Jack Armstrong, the Once and Never-Again All Star
In the 1930s and ’40s, Jack Armstrong was The All-American Boy. His adventures spanned radio, comic books, a film serial, and ultimately the TV cartoon Jonny Quest. This was all before my time….
I am Jason Miller, Books on Baseball contributing writer. Stay with me as I weave a sometimes circuitous story of how I came to learn about Jack Armstrong, his many incarnations, and his indelible connection to baseball.
However, from a very young age, I started associating Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, with baseball. When I was nearly six years old and about to become a big brother for the first time, I was given a copy of the June 1979 Baseball Digest as a you’re-a-big-boy-today reward. Steve Garvey was on the cover. This ill-advised purchase began a lifelong addiction to Baseball Digest.
I was still a bit young at the time for Baseball Digest’s prose style, and was confused by the comparison of Steve Garvey to Frank Meriwell and Jack Armstrong. Who were these people? The irony of those two lead paragraphs, including the sentence:
Steve Garvey is real, a slugging first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers who matches the image of any All-American Boy and tosses fear into opposing and teams.
would not become obvious until many years later. But, in my mind, the association between Jack Armstrong and baseball was forever cemented.
Imagine my delight, a decade later, when I learned that Jack Armstrong, a real life Jack Armstrong, was pitching for the surging Cincinnati Reds, and was going to start the All-Star Game. Who was this guy? With a name like Jack Armstrong he had to be a star, right?
To everyone’s surprise, Armstrong had a great first three months of 1990. Sure, in 1988 and ‘89 he was really not on anybody’s radar outside of the Queen City. Even as a first-round draft pick he’d gone a combined 6-10 in his first two seasons with the Reds, and had an unimpressive strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 1:1.
Entering the ‘90 All-Star Break, though, Armstrong was 11-3 with a 2.28 ERA for a team that was dominating their division and would go on to even bigger things in a Red October. Jack’s ERA was below 2.00 as late as June 19th. He had much better control than before, rarely walking more than three men in a game and picking up several seven-or-more strikeout outings.
On May 3, 1990, Armstrong shut out the Mets for 7 2/3 innings [http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1990/B05030NYN1990.htm]], helped out by a pair of home runs from the mighty Joe Oliver. This performance drew the attention of even the New York media and led to the following myth-making comparison in the following day’s Bergen County Record:
OK, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Born in Englewood and a star at Neptune High School who went on to pitch at Rider College and the University of Oklahoma, 6-foot-5, 220-pound Cincinnati right-hander Jack Armstrong fulfills the qualifications for the obvious nickname, All-American Boy, like the fictional character of the same name.
Armstrong pitched very well in the actual All-Star Game. He went two shutout innings, giving up only a single to Wade Boggs, for which he could hardly be blamed. He even struck out both Jose Canseco andMark McGwire, a poetic example of All-American Boy guile defying the notion of better living through chemistry. Later on, teammates Randy Myers and Rob Dibble would each hurl a shutout inning, in a game the Senior Circuit eventually lost 2-0.
Armstrong’s performance, however, was overshadowed by CBS announcer Jack Buck, who inexplicably sang a few bars of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” during the game. MLB Network occasionally re-airs this Midsummer Classic as part of its “All-Time Games” block, and Buck’s crooning never fails to amuse me.
That was the end of the line for Jack Armstrong. He went just 1-6 in the second half of 1990, his one win costing him 116 pitches across 6 innings (including two wild pitches, and plunking the non-threatening Rex Hudler with a pitched ball). He didn’t start a game after August 24th and pitched just once, in relief, in the World Series.
Bouncing down the standings from Cincinnati to Cleveland to the expansion Florida Marlins, Jack lost 45 games over the next 3 seasons. His career was wiped out by a rotator cuff injury, with his last appearance coming in April 1994 He would never duplicate those three months in early 1990, and his lone All-Star appearance was merited only by the fact that those three months came before the break rather than after.
But fear not: there is a Jack Armstrong, Jr. There is still the hope that another Jack Armstrong will start an All-Star Game and keep those All-American exploits alive.
See the latter-day Jack Armstrong do a back flip