The ultimate pitching achievement comes with no warning. For a while, even as a perfect game unfolds, nobody suspects a thing. On Oct. 8, 1956, the fifth game of the World Series was halfway over before the visiting team at Yankee Stadium realized that Don Larsen, of all people, had a chance.
“It was probably the end of the fifth inning that somebody on the bench said, ‘Do you know we haven’t had a base runner yet?’” said Carl Erskine, a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, over the phone this summer. “And everybody kind of woke up and said, ‘No, really?’
“So everybody started watching close, but we didn’t expect Larsen to beat us — and we never went into the game thinking, ‘This is the greatest pitcher that ever put on the uniform.’”
Larsen, who died on Wednesday at age 90, was hardly the greatest pitcher ever. He played for seven teams in 14 seasons, with 81 victories and 91 defeats. A year after his perfect game, he lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Milwaukee Braves.
Yet all these years later, Larsen’s 2-0 masterpiece for the Yankees in 1956 remains a singular phenomenon in baseball history. No pitcher has carried even a no-hitter into the ninth inning of a World Series game since; the closest, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was Boston’s Jim Lonborg, who no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals for seven and two-thirds innings in Game 2 in 1967.
Larsen lived the rest of his life as a baseball legend, his name among the most hallowed in the history of the sport.
“I mean, it was ‘perfect game’ — you never even looked at his stats over his career,” Joe Torre, the Hall of Fame manager, said by phone on Thursday. “And a perfect game is one thing, but to do it in the World Series is certainly another level of excellence. It’s like, when you think of Ron Swoboda, you think of his catch in right-center field in 1969, diving with no chance to catch the ball — and he did. You look at his numbers and say, ‘O.K., nothing that’s startling.’ But when something happens in the World Series, you’re always going to hold it in high regard.”
Torre was in the stands for Larsen’s perfect game. He was 16 years old and had hoped to be watching his brother Frank, a rookie with the Braves, who had been beaten out by the Dodgers for the pennant. On the morning of the game, Torre showed his ticket to the principal at St. Francis Preparatory School in Brooklyn and got the rest of the day off. He does not remember who went with him that day, but he knows he sat in the upper deck between third base and the left-field foul pole.
“I remember that part because you remember your perspective of watching the game,” Torre said. “Mickey Mantle was sort of running in my direction when he caught the ball off Gil Hodges’s bat.”
Mantle’s catch was one of two close calls in the fifth inning; the other was a deep drive to right field by Sandy Amoros that hooked foul. The pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell batted last, and Torre recalled the plate umpire, Babe Pinelli, punching the air with his right fist for the final out. Larsen trotted casually off the mound until his catcher, Yogi Berra, vaulted into his arms.
“It’s funny, leaping into the pitcher’s arms is something I’d never done before,” Berra wrote for The New York Times in 1998. “Once I jumped on Bob Kuzava after he saved the 1952 World Series for us, but he had his back turned.”
Berra called Larsen “Ol’ Gooney Bird,” and said he sometimes had to work to keep him focused during games. News media reports of the perfect game played up Larsen’s personality; “Clown Prince ascends the throne,” said a headline in The Star-Ledger of Newark. Jimmy Cannon, the renowned Newsday columnist, called Larsen “a midnight kid who doesn’t miss many laughs.”
The Daily Mirror’s Arthur Richman — later a club executive who encouraged the Yankees to hire Torre — was friends with Larsen and went out with him the night before the perfect game. For years, the avuncular Richman would tell the story of how he urged Larsen to take it easy, just in case he pitched the next day.
“God love him,” Torre said, laughing. “I can just hear Arthur saying, ‘Donnie, Donnie, you should get some sleep, Donnie.’”
Larsen must have had a lot on his mind. The day of the perfect game, his estranged wife, Vivian, asked the State Supreme Court to hold up his World Series winnings in an alimony dispute. A court order over unpaid child support was said to have been in Larsen’s locker as he pitched; newspapers called him a playboy.
By the end of his career, though, Larsen had settled into a role as an elder statesman. He logged time with the Athletics, the White Sox, the Giants, the Astros, the Orioles and the Cubs. He faced the Yankees as a Giants reliever in the 1962 World Series, and helped mentor a young Jim Palmer with Baltimore three years later.
“He was a huge guy, very soft-spoken, a really nice man,” Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher, said by phone on Thursday, recalling a time when Manager Hank Bauer called Larsen into a game at Yankee Stadium, only to realize he had summoned the wrong pitcher.
“Nine years earlier he’d pitched the greatest game in the history of the World Series, and now he comes in and Hank says, ‘No I don’t want you, you’ve got to go back to the bullpen,’” Palmer said. “But he was the type of guy — it didn’t bother him. He was a gentle giant.”
Palmer starred on the mound in the 1970s, a decade in which no pitcher threw a perfect game. The feat has been accomplished only 23 times, and Larsen’s was the only one between 1922 (Charlie Robertson) and 1964 (Jim Bunning).
Two other Yankees — David Wells in 1998 and David Cone in 1999 — have done it, and Larsen had a connection to both. Larsen and Wells both attended Point Loma High School in San Diego, and Larsen threw the ceremonial first pitch to Berra on the day of Cone’s gem.
“Coney pitched his in July and Wells pitched his in May,” Torre said, “and if it was reversed, neither one of them probably would have done it, because Coney needed the warm weather to stay loose and Wells needed the cool weather to keep from getting exhausted. The stars have to be aligned, I guess.”
Seven Hall of Famers have pitched a perfect game, but so have seven pitchers with a sub-.500 career record. Larsen’s day stands out above all, a testament to the enchanting whims of the baseball gods.
“If somebody’s a baseball fan, you can explain to your child that on one autumn afternoon in Yankee Stadium, in under two and a half hours, Don Larsen, who would be 10 games under .500, would pitch the most memorable game in the history of the World Series,” Palmer said. “That’s what baseball’s all about.”
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