Tall and talented with an infectious smile, he was a kooky character that no one could figure out. There is an old saying that goes like this; men in the game are blind to what men looking on see clearly. He was not good looking; in fact his face most often resembled a guy who had just witnessed a murder. As a young man, his ears were so big, he could get cablevision, and you could stare at him and watch him grow. He was not the kind of pitcher that you used to make clinic films. To him it was just a game and you were supposed to have fun. Pinball machines and comic books stole away his time during days off, while he celebrated his potential in bars across the country at night. “Let the good times roll,” was his motto and he once answered a friend’s question, “Do you drink Canada Dry?” with “I already have.” This night owl with huge feet liked the ladies, but loved baseball and booze even more; he could get as drunk as Dean Martin. He once blew into a breathalyzer and the machine said, whoa, whoa, one at a time please. His fellow teammates called him “Gooney” and the bartender referred to him as “Last call Larsen.” He believed that a hangover is just your body’s way of saying that you should not have stopped drinking. His accomplishment in the game of baseball remains unique and one-of-a-kind.
There was another side of Don Larsen which would become perfect. This professional night-fighter, who also became a mediocre Major League pitcher, was born on August 7, 1929, in Michigan City, Indiana. His father was an American Legion baseball player who took his son to see “Babe” Ruth and the New York Yankees. Growing up in the West Coast Mecca of baseball talent in the forties, San Diego, Larsen would combine good control and a quirky personality into a Minor League contract with the St. Louis Browns. He would turn down several college basketball scholarships offers in order to pitch for a living. It would be one of the best decisions he ever made. Five Minor League teams in four years would be enough to land him in St. Louis for the 1953 season. One day after watching Larsen throw, the immortal pitcher “Satchel” Paige once said, “This kid has potential to be the greatest.” Larsen didn’t turn out to be the greatest, but he did prove to be perfect for one day.
In 1953, Larsen hit .284 as a rookie with three home runs and won seven out of nineteen games on a Browns team that lost 100 games. He was really just another pitcher whose face looked like an old catcher’s mitt after an “all-nighter” at the local bar. Regardless of what he felt like, he continued to show up and throw. His stamina was amazing.
In 1954, the Browns moved to their new home, in Baltimore, Maryland. Larsen continued to show signs of brilliance even though he became the first pitcher to lose twenty games in a season, with the Orioles. He would finish the 1954 season with three wins and twenty-one losses. As luck would have it, Larsen always pitched well against the Yankees, and this did not go unnoticed by “The Old Perfessor,” Casey Stengel. Casey just knew that Larsen would get better with age and worked a trade with Baltimore that would send Don Larsen along with pitcher Bob Turley to the 1955 Yanks. Larsen, who wore #18, won nine out of eleven games the first year in New York and became one of Toots Shore’s best customers.
Spring Training, 1956, would begin with a car wreck for Gooney. Although Larsen escaped unhurt, it was Casey who had the last laugh. Casey told a reporter, “Larsen should get a medal. He’s the only guy I know who could find something to do in St. Petersburg, Florida at three in the morning.” It would be the beginning of a memorable season. Don would make 38 appearances and post an 11-5 win-loss record for the World Series bound Yankees. In an effort to improve for the relentless Casey Stengel, Larsen experimented with a no-wind-up pitching motion. It would yield perfect results in Game Five of the 1956 World Series.
The Yankees would face their cross-town rivals and current World Series Champion, Brooklyn Dodgers. Larsen had been roughed up in Game One, as the Dodgers held serve in Brooklyn with back-to-back wins. In those days, the starting pitcher was sometimes not known until game time. Third base coach and long-time Yankee, Frank Crosetti, would place a new baseball in the starting pitcher’s shoe, before the game. Crosetti had no problem finding Larsen’s size 13 shoes before Game Five. The Series was now tied two games apiece as the six foot, four inch Larsen warmed up in front of the Yankee dugout.
In the second inning, Dodger great, Jackie Robinson, hit a sharp liner that ricocheted off the knee of Yankee third baseman Andy Carey and in the direction of shortstop Gil McDougald. Gil’s throw beat Robinson to the bag. A home run by Mickey Mantle, off Brooklyn pitcher Sal Maglie, and a great catch by Mantle in centerfield, while running flat-out to his right, would give Larsen a two-run cushion by the sixth inning. It always seems that one or two outstanding defensive plays in the field become the common denominator for throwing a no-hitter or better yet, a perfect game. These omens were not to be ignored. Larsen smoked a cigarette in the dugout to relax before going out in the bottom of the seventh inning. Yankee teammate Mickey McDermott said, “It was then that we noticed he had a zero going.” Larsen’s ball just seemed to know how to run away from the barrel of the Dodgers bats. The eighth inning came and went as little Yogi Berra and big Don Larsen continued to work their magic. Dodger Dale Mitchell would pinch-hit for pitcher Sal Maglie with two outs in the top of the ninth inning.
If I asked you to make a list of all the pitchers who had the goods to throw a perfect game in the World Series, I’d bet the farm that Larsen’s name would never come up. The air was filled with electricity as teammates behind Larsen moved in different directions, each trying to guess where Mitchell would put the ball in play. It was not to be. Umpire “Babe” Pinelli raised his right arm for a called third strike on Mitchell, and history had been made. “Never before and never since,” is how New York Yankee public-address announcer Bob Sheppard described the scene. It was October 8, 1956, and Larsen had done the impossible. He had thrown 97 pitches, while hurling a perfect game for the first World Series no-hitter.
Larsen would celebrate that night as sports writers scrambles to write the story of the year. The Series would go seven games with the Yankees finishing as World Champs. Larsen would be voted Series Most Valuable Player and receive a new Corvette and a guest spot on the Ed Sullivan television show. Unfortunately, it was all downhill for Larsen after the perfect game. Not only had his wife filed for divorce on the day of his perfect game, but he didn’t even get a raise from the Yankees brass for the following season. It was no fun watching him fall apart. In 1959, he was traded, along with Hank Bauer and a couple of other teammates, to Kansas City for Roger Maris and a little-known pitcher. In 1961, he helped the San Francisco Giants win a pennant, but later found himself in Texas, pitching for the Houston Astros, by 1965. He was finally released in 1967 by the Cubs, after only four innings pitched. Larsen had been the victim of greatness for just a moment, kind of like yesterday’s news.
I had a chance to sit down and talk with Don Larsen. He was a guest at the National Sports Card Convention in Dallas, Texas. Don was quieter than I thought he would be. He was just sitting there looking around like he was on a butterfly hunt. His nose and cheeks was cherry-red, as if he had been drinking. He spoke in a raspy voice and wore the look of a grizzled veteran. He was serious, never smiled, and gave short answers. There was something about his eyes. It must have been a day like this that Al Capone was born. Maybe he was just tired of being asked about the events of 1956. I think in some ways, he felt left out of the baseball history books, or maybe he just expected more. Life can be fleeting at times; you get what you negotiate, not what you’re worth.
I remember an interview with Yogi Berra that was done by a sportswriter on the day of the last game ever to be played at old Yankee Stadium. Everybody that was somebody was there, including all the old and young Yankees. Berra was asked what he would remember most about his time in the “House that Ruth built.” Even after three Most Valuable Player Awards, 13 World Series Championships as a player and coach, having his #8 retired or being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, all as a Yankee, he thought for a minute and said, “The perfect game with Larsen in the 56’ World Series. That’s only happened once and I caught it.” I have often wondered how Don Larsen would have answered that question. The perfect game was Don Larsen.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.