released him on April 13, 1970.  A career that began in Pittsburgh in 1959 was now over, but Jackson's life in baseball, especially with the Mets, was not.

Since throwing his final pitch in the big leagues, Jackson has coached at many levels.  He managed the Kingsport Mets for a spell in 1981, then served as Davey Johnson's pitching coach before Johnson's eventual promotion to manage the Mets in 1984.  Jackson molded the young arms that became All-Stars for the Mets in the mid-to-late '80s, and eventually made it back to the big club himself, serving as the team's bullpen coach for the only Mets squads to earn back-to-back postseason berths in 1999 and 2000.  Jackson had just missed appearing in the World Series on two separate occasions, first with the Cardinals in 1967 and then with the Mets in 1969, but he finally got to experience one in 2000, nearly four decades after pitching in his first game for the Mets.  His career had come full circle, and as noted in David Ferry's book, "Total Mets: The Definitive Encyclopedia of the New York Mets' First Half-Century", Jackson still hasn't reached the end of his baseball journey.

"The years that I spent [with the Mets], as a player, coach, whatever, it was a great ride.  An outstanding ride.  And I really haven't finished yet."

Al Jackson was diminutive in stature, but he was quite large for the Mets when it came to giving the team its best chance to win during its formative years.  From 1962 to 1965, Jackson went 40-73 with a 4.24 ERA for a team that was a combined 194-452 over its first four seasons.  During those four years, Mets pitchers hurled 25 complete-game shutouts.  Jackson was responsible for ten of them.  (Jackson is one of only six pitchers to toss ten shutouts as a Met.  The others are Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden, David Cone and Ron Darling.)  Jackson also led or tied for the team lead in wins three times, strikeouts three times, and ERA once.  His highs of 13 wins and 142 strikeouts in 1963 remained single-season team records until they were broken by Seaver and Koosman - two pitchers who went on to set a lot of club records in their time with the Mets.

Just 38 days after Jackson played his last game with the Mets in 1969, Seaver broke the lefty's franchise record of 43 career wins.  But Jackson's 80 losses were not surpassed until May 27, 1974, when Seaver lost his 81st game as a Met.  By then, Seaver had amassed 137 wins, nearly 100 more than Jackson's total.  To this day, only four Mets pitchers have lost more than 80 games - Seaver, Koosman, Gooden and Jon Matlack.  All four of those pitchers are considered to be among the best in franchise history.  However, all four of them also pitched for more successful Mets teams.  Jackson had the unfortunate luck of being the best pitcher on the worst Mets teams.

Al Jackson could have played for a number of World Championship teams.  He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959 and 1961.  The Bucs won the World Series in 1960.  He was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967, but he didn't participate in their run to the World Series crown.  He also pitched for the 1969 Mets, though he was a member of the Cincinnati Reds when his former teammates celebrated their title on the Shea Stadium mound.

When Jackson was afforded the opportunity to pitch, it was usually for teams that did very little to help him earn a victory.  Jackson was the Mets' de facto ace from 1962 to 1965, although all that title got him was hard-luck loss after hard-luck loss, with a pinch of a one-hitter here and a couple of dashes over Bob Gibson there.  Jackson deserved better from his teammates, but that was like asking Marv Throneberry to play more alertly on the field.  You knew he would try his best, but in the end, he would just miss a base or two or drop a throw to cost his teammate a chance at a complete-game, 15-inning victory.

If anyone can define being the best on the worst, it's most definitely Al Jackson.  His final numbers as a Met certainly don't look pretty when compared to those posted by the likes of Seaver, Koosman and Gooden.  But his numbers were far better than the ones his teammates were putting up on the board.  Little Al Jackson may have been small in stature, but he was as big as they came in the early days of the New York Mets.

Photo by Herb Scharfman/Getty Images

Note:  The Best On The Worst is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 6, 2014: Todd Hundley

1 comment:

lanzarishi said...

I really enjoyed this article and it is about time someone put Jackson's Met career in perspective. He was truly my first baseball hero back in 62 thru 68. As a young boy (8 yrs old) this was to be my first lesson in the harsh realities of life - his being traded, horrible Met teams, etc.