Obituary: Al Jackson (1935-2019)

R.I.P. to Al Jackson an original member of the New York Mets and the best pitcher on a string of awful Mets teams. He died on August 19 at the age of 83. Jackson pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1959, 1961), Mets (1962-65, 1968-69), St. Louis Cardinals (1966-67) and Cincinnati Reds (1969).

The Mets paid a lovely tribute to Jackson: “We are saddened to hear about the passing of Al Jackson, an original Met, who spent 50 years in a New York Mets uniform. He was a pitcher, major league coach, minor league pitching coordinator and front office advisor. It would be impossible to calculate the number of players and staff he touched and influenced during his career. Jackson, 83, passed away today after a long illness at the Emerald Nursing Home in Port St. Lucie, FL. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his wife, Nadine, his sons, Reggie and Barry and grandchildren, Wesley and Kyle.”

Al Jackson was born on December 26, 1935 in Waco, Texas. He attended A.J. Moore High School and was a captain of the football and baseball teams. He threw three no-hitters in high school and led the team with a .372 batting average, according to a 1960 profile in The Evening Standard. Jackson was an All-State baseball selection in 1953 and 1954.

Source: The Warren County Observer, July 23, 1962.

The Pirates signed him in 1955, and he spent his first pro season pitching back in his hometown for the Waco Pirates. The 19-year-old southpaw held his own pretty well, going 8-5 in 15 starts, with a 2.79 ERA. He was an All-Star selection for Mexico City in 1956 and 1957 and won 18 games for the Lincoln Chiefs with a 2.07 ERA in 1958.

Jackson started the 1959 season back in Lincoln, where he went 6-1 with two shutouts. By the end of May, the Pirates brought him to the majors to replace the injured Don Gross. Through a quirk of scheduling, his MLB debut technically came in his second MLB appearance. Jackson’s first game was a start against the Reds on May 31 in Cincinnati; he was chased after 3 innings, having allowed 4 runs. On June 2, the Pirates and Cardinals resumed Game Two of a doubleheader that started on May 3 and was suspended in the bottom of the 7th inning. Jackson pitched the 8th and 9th innings when the game resumed, allowing a run in a 3-1 win for St. Louis. Since it’s considered a May 3 game, Jackson debuted in the majors while still toiling away in Lincoln.

Jackson pitched a total of 8 games for the Bucs with 3 starts, and he had a 6.50 ERA in 18 innings. After spending all of 1960 in the minors, he returned to the majors for 3 games in 1961. He started 2 of them and picked up his first win with a complete game victory over the Reds. He scattered 10 hits and gave up 6 runs, and he fanned 6 batters.

In his two stints with Pittsburgh, he had a 1-0 record and 4.75 ERA. The team left Jackson exposed in the expansion draft for the Colt .45s (Astros) and Mets, and New York claimed him. He was the only lefty that the Mets acquired in the draft and one of a host of younger pitchers. He was added to the starting rotation for 1962 and never looked back.

Jackson threw 4 shutouts in 1962, which was third-best among all NL pitchers. Unfortunately, those four shutouts accounted for half of his season win totals, because the 1962 Mets were historically awful. Actually, the Mets were pretty bad during his four seasons with the team. From 1962 through 1965, Jackson was the best pitcher the team had. Even so, he had a 40-73 record to show for it, with 8-20 records in both 1962 and ’65. He threw 41 complete games and 10 shutouts during that time while striking out nearly 500 batters, and his ERA was 4.24. When you’re on a team that is averaging 113 losses a season, your own pitching record is going to suffer. But Jackson was the one stable part of a pitching staff that was constantly in flux. Others came and went, but Jackson was good for 30+ starts and 200+ innings each season.

“You had to pitch pretty good ball to lose 20 games,” he would later say. “No manager would put up with you if you were getting knocked all over the lot.”

At the end of the 1965 season, Jackson was traded to the Cardinals for third baseman Ken Boyer. The Cardinals, while not great, were a fair sight better than the Mets, and Jackson gave them his best MLB season, with a 13-15 record, 2.51 ERA and 1.148 WHIP. His ERA+ was a career-best 144. He even beat the Phillies 5-1 on August 12 by hitting a tie-breaking RBI triple. John Briggs, the center fielder, was playing way in, and Jackson blasted a Larry Jackson pitch over Briggs’ head.

