By Carey Reeder
Special to The Tuscaloosa News
Last names in Tuscaloosa are famous for years. Bryant. Namath. Saban. But one name stands alone and is recognized by many as the winningest sports family in Alabama.
The story begins at the turn of the 20th century on a peach farm in Northport. The story ends with seven boys, 20 athletic letters, three major league pitchers and one lasting legacy.
Joseph Milton Lary, better known as “Mitt,” was a peach farmer in Northport who was also a great semi-pro baseball talent, who earned interest from both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
He was promised a tryout for both teams.
As much as Lary loved baseball, however, he valued service to his country more – a common theme for the Lary family. When World War I broke out he enlisted before his tryout and served in Germany as a machine gunner.
When Mitt returned to the U.S., he met his wife in New York and moved back to Northport and his farm to start a family. They raised seven boys; Joe Jr., Frank, Al, Gene, Ed, James and Raymond.
“When the boys weren’t doing their farm chores, he (Mitt) would have them play baseball,” said Joe Lary III, Mitt Lary’s grandson. “He loved sports and my grandmother did, too.”
With seven sons, it made sense for Mitt Lary to make a baseball diamond in the front yard of the farmhouse. School days for the Lary boys consisted of catching the bus for Tuscaloosa County High in the morning, doing farm chores after school and playing baseball the rest of the afternoon. Mitt stood stoically on the front porch, instructing his sons how to pitch and instilling the knowledge of America’s pastime into his sons.
“All of us Lary’s are extremely competitive,” Joe Lary III said. “Being on the farm and doing those tasks and having brothers to play sports against, I think is where that was sparked.”
Six of the seven boys followed in their father’s footsteps and perfected their craft as pitchers. With a family full of pitchers, someone had to be a catcher and James was the designated catcher in the family. An all-state tuba player and a veteran who served in Italy during World War II, James helped five of his brothers – Joe Jr., Al, Ed, Frank and Gene – earn athletic scholarships to the University of Alabama.
From the moment the Lary boys stepped on campus, the impact was immediate. Joe Jr. was the first to attend UA, earning two letters in baseball and helping Alabama win the 1947 SEC championship.
Soon after, Frank, Al, Ed and Gene arrived at UA. Frank and Al helped the 1950 team to the SEC championship and secured a spot in the university’s first college world series.
Ed and Al were the only two brothers who also played football at Alabama. They played for coach Harold Drew. Both receivers, Al and Ed combined for five touchdown catches in a 53-0 win against Southern Mississippi on Nov. 11, 1950. Al became a first-team All-SEC and All-American selection in 1950 and held almost every pass receiving record at Alabama during his time on campus. Al was named the top all-round athlete at Alabama in 1950 and also earned a spot on the Alabama all-century football team. Ten varsity letters in baseball and football were earned between the two brothers.
“They both were great athletes,” Joe Lary III said. “They loved all sports but those two loved football, too, just as much as baseball.”
Gene was the last of the Lary boys to attend UA, but the performance level did not dip. Gene earned four letters in baseball and helped lead Alabama to the 1955 SEC championship. He was also named to the Alabama all-century team, joining his brothers Frank and Al.
The brothers completed their college athletic years just how they started, together. Joe Jr., Ed, Al and Frank all played on the Tuscaloosa Indians semi-professional baseball team before the professional ranks came calling.
While the Lary boys loved the field of play, they never missed an opportunity to serve their country honorably. Joe Jr. Raymond and Ed all served in the U.S Navy in World War II. Frank was a member of the National Guard and Al served in Korea. Al earned perhaps the best war-time orders of any of the Lary boys, being Marilyn Monroe’s personal escort during her trips to Korea.
As professional athletes, Frank led the way for the Lary boys. Although Al and Gene played in the major leagues as well, there was only one “Yankee killer,” and that was Frank. During his time with Detroit Tigers from 1955-1961, Frank beat the Yankees 21 times and at one point won 14 of 15 games against New York.
“He had this nice apartment in downtown Detroit and Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Roger Maris would come to his house and hang out the night before games,” Joe Lary III said laughing. “Then he would go out there and strike them out the next day.”
Frank earned three American League All-Star selections and is viewed by many baseball historians as one of the top 500 major league players of all time.
Northport and Tuscaloosa always served as a huge place for the Lary family and after their playing careers most returned to their roots.
Frank Lary opened a Phillips 66 filling station and was involved in the Tuscaloosa County Commission until his retirement in 1990. Gene opened a trophy shop in Northport on Lurleen Wallace Blvd. which is still open today and run by Gene’s daughters. Joe Jr. was a baseball coach and teacher at Holt High School and also opened a radio repair shop. Al was also a school teacher for many years and opened a carpet cleaning business.
After Frank’s passing in December 2017, the last of the original Lary boys, the legacy the Lary family built is still strong in Tuscaloosa. Mitt Lary Road in Northport connects Highways 43 and 69 and is where the family farm still sits. Frank Lary Road, Lary Lake Road and Lary Cutoff Road are named after Frank Lary and have traffic flow every day in Northport.
The Lary family’s accomplishments and service to their country and community will be remembered forever. The famous line from the 1993 film “The Sandlot” said it best, and for the Lary family, they lived it every day.
“Heroes get remembered; but legends never die.”
deaconblues likes this