Remembering Three Great Athletes (and the Way Sports Used To Be)

May was a poignant month for those of us who were avid Detroit sports fans in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Three of our heroes passed on within two weeks of each other: five-time All-NFL and Hall of Famer Yale Lary; his teammate, three-time All-NFL player Wayne Walker; and Detroit Tigers Hall-of-Famer Jim Bunning.

For those of you not familiar with their accomplishments, let me share a few with you, and weave into the narrative a few vignettes that show how different the world of professional sports was then.

Yale Lary played safety for the Lions for 11 years during the Alex Karras era when the Lions had the most dominant defense in the NFL. During his first two seasons, he played minor league baseball in the summer. Then his sports career was interrupted when he served two years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. During the latter part of his NFL career, when it was still common for players to hold off-season jobs in order to earn more income, he held office in the Texas state legislature. (After retiring, he went into private business instead of politics.)

On the field, Lary had 50 interceptions in his career (a figure that surely would have been higher if not for his military service)—enough to rank fifth all time at the time of his retirement. He also handled the punting and kick return duties. Younger football fans may not know that there weren’t always kicking specialists in the NFL. Lary, however, was good enough to be a punter in the NFL even today. Three times he led the NFL in punting and when he retired, his career average of 44.3 yards was second all-time. His hang time was so great that in one season the average return of his punts was a single yard. Lary played in nine Pro Bowls.

Wayne Walker led the Lions in scoring in three seasons and once was named the Lions’ defensive player of the year (no small feat when he shared the field with multiple Hall-of-Fame defenders). Walker played linebacker. So how did he lead the team in scoring? He also was the placekicker. Like Lary, Walker wore more than one hat for the Lions. Three times voted first-team All-NFL (what they call “All Pro” today), Walker’s teammates were shocked that he never was elected to the Hall of Fame.

U.S. Senator Jim Bunning, who attended Xavier University on a basketball scholarship and later became the only baseball Hall-of-Famer to serve in Congress, was a tall, slender, red-headed right-handed pitcher. His accomplishments on the diamond were sterling: Over 100 victories and a no-hitter (one of them being one of 23 perfect games in MLB history) in each league; the American League’s starting pitcher in three All-Star games; retiring second only to the immortal Walter Johnson in career strikeouts.

Bunning was one of three starting pitchers who, in the absence of a reliable fourth starter and a decent bullpen, but with the help of sluggers Al Kaline, Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash, kept the Tigers respectable at a time when the Yankees dominated the American League. The other two were Frank Lary (no relation to Yale Lary) and the cagey southpaw, Don Mossi.

Frank “Taters” Lary was the ace, known as “the Yankee killer,” since he was the only one to consistently tame the powerful Yankee bats of Mantle, Berra, and crew. Frank Lary was used frequently as a pinch runner. Can you imagine the Dodgers sending Clayton Kershaw out to run for somebody today? Not a chance. In the ‘60s, even star players were expected to help their team any way they could; today, in the era of mega-contracts and specialization, such double-duty is inconceivable.

As for Don Mossi, I actually met him when I was a boy. My Pop knew George Kell, the Hall of Fame third-baseman who handled TV broadcasts for decades after his playing career, and George took us to the door of the Tigers’ clubhouse and went in to see who he could bring outside to greet us. The next thing I knew, there was Don Mossi, his jersey completely unbuttoned and exposing his undershirt, smoking a cigarette. How’s that for a sign of the times? Mossi was a friendly, gracious man, most famous for his unusual facial hair. I think he held the world’s record for heaviest beard. I’m sure that if he shaved at 7:00 a.m. he would have a 5 o’clock shadow by 8:00. I think he could have grown a short beard over a weekend. Amazing!

Major league sports has a great capacity to touch our lives and give us memories that last a lifetime. Yale Lary, Wayne Walker, and Jim Bunning were all in their 80s at the time of their passing last month. All three were solid citizens who led productive lives after the conclusion of their sports careers. Even though it has been decades since they starred for my hometown teams, I have vivid and happy memories of all three of them.  Thank you, gentlemen. RIP.