“I never saw an outfielder play me that shallow, not even Vada Pinson,” Al Jackson said after the game. “When they shade me like that, you know what’s got to be on my mind.”

Jackson finally got to pitch for a good team with the ’67 World Champ Cardinals. Though the team was great, Jackson threw just 107 innings. He appeared in 39 games, with only 11 starts, possibly due to the fact that the Cardinals already had two lefty starters in Steve Carlton and Larry Jaster. As a swingman, though, Jackson was a valuable pitcher. He had a 9-4 record and 3.95 ERA. One of those wins was a near no-hitter against the Astros on April 25. He settled for a 1-hit shutout when Bob Aspromonte led off the 8th inning with a single.

The Cardinals won the ’67 World Series over the Red Sox in seven games, but Jackson never saw any postseason action. Shortly after the Series concluded, he was sent back to the Mets as the player to be named from an earlier trade that had sent pitcher Jack Lamabe to St. Louis. Jackson wanted to return to the Mets starting rotation, but they kept him in the swingman role. He appeared in 25 games in 1968, with 9 starts. He even closed out games periodically and ended up with 3 saves.

The starting rotation that could have been, if the Pirates had shown a little more patience. Jackson, center, with southpaw teammates Joe Gibbon and Harvey Haddix. Source: Pittsburgh Courier, July 31, 1965.

Jackson had done pretty much everything with the Mets except play on a winning team. He finally got that chance in 1969, as the “Amazin’ Mets” engineered a late-season rally to pass the Cubs in the standing and go on to beat the Orioles in the World Series. Unfortunately, Jackson struggled early on in the season, with a 4-digit ERA after 9 relief appearances. The Reds acquired him in a cash deal, and he appeared in 33 games out of the bullpen with a 5.27 ERA for Cincy. Those were the last games he would throw, as the Reds released him in the spring of 1970.

From a baseball perspective, the Mets were 100% in the right for shipping Jackson to Cincinnati for cash. After years of struggling to find decent starting pitching, the team suddenly had an embarrassment of riches, including young Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan. And no team needs to be holding onto a reliever with an ERA over 10.00. There was just no place for Jackson on the roster. Still, Al Jackson was an unsung hero for those early, horrible Mets teams. While he was a beloved part of the Mets family until his death, it just seems wrong that he missed out on the ’69 postseason magic. But that’s baseball. It’ll break your heart sometimes.

In 10 seasons in the major leagues, Jackson had a 67-99 record with a 3.98 ERA. He appeared in 303 games, with 184 starts. He threw 54 complete games, including 14 shutouts, and he picked up 10 saves as well. Never a huge strikeout pitcher, Jackson still racked up 738 K’s.

As the Mets noted, Jackson stayed a part of the organization for years, serving in a number of roles. He also worked as a pitching coach for the Red Sox from 1977-79 and the Orioles from 1989-91. As a minor-league coach in the Mets system, he worked with a number of the young pitchers who starred with the team in the 1980s and ’90s. Pitcher Sid Fernandez almost left the Mets for Japan after a demotion in 1984, but a trip to Tidewater gave him the chance to work with Jackson.

“Al Jackson got my mechanics straightened out and also got me to control my head,” Fernandez said. “Al Jackson is a fine pitching coach.”

I found a great story about how Jackson accidentally picked up a win for the Mets. This is one that Yogi Berra told about Casey Stengel, so I make no promises that it’s factual. But the story goes that Stengel went to the mound one game for a pitching change. Umpire Tom Gorman signaled for Jackson. When Jackson showed up to the mound, Stengel started arguing.

“I don’t want him, I wanted [Larry] Bearnarth,” Stengel said.

“You got Jackson,” Gorman shot back. “The crowd saw Jackson come in and you’re not changing.

The Mets won the game, with Jackson picking up the win. The next day, Stengel walked out to deliver his lineup card to the umpires, with no pitcher listed.

“Who’s pitching?” Gorman asked. Stengel replied, “You pick him. You did a helluva job yesterday.”

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