Don Larsen, 90 Gained Immortality at 27 on 10-8-1956

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Hi all. Here’s how I see baseball on this Thursday, January 2. Two days ago, I found out that Don Larsen had been put in hospice. Shortly after 9 last night, I was informed the oldest living man to pitch a perfect game had passed away at age 90.

At 2 PM on Oct. 8, 1956, Don James Larsen was a man who was about to be shown great trust by his manager. He had been beaten 13-8 in game 2 of the World Series by the Brooklyn Dodgers and hadn’t survived the second inning though his hitters had given him a 6–0 lead. This loss put his team down 2 games to None. Since then, the Yankees had taken games 3 and 4. In the hysteria of modern social media, a manager who would send out the likes of Don Larsen for game 5 would be second-guessed before the first pitch. Just 2 seasons before, Larsen had lost 21 games during the Orioles’ first year in Baltimore after moving from St. Louis. He had then been second banana in a trade to the Yankees where the main player was Bullet Bob Turley, a much more highly touted pitcher than Larsen. For what it was worth, the 1956 season had been, and would be his best, with an 11-5 record. Nothing in any record book could prepare the world for what was about to happen that day at Yankee Stadium.

Larsen went into battle against Sal Maglie, “The Barber,” the starter of the game in 1951 where Bobby Thomson hit baseball’s most famous home run. The two principle broadcasters for the combatants-Mel Allen of the Yankees and Vin Scully of the Dodgers-were broadcasting the game on TV and were mainly seen in black and white. On radio, the sponsor selected the Indians’ Bob Neal to work alongside Bob Wolf of the Senators. Wolf, along with Allen and Scully would win a Ford C. Frick award. More significantly, when you see an ad where a video of the game’s climactic play is shown, Wolf’s voice is heard in the background.

The first challenge to Larsen was a vicious liner off the bat of Jackie Robinson in the second inning. As Mel Allen described it on TV, it ricocheted off the glove of third baseman Andy Carey and bounced to shortstop Gil McDougald. He scooped it and threw to first to retire Robinson. In the top of the 4th, it appeared Duke Snider might have Larsen’s number. The Duke of Flatbush drilled a shot toward the short porch in right, all of 296 feet away … but just foul. When the 64,000 in attendance started breathing again, Larsen struck out the Duke. At the time, 12 Dodgers had come up, 12 had gone down, 5 by strikeouts as Bob Neal made clear on the radio. When Mickey Mantle came up in the home 4th, he was the Yankees’ 12th batter to come up. Before Mantle, all 11 had gone down against Maglie. Mantle took the wily veteran over the right field fence. The next batter, Yogi Berra hit a shot into the gap in left center in a bid to extend the rally. Two factors went against Berra. One was Death Valley, the 457-foot distance in left center at the House that Ruth Built. The other factor was Duke Snider, one of the game’s best center fielders who made a diving catch on Berra’s bid for an extra-base knock.

The Dodgers made their next bid in their half of the fifth. Gil Hodges drove one to the same gap where Berra’s long drive had gone. On two hurting legs, Mantle ran the marathon distance and made a running backhand catch which broadcaster Bob Neal called “sheer robbery” on the radio. If a fan were on twitter or Facebook, he might have written “Larsen needs to go. He’s not fooling anybody.” But as the game was played then, both pitchers continued.

Inning by inning Larsen grew stronger and more dominant. Instead of striking hitters out, he was forcing them to hit his pitches, “getting themselves out” as pitchers say. Meantime, Maglie gave up the Yankees’ second hit, a single to center by Andy Carey in the home 6th. Larsen sacrificed Carey to second, a common play more than 60 years ago but a forgotten art now. The next hitter, Hank Bauer singled to left, and when Sandy Amoros fumbled the ball, Carey scored. It would be the game’s last run and double what the Yankees would need.

Through the first 6 innings, the only surviving recording is distorted and difficult to listen to. We can only guess that as the 7th began, some studio engineer with good recording equipment started a tape rolling and this recording has survived the years in much better condition. Through 8 innings, Sal Maglie faced all of 29 batters, allowing 2 runs on 5 hits. As the 9th started, Larsen had seen 24 come up and sent them all down.

Carl Furillo led off the 9th. He put up a battle, fouling off several pitches before flying to Hank Bauer just shy of the warning track in right. Roy Campanella grounded out to Billy Martin at second. That left it to pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell, a career .312 hitter who had hit a World Series home run 8 years earlier with the Cleveland Indians. The Dodgers had gotten him from Cleveland late in the season, and at 35 this was his final year in the game. He struck out all of 119 times in 11 years, a number today’s hitters can reach by the All-Star break. But tough as he was to strike out, Larsen managed it. Mitchell was his 7th strikeout victim, his 27th out retired and his ticket to baseball immortality. It took him 97 pitches to get there from nowhere at all. The picture of Yogi Berra and his pitcher beginning what would be called a “dog pile” today has been seen more times than can be counted.

Larsen claimed the MVP award for the 1956 World Series and collected another World Series ring 2 years later as the Yankees took down the Braves in 7 games. After stops in Kansas City and Chicago, Larsen found himself in San Francisco in 1962, and in another World Series. He had won 5 and saved 11 out of the Giants’ bull pen. Relieving Juan Marichal, Larsen won game 3 of the Giants’ playoff series against the Dodgers when the Giants staged a 4-run rally in the top of the 9th at Dodger Stadium. He would win game 4 of the World Series in relief. While his record of 81-91 in the regular season was undistinguished, his World Series numbers were another story. He won 4, lost 2 with a 2.75 ERA in the only postseason play there was at the time.

Larsen’s career was over in 1968. By his own admission, the next major league game he saw in person, start to finish was on July 18, 1999 at Yankee Stadium. It was Yogi Berra Day, and Larsen threw out the first pitch to his old battery mate, the catcher he said he trusted most to save him from his own lack of control. With the ceremonies done, with Larsen and Berra watching in what had to be astonishment, David Cone fired a perfect game against the Montreal Expos.

No perfect game or no-hitter has been pitched in a World Series in 63 years. Larsen and Berra were the last two living men to play in the perfect game on October 8, 1956. Yogi passed away on Sept. 22, 2015. Now, just over 4 years later, Don Larsen lost his battle with cancer.

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2 Comments
  • Chris Gallo
    January 2, 2020

    Well done Don! His moment of fame will never be forgotten for a pitcher whose career was forgettable! Thanks for a great memory!

    • Don Wardlow
      January 2, 2020

      While these pieces are always difficult to write, I hope they provide a special memory for someone. Thank you, Chris.

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