October 8th was the sixty-first anniversary of one of the great sports events of all time: Don Larsen, pitching game five of the 1956 World Series, threw the only perfect game in series history. Twenty-seven Brooklyn Dodgers came to the plate, and 27 walked back to the dugout as Larsen led the New York Yankees to a 2-0 win.
Most baseball fans have seen the famous picture of the joyous Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra, rushing the mound to jump into Larsen’s arms. While there have been regular season no hitters pitched since then and even another Divisional play-off no hitter, there never has been another perfect game and some baseball pundits don’t believe there will ever be another.
The last survivor of those who played in that historic game is none other than Larsen himself. Since he and his spouse, Corrine, retired 23 years ago, the Larsens have lived quietly at Hayden Lake. He makes occasional appearances at Yankee Old-Timer events and signs a baseball now and then.
Otherwise he enjoys fishing on various Idaho lakes and streams. A few days before the anniversary a mutual friend arranged for my wife and I to have lunch with Don and Corrine. It was one of the most delightful two hour lunches I’ve spent in years.
My first surprise was how tall he still is, easily 6’5”, still slim, still ramrod straight and his mind and memory were still sharp. Not bad for one who turned 88 in August. Born in Indiana, the fmaily moved to San Diego when he was 14 where he attended Point Loma H.S. and was known more for his basketball skills (my second surprise) than his pitching talent.
His senior year he was named to the first team all-Southern California High School basketball team but he turned down basketball scholarship offers from St. Mary’s and Oregon. While playing baseball he caught the eye of a scout for the St. Louis Browns who signed him for a signing bonus of $850 (about $10,000 in today’s dollars) and in June of 1947 reported to his first minor league team. He rose steadily but in early 1951 was drafted into the Army and served for two years during the Korean War before being honorably discharged in early 1953.
During the spring he made the major league roster of the St. Louis Browns and made his major league debut on April 18, 1953. That winter the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles. Larsen struggled during the 1954 season, winning three and losing 21 games.
Two of his three wins though were against the Yankees and their manager, Casey Stengal, insisted Larsen be included in a large swap of players in 1955. Stengal saw something no one else did for there is virtually nothing in Larsen’s early career that hinted he had a date with destiny and baseball immortality. On that October day though even Larsen admits he had incredible control of his pitches.
Larsen was not aware that the 27th and last out against pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell has become the subject of some college philosophy classes on life’s ambiguity. Mitchell had a ball one, two strike count when Larsen let loose with his 97th pitch. Mitchell, started to swing then he claims checked his swing because he thought it would be ball three. The home plate umpire called it strike three and the game was over.
To his dying day Mitchell insisted it was a ball. The umpire retired after the game and never spoke about it again. At this lunch, Larsen growled “he swung and it was strike three. Game over.”
Asked who was the toughest out in the Dodger line-up, Larsen growled again,”they were all tough outs. These were the Dodgers after all.”
My third surprise was learning that Larsen “on his way down” as he put it, pitched in Spokane against the Spokane Indians while a member of the 1966 Phoenix Giants. He also pitched in Tacoma early in the 1967 season. His last major leaue appearance came with the Cubs on July 7th, 1967. He retired shortly thereafter.
His final record was 81 wins and 91 losses, an earned run average of 3.78 and 869 strike outs. It appears to be an average record for someone who spent 15 seasons in the majors. Packed in there though is that one magic October day when he pitched the only perfect World Series game.
For that he was named the World Series MVP and garnered baseball immortality. Understandably he is proud of that incredible achievement, but he has handled the ensuing years, which had both ups and downs, with dignity and grace.
Before leaving he signed a baseball for me and wrote on it “a perfect Dad.” I’ll treasure it as long as I live, undeserved though it is.