Tuesday, June 25, 2013

#562 - Jack Aker

Jack Aker gets his final card in a Cubs uniform at Candlestick even though well before this card came out he’d moved on to Atlanta. Jack looks pretty stoic even though his ’73 numbers represented a discount to his ’72 ones, which were quite good. ’73 started equally as well and by early June Jack was 2-4 with ten saves and a 2.16 ERA. But the rest of the way as Chicago’s fortunes faded he was 2-1 with only two saves and a 6.23 ERA. In those 28 games of his the Cubbies were 5-23 so it is pretty understandable that the team placed him on waivers after the season. Jack had been toting around a bad back for a few years by then and it was supposedly aggravated in a May fight with Bobby Bonds of the Giants. Jack looks like good manager material in this shot and that is exactly what he would be in a couple seasons so even though he’s near the end of his pitching career, he still had a lot of baseball left.

Jack Aker’s family had come to California as Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl in the early Thirties. His dad then supported the family as basically a premium migrant worker in cotton fields (which he continued to do through 1990, when he was 85). Jack went to Mount Whitney High in Visalia where he was an all-area halfback and pitcher/outfielder. Graduating in ’58 he then went to nearby College of the Sequoias (James Wohlford from this set went there as well) where he continued his dual role for a year until he was signed by Kansas City for a pretty fat bonus. The A’s were looking for a speedy outfielder and in D ball that summer Jack led his league with 21 stolen bases but after hitting only .208 with zero power it was decided to move him to the mound. He pitched his first season for a C team back home in Visalia and went 8-14 with a 4.47 ERA in the rotation. He improved to 13-12 in B ball the next year and then was 12-14 in Double A in ’62 but he kept the high ERA’s. Jack was a side-armed curveballer who tended to give up a few too many homers. But in ’63 he went a combined 10-4 with a 2.32 ERA after being moved to the pen in a season split between A and Triple A ball (he pitched well at both levels). He then spent nearly all of ’64 in Triple A going 3-4 with a 2.63 ERA, most of that after a May stint in KC that didn’t go too well. Then after a ’65 start in Triple A that produced a 6-3 record and a 1.36 ERA in 35 games he was pulled back to Kansas City in late July for good.

Aker’s late stint for the A’s in ’65 began well enough, then got ugly, and then settled down in September to produce numbers that included three saves and a pretty good ERA. In ’66 Jack ramped things up condiderably when his excellent record and ERA were joined by MLB-leading 57 games finished and 32 saves to win that year’s Fireman of the Year award. He also became the team rep late that season in a role that would haunt his relationship with the team going forward. His pitching didn’t help either. After getting a big bonus for his ’66 season Jack pretty much reversed his numbers in ’67 and got knocked around pretty good in a brawl against Detroit. Player rep-wise he was involved in a couple big incidents. In July after pitcher Lew Krausse was fined by owner Charlie O Finley for “conduct unbecoming to baseball” (the players were told it was because Krausse drank too much on a flight; not until years later was it revealed that he also emptied a six shooter in a hotel across the street after a bad game), the players demanded a meeting with Finley that he agreed to have. It went for over eleven hours in part because Jack didn’t show up for the 7:00 pm meeting until 2:30 am since he was out on the town. Finley claimed that Jack said at the meeting that then-manager Al Dark knew of a letter the players had written calling Finley abusive (Jack pretty quickly denied that). After the meeting Dark was fired; first baseman Ken Harrelson – apparently calling Finley a “menace to baseball” – was cut; and Krausse demanded to be traded. Jack hooked up with Marvin Miller and – pushed by AL president Joe Cronin – they had a meeting with Charley O at which most things were ironed out. That didn’t stop both Jack and ’66 phenom Jim Nash from echoing Krausse’s sentiments in late September to be traded away also. But Jack was back in ’68 for another not-great season – he would get eleven saves that year after his twelve in ’67 – and another brawl with Detroit. It was the team’s first year in Oakland and Jack would be on the move again after the season, going to the new Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft.

Aker got the first-ever save in Pilots history in ’69 but not too much else went right in Seattle or that season until a May trade for pitcher Fred Talbot took him to the Yankees. For NY Jack’s season turned completely around as he put up numbers reminiscent of his big ’66 season, including eleven saves (he had 14 total that year). He then matched his NY ERA in ’70 with another great record and 16 saves. In ’71 he posted another excellent ERA though his innings came in as he shared closer time with Lindy McDaniel, recording only four saves. Then in ’72 after his innings continued to decline – only four games through mid-May – he was sent to the Cubs as the player to be named later in the deal that got the Yankees Johnny Callison. As with NY in ’69 Jack had a big revival in Chicago, taking over as closer, and recording 17 saves the rest of the way. After his poor finish to the ’73 season he was placed on waivers and immediately claimed by Atlanta. His stay there was sort of inconclusive – 0-1 with zero saves in 17 games and a 3.78 ERA – and in June he was sold to the Mets to replace Craig Swan, a rookie who was injured. Jack threw pretty well for the Mets the rest of the way, posting a 2-1 record with a 3.48 ERA and two saves in 24 games. But his back was a mess and he spent two weeks on the DL toward the end of the season. He was released as a player that winter and finished his career with a 47-45 record, 3.28 ERA, and 123 saves in his 495 games. He wasn’t much of a hitter so good call those years back by Kansas City.

Despite the late ’74 release, the Mets were big fans of Aker and beginning in ’75 - of course in Visalia - he spent the next eight seasons as a manager in the NY system, twice winning his league’s manager of the year award. He moved to the Cleveland system as a coach in ’83 and then resumed managing in ’84 and ’85. That second season he was called up to Cleveland to be its pitching coach after the staff was pretty much overhauled that summer. He stuck with the Tribe through part of the ’87 season when another overhaul cleared the deck and Jack was reassigned as a director of player development and scout. He did that through ’88 and then founded his own baseball academy in Arizona, which he ran for about twenty years. About a third of the way through that run he also began going to various Native American reservations in the area and the Northwest where he volunteered to teach the kids ball which he continued doing until pretty recently. He is now mostly retired and apparently living in New Jersey. His record as manager was quite good at 706-674.

Jack’s second star bullet is more qualitative than quantitative. He and McDaniel both had four saves to lead the team – scary – but Lindy closed more games. Jack did  have a better ERA by about two-and-a-half runs. That cartoon would be pretty sensitive these days; Jack was mostly Native American himself, hence the nickname. Looking through his cards there is not one on which he has even the hint of a smile though the couple comments on the Ultimate Mets Database site by his former players indicate he was a great manager. In “Ball Four” the most high-profile mention of Jack by Jim Bouton is that Jack had taken to using chewing tobacco shortly before his Pilots season but was so unschooled in managing it that he always had brown stains on his uniform.

These guys played together and I am going to go out on a limb and say Jack’s half season was enough:

1. Aker and Ed Kranepool ’74 Mets.

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