The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 31-40
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 27: RHP LARRY JACKSON
Anheuser-Busch rescued the Cardinals from a southward migration to Houston when previous owner Fred Saigh, facing federal tax-evasion charges, was forced to sell in 1953.
But the brewery was being more than just a good corporate citizen. Baseball showman Bill Veeck had sold his beleaguered Browns to Baltimore, making St. Louis a one-team town for the first time in more than a half century.
Gussie Busch, the Big Eagle himself, invested both the family name and a significant amount of capital on Sportsman’s Park, and expected a winner sooner than later. It had been seven years since the Cardinals won a pennant and would be 11 more until they won another. True to his nature — be it as a second-generation business executive or a strong-willed German — Busch rifled through five managers and three general managers over the next eight years.
Stan Musial and Ken Boyer were the only well-known mainstays through those lean years. A third, right-handed pitcher Larry Jackson, is far less familiar to even the most ardent St. Louis baseball fans, despite being one of the most respected pitchers of his day.
Had Jackson began his career 10 years earlier with the war-era Swifties or a decade later with the El Birdos, perhaps the associated championships would have made him more memorable. As it is, Jackson labored through eight seasons during which the Redbirds never got any closer to first place than eight games back. His 194 career victories are the most ever by a right-hander who never pitched in a World Series.
Warren Corbett, a biographer for the Society of American Baseball Researchers (SABR), boiled down Jackson’s career and the reasons for his relative anonymity to a single word: “Almost.”
“In baseball’s major leagues, he won almost 200 games, almost pitched a perfect game and almost won a Cy Young Award,” Corbett wrote.
Jackson was, however, the first player from Idaho ever to play in an All-Star Game, something he’d eventually do four times. So proud was his home state that Gov. Robert E. Smylie sent each member of the National League team a sack of potatoes.
By conventional metrics, Jackson’s statistical line doesn’t leap off the page, though he finished regularly in the National League’s Top 10 in wins, ERA, strikeouts and complete games. He gave St. Louis six seasons of double-digit victories, including 18 in 1960, the same year he led the National League with 282 innings pitched, and 16 in 1962, his final year with the Cardinals.
Those are fine totals in any era, but not great.
More advanced analytics, however, remove Jackson from the context of the mediocre teams on which he played and compare him directly to his pitching peers. From that, the profile of a more dominating competitor emerges.
Sabermetrically, Jackson’s best season was 1959, when he posted a pedestrian 14-13 record with a solid 3.30 ERA. He led the National League in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which suggests that, with an average major league defense behind him, his ERA would have been 2.87. Jackson also led all big-league pitchers that season at 7.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which topped the likes of Don Drysdale, Warren Spahn and Cy Young Award winner Early Wynn.
As a rule of thumb, Fangraphs considers WAR of 4.0 or better worthy of an All-Star selection — Jackson topped that standard six times in his career. WAR of 6.0 or better is MVP quality, so explains Fangraphs — Jackson reached that benchmark twice.
His career WAR of 52.5 ranks 90th all time and 68th among right-handers, better than several Hall of Famers.
By 1960, Busch and the brewery finally began to see evidence of an emerging champion. Younger pitchers like Bob Gibson, Ray Washburn and Ray Sadecki came into their own and led St. Louis to 93 wins in 1963. No longer the staff ace at 31, Jackson was traded to the Chicago Cubs. In 1964, he won 24 games and finished second in the Cy Young balloting — the Cardinals won the World Series.
Jackson retired four years later, having averaged 225 innings pitched over a 14-year career. He eventually entered into a life of politics, serving four terms as a member of the Idaho House of Representatives and launching one failed bid to become the state’s governor.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1955-1962
101-86 with Cardinals | 3.67 ERA | 3x All-Star | 28.5 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.86