Fifty Years Ago, Don Larsen was Perfect

Don Larsen could party with the best of them. Once, as a member of the New York Yankees, Don Larsen crashed his car into a light pole late at night. Manager Casey Stengel deadpanned that Don Larsen “must have been going out to mail a letter”. But on the evening of October 8th, 1956, Don Larsen had every reason to party. Earlier that day, Don Larsen pitched what is still the only perfect game in World Series history. This fall will mark fifty years since the event, one which famed New York Daily News sports columnist Dick Young described with this line- “the imperfect man pitched the perfect game”.

As a member of the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, a team that had just relocated after being the doormat St. Louis Browns for decades, Don Larsen went 3-21. This terrible season helps to explain his sub .500 lifetime 81-91 record. As part of a seventeen player blockbuster of a trade in November of 1954, Don Larsen came to the New York Yankees, partly because two of his three wins the year before were against New York. He promptly went 9-2 in 1955, but he pitched poorly in his one appearance in the 1955 World Series, as Brooklyn’s Dodgers finally defeated the Bronx Bombers in seven games. The right-hander then had his best campaign the following year, as he went 11-5 and gave up over forty fewer hits than innings pitched. Don Larsen still had control problems, walking 96 batters in 179 innings, but his ERA was a respectable 3.26 in 38 outings.

The Dodgers were once again the Yankees’ opponent in the Fall Classic, and their ace, Whitey Ford, started the opener. Ford was gone by the fourth inning however as Brooklyn scored five runs off the diminutive lefty, including homers by Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges. After the 6-3 Dodgers’ win, the Yankees sent Don Larsen to the hill the next day. Things looked rosy for Don Larsen and the Yankees as they zipped out to a 6-0 lead against Don Newcombe in the first two innings. But Don Larsen proceeded to issue four walks in just an inning and two-thirds. Although he allowed only one hit, Don Larsen got the quick hook from Stengel. The move backfired when the next four hurlers that Casey called upon were even worse than Don Larsen. The eventual 13-8 loss left the Yankees in quite a hole, down 2-0 to their rivals.

In what has been greatly unnoticed when his career is scrutinized, Ford came back with a gutty ,seven-strikeout complete game 5-3 win on three days rest when the Series shifted to the Bronx. Home runs by Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer helped propel Tom Sturdivant and New York to a 6-2 triumph in Game Four, so the stage was set for Don Larsen with the teams knotted at two games apiece. No one could possibly have predicted what was about to transpire. Don Larsen didn’t even know he would be pitching until he arrived at Yankee Stadium. “I was surprised that I even pitched that day. I didn’t find out that I was going to pitch until I got to the park. We still had Bob Turley and Johnny Kucks who could have pitched in that series.”

The first two batters were called out on strikes, with Pee Wee Reese striking out on a 3-2 pitch, the only time all day that Don Larsen had a three-ball count on a batter. In the second, with Don Larsen facing Jackie Robinson, the future Hall of Famer lined a ball towards third that was knocked down by Andy Carey and over to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out. With two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning, the fabulous Mickey Mantle, capping off his Triple Crown year with a World Series where he hit three homers, hit one on a line into the right field stands. Don Larsen, who was greatly responsible for not holding a 6-0 lead days earlier, now had a tenuous 1-0 edge.

Mantle’s heroics were not limited to his batting, as the fleet centerfielder then made a running backhanded stab of a Gil Hodges drive in the fifth inning. Mantle would later say it was the greatest catch he ever made, and as far as Don Larsen was concerned, it was. After six innings, Don Larsen had faced the minimum of 18 batters, with no hits or walks given up. A successful sacrifice bunt in the bottom of the sixth by Don Larsen helped set up an insurance run, and the clutch Bauer delivered it with a single for a 2-0 lead. A ground-out and a pair of routine fly balls were all the Dodgers could muster in the seventh, and now the whole stadium knew what was happening. Don Larsen was left alone in the dugout, as superstitious players did not want to hex him and ruin his perfect bid. “Nobody would talk to me; nobody would sit by me – like I had the plague. I don’t believe in that superstition stuff. You just do your best. Some of the guys didn’t want to say anything, afraid they’d put a jinx on it.”

As the eighth inning unfolded, the fans were on pins and needles. Robinson hit a come backer to Don Larsen for an out and then Hodges lined to third; it was his second hard hit ball for naught on the day. When Sandy Amoros flied to center, there were but three outs to go. Sal Maglie, who on any other day would have been lauded for his work as he gave up only five Yankee hits, struck out the side in the bottom of the frame to set up one of the most dramatic half-innings in baseball lore.

Carl Furillo flied out to right for the first out. Don Larsen retired Roy Campanella, another eventual Hall of Famer, on a grounder to Billy Martin at second for out number two. Pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell now strode to the plate. Mitchell would wind up as a .312 career hitter, and in almost 4,000 at-bats the left-hander batter would strike out a paltry 119 times. With the count 1-2, Don Larsen threw a pitch that appeared to be high and outside. Umpire Babe Pinelli, calling his final game behind the plate after a long career in the game, raised his hand to indicate strike three and as the perplexed Mitchell jawed at Pinelli, Don Larsen had his perfect game. Catcher Yogi Berra came out and leapt into Don Larsen’s arms as the Yankees celebrated. Berra had this take on Don Larsen that day. “Everything I put down he got over. His breaking ball was good and usually his breaking ball wasn’t that good. Hitters probably figured he had a good fastball and slider but his breaking ball was good that day. Anything he threw went over the plate.” Mitchell went to his grave saying that the ball was not a strike. Umpire Pinelli reportedly went to the umpires’ room after the game and wept.

The box score would show all zeroes where it mattered for Don Larsen that day, except for his seven strikeouts. A Jackie Robinson line drive that Enos Slaughter misplayed in left would beat New York and “Bullet” Bob Turley in ten innings, 1-0, a day later, forcing a seventh game once again between these two teams. The Yankees bombed Newcombe once more however, and Johnny Kucks tossed a complete game three-hitter as New York routed Brooklyn 9-0 behind homers from Berra, Moose Skowron, and Elston Howard. Including Don Larsen’s perfect game, the Dodgers managed only seven hits in those last three contests.

Don Larsen would have a couple more good years as a Yankee, including a much overlooked 4-0 shutout in Game Three of the 1958 World Series. He was then sent to the Kansas City A’s and kicked around with several teams before he left the game in 1967 at the age of 37. Incredibly enough, Don Larsen threw out the ceremonial first pitch in a July 18th, 1999 Yankees’ game; it was “Yogi Berra Day”. David Cone then went out and pitched a perfect game against the Montreal Expos. David Wells had thrown his own perfect gem a year earlier for New York. While Don Larsen was not present for the game, he had attended the same high school as Wells had, years earlier in San Diego.

Before he retired, as a reliever with the Giant in 1962, Don Larsen won Game Four of the World Series against the Yankees. Earlier, he had been the winning pitcher in relief in the deciding third game of a three game playoff for the National League pennant. The team he had beaten was the Dodgers.

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