Monday, October 09, 2006

Don Larsen: Baseball Legend

Reprinted with permission from

This year’s postseason marks the 50th anniversary of the only perfect game ever thrown in a World Series

Larsen's connection to Chicago is that he pitched for both the White Sox and Cubs, as well as the Yankees and other teams. His years in the Windy City are described in a little more detail in one of the Saturday postings below the present essay.

Don Larsen never became a consistent winning pitcher in the major leagues. He never won more than 11 games in any year. He once lost 21 games in a single season. But 50 years ago today, on Oct. 8, 1956, the New York Yankee hurler thrilled—and amazed—the baseball world. He pitched a perfect game in the World Series.

The 1956 Series between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers was tied at two games apiece. Larsen got the call to start the pivotal Game 5 in Yankee Stadium. He pitched magnificently and came to the mound in the ninth inning trying to protect a 2-0 Yankee lead and a no-hitter. And he did it, perfectly, walking off the mound a legend in his time. A perfect game—27 batters up and 27 batters down. No Dodger had reached base on a hit, a walk, an error, or any other way. The game also ranked as the only no-hitter in major league postseason play. It sparked the Yankees to victory in the Series in seven games. Larsen was named the Series’ Most Valuable Player.

Larsen’s career in the major leagues spanned 14 years. After his masterpiece, Larsen achieved little further success on the diamond. He ended his career in the majors with 81 wins and 91 losses. But then, there’s that perfect game. Because it occurred at the highest level of baseball competition—the World Series—experts still rate it among baseball’s greatest games.

Don James Larsen was born on Aug. 7, 1929, in Michigan City, Indiana. He grew up in San Diego, California, and began his professional baseball career with the St. Louis Browns. Larsen made his major league debut with the Browns on April 18, 1953. A big right-hander, Larsen stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed about 225 pounds. In 1954, the Browns became the Baltimore Orioles. The 1954 season was disastrous for Larsen. He won 3 games and lost 21, leading the American League in losses. After the season, the Orioles traded Larsen to the New York Yankees in a multiplayer deal.

The 1956 Fall Classic renewed the crosstown rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Yankees had beaten the Dodgers in the World Series in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953. The Dodgers had defeated the Yankees in 1955 and reigned as defending world champs.

The 27-year-old Larsen entered the 1956 Series with a regular season record of 11 wins and 5 losses, the best of his career. The Dodgers won Game 1 of the Series 6-3. Yankee manager Casey Stengel named Larsen to pitch Game 2. Larsen pitched poorly, walking four men and giving up four runs in 1 2/3 innings. The Dodgers won 13-8.

The Yankees beat Brooklyn 5-3 in Game 3 and 6-2 in Game 4. With the series tied, Stengel chose Larsen to pitch Game 5. “I threw mostly fastballs, with some sliders and a few curves,” Larsen later recalled in an interview with Baseball Digest magazine. “I never had such good control in my life…. Five of my seven strikeouts were called third strikes. I was throwing the ball right on the back of the plate.”

In fact, Larsen’s control was so good that he reached a ball-three count on only one Dodger, shortstop Pee Wee Reese in the first inning. In addition, only a few batted balls came close to being hits. The first one occurred in the second inning when Dodger second baseman Jackie Robinson smashed a grounder that bounced off the glove of third baseman Andy Carey. Luckily, however, the ball ricocheted right to shortstop Gil McDougald, who snagged it and threw out Robinson at first. In the fourth inning, center fielder Duke Snider blasted a ball with home-run distance, but it went foul.

In the fifth inning, Dodger first baseman Gil Hodges launched a ball deep into left center field that looked certain to fall for extra bases. But speedy Yankee center fielder Mickey Mantle, racing with his back to the infield, made an outstretched, over-the-shoulder, backhanded catch. Yankee fans cheered wildly. But their relief was short-lived.

The next batter, left fielder Sandy Amoros, crushed a ball with home-run potential to right. The ball, however, curved at the last moment and landed foul by about a foot. In the eighth inning, Hodges got robbed again when he hit a low infield liner. Carey stabbed it inches off the ground. But the catch was so close to the ground that Carey threw to first to erase any doubt.

The Yankees led 2-0 as they took the field in the ninth inning. Mantle had hit a solo homer in the fourth, and right fielder Hank Bauer had driven in Carey with a single in the sixth. The big righty knew he was pitching a no-hitter. As the game progressed, he had noticed his teammates and coaches moving away from him in the dugout and not speaking to him. Larsen later told Michael Aubrecht in an essay for Baseball Almanac that “nobody would sit by me, nobody would talk to me—like I had the plague.”

Larsen understood they were observing a baseball superstition demanding that no one talk to, or about, a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. However, Larsen didn’t believe in the superstition. After the seventh inning, he approached Mantle and suggested the possibility of a no-hitter. Mantle refused to say anything and walked away from Larsen. It was classic baseball.

A deafening roar of applause and screaming welcomed Larsen as he walked to the mound in the ninth inning. Right-fielder Carl Furillo led off the inning. In The Perfect Yankee, a book Larsen wrote about the game with Mark Shaw, Larsen admitted he was “a nervous wreck…with sweaty palms.” He also wrote: “Throw strikes,” I reminded myself, “throw strikes. But my brain was buzzing so much, and my arms felt heavy, and I wasn’t certain whether I’d throw the first pitch five feet short of home plate or five feet over Furillo’s head.” Furillo fouled off Larsen’s first two pitches. Then he took a ball and fouled off the following two offerings. Finally, he lifted a routine fly to Bauer in right. Next, Roy Campanella, the National League’s top hitting catcher, stepped up. He smashed Larsen’s first pitch foul to left. He then poked an easy grounder to second baseman Billy Martin for the second out.

Dodger pitcher Sal Maglie was due up, but Dale Mitchell came in to pinch-hit. Mitchell, like most of the Dodgers, possessed impressive batting credentials. In 1949, with the Cleveland Indians, he led the American League in hits with 203. In about 4,000 career at bats, he had struck out only 119 times and carried a lifetime batting average of .312. In his book Perfect, James Buckley Jr. describes Larsen’s recollection of his feelings when he faced Mitchell: “I was so weak in the knees out there, I thought I was going to faint. I was so nervous, I almost fell down. My legs felt rubbery, and my fingers didn’t feel like they were on my hand. I said to myself, ‘Please help me out, somebody.’”

Larsen’s first pitch to Mitchell was a ball. The next two were strikes, the first called and the second swinging. Mitchell fouled off the fourth pitch. Then Larsen launched his 97th pitch of the game. Mitchell thought it was wide and made a half swing before holding up. Plate umpire Babe Pinelli called it strike three.

The moment, as the more than 61,000 fans in attendance would say, was magical. The only no-hitter in major league postseason play. The only perfect game in World Series history. Don Larsen had become a baseball immortal.

For further information on Larsen's World Series perfect game:
Box score and photo of ticket stub
Play-by-play sheet
Link to listen to radio broadcast (see under inning-by-inning line score)

Reprinted with permission from

No comments: