Al Jackson: The Little Lefty Who Could; 1935 – 2019

Sometimes an obituary doesn’t quite tell the whole story of a man’s life and his contributions to society, and in this case, a baseball team. Oh sure, the stats are there, and the highlights, but in the case of Al Jackson, who we lost just days ago, his allegiance to the Mets organization for the better part of five decades was at least properly summarized in the team’s press release statement:

“It would be impossible to calculate the number of players and staff he touched and influenced during his career.”

Al Jackson likely wore a Mets uniform in the multiple capacities he served the organization literally since Day One longer than any other individual.

Talk about being Mr. Met, and we don’t mean the big head mascot variety.

Jackson was an Original Met, drafted as one of the original 22 players picked on Oct. 22, 1961. He pitched with the club from 1962-65, and later came back for the early days of the Miracle Mets season in 1969.

He became a pitching coach for Boston from 1977-79, not coincidentally under skipper Don Zimmer, who also was an Original Met, albeit for just over a month. Jackson served as Baltimore’s pitching coach from 1989-91, and later coached for Bobby Valentine’s Mets that went to the postseason in 1999-2000.

And all the while, anytime he was between official major league positions, Jackson would always return to the Mets and coach during spring training, or serve as a roving instructor, make personal appearances, and even the coach the aging wanna-bes during the various Mets fantasy camps through the years. He wore that Mets uniform in a lot of places for a lot of years.

Ask Ron Darling and he’ll tell you Jackson taught him the split finger fastball when the longtime pitcher/team broadcaster was a minor leaguer with the Tidewater Tides back in the early ‘80s.

Jackson long ago became a year-long resident near the team’s spring training complex in Port St. Lucie, where he passed away at the age of 83 after complications from a stroke suffered several years ago.

In a comment to the NY Post, longtime Met and teammate Ed Kranepool remembered Jackson as “a great athlete. He could throw strikes and was a very good competitor.”

Jackson was a friend to everyone from everywhere. One of those people you meet who instantly makes you feel like a lifelong friend. He was soft-spoken, with a lightly raspy voice, something akin to Jack Benny’s cohort, Rochester, for those who remember those comedic retorts.

“The Little Lefty,” as he was informally known – often described as such by broadcaster Bob Murphy, was from Waco, Texas. Signed by the Pirates as an amateur free agent in 1955 (this was before the formal June Free Agent Draft, you’ll recall) and made it to the big club in 1959 for just eight games. In 1960, as the Buccos were headed to a World Championship season, the 5’10” southpaw was mired in the minors, going 10-14 (3.06 ERA) in 35 games (29 starts) with eight complete games in Triple-A.

He had a cup of coffee again with Pittsburgh in ‘61 (three games), and at the end of the season he was exposed to the expansion draft.

The Mets paid $75,000 for the rights to Jackson, one of 16 players they shelled out that sum to acquire. They paid $125,000 for four players – Jay Hook, Bob L. Miller, Lee Walls, and Zimmer, and $50,000 each for two players – Sherman “Roadblock” Jones and Jim Hickman.

And then came that historically amazing and pathetic, infamous and inept, wonderfully lovable and laughable, 1962 season. The Mets set an MLB record with 120 losses in the first year baseball played 162. “We used to celebrate rainouts,” as Kranepool likes to say. If they had played those two games which were permanently postponed, perhaps the record would be worse, but boy, oh, boy, that was bad enough.

There were three starters who lost at least 20 games each for those woeful expansionists, Jackson among them. He went 8-20, 4.40 ERA, in 36 games, 33 starts, with 12 complete games and 1.392 WHIP, although nobody knew what a WHIP was, or cared, back then. That 4.40 ERA was the lowest of the starters, and his 231.1 innings on the mound were second only to Roger Craig.

Despite the losses, there were, however, moments. Jackson owns the team’s first ever shutout, against Philadelphia on April 29, 1962, and eventually claimed four shutouts that year, the only shutouts by a Met in ‘62. He also tossed the club’s first one-hitter, and in July, came just five outs from the team’s first no-hitter against the other expansion club, the Houston Colt 45s.

In August of ‘62, Jackson dueled the Phillies for 15 innings, and tossed 215 pitches, only to lose the game, 3-1, due to a fielding error by first baseman “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, who would never go on to win a Gold Glove, that’s for sure. In today’s game, that’s close to two weeks worth of pitching by any starter, and no manager would let his hurler get anywhere close to half that amount, but that was a different game back then.

Jackson was not a strikeout pitcher – just 738 in 1389.1 innings pitched, but he did have a respectable fastball – think Whitey Ford, or Ron Guidry, and again, it was a different game. It was a mortal sin if you struck out, so batters were much more conscious about putting the ball in play.

In ‘63, Jackson went 13-17, 3.96, 34 starts, 11 complete games, so that might not sound All-Star-ish, but then again, the team won just 51 games. Now here’s a stretch – If you look at it that Jackson won 25% of his team’s victories that year, could you make the comparison that it’s like a 25-game winner on a 100-win club? Allright, calm down, it’s a stretch, but not too outrageous, is it?

In ‘64, Jackson earned the first ever win by the club in their new home, Shea Stadium, on April 19, a complete game, 6-0 shutout over the team that first signed him, Pittsburgh. That Pirate lineup included three future Hall of Famers – Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Bill Mazeroski, and also featured a big strong first baseman who would later become a legend as a Met – Donn Clendenon.

On the last weekend of the ‘64 season, the Mets were in St. Louis against the team which would go on to win the World Series, and he was opposed by future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson. Jackson won that game, too, 1-0, another complete game shutout.

For his Mets career, which included a half-season stint in ‘69, Jackson went 43-80, 4.26, 184 games, 138 starts, 561 Ks in 980.2 innings, 1.363 WHIP.

After the ‘65 season, Jackson was traded to the Cardinals (guess that start against Gibson was quite memorable), along with third baseman Charley Smith, for third baseman Ken Boyer, as the Mets were in that era when they could never secure a long-term answer at the hot corner.

Now follow this line of transition: Boyer was a Met for a year and a half, and was then sent to the White Sox mid-1967 in a four-player transaction which netted catcher J.C. Martin. Two years later, Martin was a significant contributor on the Miracle Mets, so thank you, Al.

Jackson thought he was in a good position with the Cardinals to see World Series action in ‘67 as St. Louis was in the Fall Classic, but they chose to leave him off the postseason roster.

After the World Series, the Cards traded Jackson back to the Mets to complete a mid-season deal where they had acquired pitcher Jack Lamabe from New York.

Again Jackson missed a postseason berth, and even in ‘69, as the Mets were growing up, Cincinnati bought his contract from the Mets in June of that memorable year. The Reds released him the following spring, when Jackson hung ‘em up for good.

For his entire career, Jackson numbers are 67-99, 3.98, 303 games, 184 starts, 10 saves, 1.336. But as noted, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Rest in peace, Al, R.I.P.

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