Don Larsen’s Perfect Game
By Maury Allen
Catcher Yogi Berra jumps into the victorious arms of pitcher Don Larsen as pandemonium breaks loose in Yankee Stadium after his historic triumph over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Yankee Stadium – Don Larsen’s first pitch in the 5th game of the 1955 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, in what would become the greatest game in World Series history.
New York Yankee hurler Don Larsen executing the final out for a stunning win in the first and only perfect game in World Series history, October 8, 1956.
By Maury Allen
The image has lasted half a century, a masked Yogi Berra, the Yankee catcher, leaping into the grinning face of Don Larsen, the Perfect Game pitcher.
It was October 8, 1956, the fifth game of the World Series between the haughty New York Yankees and the rambunctious Brooklyn Dodgers, a thrilled Stadium crowd of 64,519 gasping at every late game pitch.
Larsen, 27, described by Joe Trimble of the New York Daily News as “the imperfect man who pitched a perfect game,” had actually lost 21 games for the new Baltimore Orioles only two years earlier and had been smacked around by the Dodgers in game two of the Series a few days earlier.
“I had no idea I was starting that game until I came to the park that day,” said Larsen over the phone from his home in Hayden Lake, Idaho, a fishing village about 100 miles east of Spokane, Washington, up near the Canadian border.
“When I go to the park there was a baseball in my shoe. That was the tradition in those days. The pitching coach, Jim Turner, would put a ball in the shined shoe of the starter,” Larsen said.
He was 9-2 as a starter and reliever with the Yankees when he joined the team in 1955 and 11-5 in that summer of 1956. Mostly, he was known for his bad boy reputation.
“I played baseball because it was fun,” Larsen said. “Nobody got rich playing ball in those days. You just enjoyed the game, enjoyed the competition and enjoyed hanging out with Mickey (Mantle), Whitey (Ford) and the other guys.”
Early that spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, Larsen had firmed up his image when he fell asleep while driving his two tone convertible back to the team hotel, lost control of his car and crashed into a palm tree. It was 5 a.m. He escaped with a chipped tooth and a $15 ticket.
Manager Casey Stengel, a notorious boozer himself in his playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, was asked what his pitcher was doing out at that ungodly hour.
“He went out to mail a letter,” Stengel told the press with a straight face.
Stengel’s confidence grew through the year as Larsen won some key games and pitched well in relief in several others. Four weeks before the season ended the tall right handed native of Michigan City, Indiana developed a no-windup pitching style.
“It just helped my control. I had good stuff but putting the ball where I wanted was always a factor,” he said.
After the second game pounding and a three day depression, Larsen went out with a couple of newspaper pals, brothers Milton and Arthur Richman the night before the fifth game. Legend has it Larsen was drunk when he showed up for game five.
“Not so,” said Arthur Richman, now a Yankees senior advisor to Boss George Steinbrenner. “We had dinner, a few drinks and then I drove him back to the hotel. We passed a church on the way and he said, ‘I should have stopped for a donation. Here, give this to your mother and have her contribute it to her temple.’ He handed me twenty bucks.”
Larsen got the baseball the next day and set the Dodgers down easily in the first inning by striking out Jim Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese and getting slugger Duke Snider on a short fly to right fielder Hank Bauer.
“I could see my control was good from the start,” he recalled. “That gave me a lot of confidence.”
“He worked fast and he threw strikes,” said Yogi Berra, as he sat in the conference room of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University in New Jersey. “He never shook me off once all game.”
Gil Hodges hit a long fly ball in the fifth inning but a speedy Mantle ran it down for the out. Larsen had his perfect game going through seven innings, no runs, no hits, no walks, no Brooklyn batter reaching first base.
“When I came to the dugout after the seventh inning nobody would talk to me. I said something to Mickey about a no-hitter and he just looked away. You could see it all on the scoreboard,” Larsen said.
The drama built in the Brooklyn eighth as Larsen retired every Brooklyn batter and the crowd roared louder on each pitch than the noise from the nearby Eighth Avenue subway.
With a Mantle home run and a Bauer single, the Yankees led 2-0 against Sal Maglie as Larsen started the ninth inning. Carl Furillo flied out easily to right field. Twenty five straight Brooklyn outs. Roy Campanella grounded out to Billy Martin. Twenty six straight outs. One to go.
Brooklyn manager Walter Alston sent up Dale Mitchell, a fine left handed hitter, to bat for Maglie.
“I was really breathing hard on every pitch by now,” remembered Larsen. “Mitchell had been in the American League for a long time and I knew he was a tough hitter.”
The first pitch was a ball. Then a called strike. Then Mitchell swung and missed for strike two. The Stadium noise was deafening. The next pitch was an inside curve and Mitchell, a sly batsman, got a little of the pitch and fouled it off.
“I just took another breath and followed Yogi’s call for a fast ball,” Larsen said. “It was over the outside of the plate.”
Mitchell twitched at the pitch as umpire Babe Pinelli, working his final big league game, threw up his right fist and called, “Strike three.”
“I remember that Mitchell turned around to argue the call,” Larsen said, “but nobody was there. Yogi was running to me and Pinelli was running to the dugout.”
A World Series Perfect Game. It had never happened before and fifty years later it has never happened since.
Yogi gave Larsen the baseball from the last out. Several years ago he put it up for auction and got $25,000 for it for a college fund for one of his grand children. The bronzed glove Berra used that day hangs on a wall of his museum.
“Funny, we were there at the Stadium, me and Larsen when David Cone pitched his perfect game for the Yankees in 1999,” said Berra. “It was good but it wasn’t a World Series game.”
Half a century later, Larsen stands alone as the “imperfect man” who pitched baseball’s only World Series perfect game.
“People ask me what I’m going to do to celebrate,” Larsen said a few weeks before the October 8, 2006 anniversary date of his pitching gem. “I guess I’ll do what I always do for big events. I’ll have a few drinks with friends and laugh a lot.”