Don Larsen

By Howie Stalwick

He’s retired now, living the good life at his North Idaho lakefront home, with memories that will last forever. Not just for him, but for generations of sports fans.

Don Larsen was a rather ordinary pitcher during most of his 14 years in the major leagues. He lost more games than he won, bounced around from team to team and league to league, and finished his career in the minor leagues in 1968.

For one glorious October afternoon in 1956, however, Larsen mastered the game like no one before or since.

Pitching for the New York Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers in a World Series matching two of the most storied teams in baseball history, Larsen pitched the only perfect game or no-hitter in major league postseason history, on Oct. 8, 1956.

Twenty-seven up, 27 down. No hits, runs, walks, balks, hit batsmen, catcher’s interference, nothin.'


“Sometimes,” said Larsen, a smile lighting his face, “I wonder why it happened to me, or if it happened.

“A lot of people say it was one of the greatest games [ever pitched]. Well, I wouldn’t dispute that, but I would have to see it myself as a player or fan to give you an opinion on that, because I never saw it.”

Actually, Larsen had the best seat in the house. Just three days earlier, he had taken a seat in the clubhouse after being yanked in the second inning of Game Two, unable to hold on to a 6-0 lead.

“I did a [expletive] job,” muttered Larsen, still more than a little bit steamed about it.

Larsen’s problem in Game Two, and throughout much of his career, was with his control. In Game Five, however, the baseball was a magnet in Larsen’s hand, and Yogi Berra’s catcher’s mitt, a steel trap.

“I had as good of stuff many times and didn’t last the first inning,” Larsen insists. “I just had better control. I’d never had such good control. I threw the ball most times pretty close to where Yogi wanted it.”

Larsen said he had no inkling that history was in the making when he made the short walk from the Bronx hotel where he lived to Yankee Stadium on the morning of Game Five. In fact, it was only after arriving at the ballpark that manager Casey Stengel told Larsen he was starting.

Even when he was warming up -- in front of the dugout, sans mound, as was the custom in those days -- Larsen sensed nothing special.

“You never know until the battle starts,” Larsen said. “You never know. Not ’til it counts.”

There were 10,000 empty seats that Monday afternoon, when Larsen took the mound opposite Brooklyn star Sal “The Barber” Maglie. More than 64,000 spectators and millions of television viewers saw a sensational pitching duel in which Maglie lost, 2-0, on a five-hitter.

“An error; I could have walked somebody; and any of those guys could have hit a home run and the game would have been tied up,” Larsen points out.

As it was, Larsen needed nothing more than Mickey Mantle’s fourth-inning home run. Not to mention Mantle’s running backhand catch of a long Gil Hodges drive to left-center in the fifth.

“It would have been a home run in most other parks,” said Larsen, who also recalls a near home run by Sandy Amoros that barely sailed foul down the right field line in the fifth. “Mickey wasn’t the greatest fielder, but he had the speed to outrun most of the balls that hung up in the air.”

A 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-hander, Larsen relied on his usual mix of fastballs and sliders, with an occasional slow curve. He struck out seven and said he never felt nervous -- except in the dugout in the later innings, when teammates observed the time-honored tradition of not speaking to a pitcher throwing a no-hitter.

“I said, ‘Lookit, Mickey, look at the scoreboard. Wouldn’t it be something? Two more innings to go.’

“Everyone clammed up. It was like a morgue. That wasn’t a comfortable feeling.”

Larsen generally discusses the perfect game in modest terms (“Everyone’s entitled to a good day before they die”). However, he takes obvious pride in the fact that his superb performance came against one of the great teams in baseball history.

Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Don Drysdale, Clem Labine, Carl Furillo, Junior Gilliam, Don Newcombe, Sal Maglie...the 1956 Dodgers were awesome, even though they hit just .195 in losing the World Series in seven games.

Of course, Larsen’s Yankees weren’t too shabby, either. Mantle, Berra, Whitey Ford, Moose Skowron, Elston Howard, Bob Turley, Gil McDougald, Billy Martin, Hank Bauer and Enos Slaughter led the Bronx Bombers to their sixth World Championship in eight years.

Interestingly, Larsen does not recall throwing any other no-hitters or perfect games, even as a youth in Michigan City, Indiana, and San Diego, where his family moved when he was 14. The World Series perfecto -- one of just 17 perfect games recorded in hundreds of thousands of major league games since 1876 -- came shortly after Larsen adopted the no-windup delivery that became his trademark.

“It was a little confusing for hitters, because they hadn’t seen that kind of delivery,” Larsen said.

Larsen, who won a career-high 11 games (against five losses) during the 1956 regular season, spent three more years in New York before going to the Kansas City Athletics, in the infamous Roger Maris trade.

How infamous was it? Well, “Marvelous" Marv Throneberry, who later gained notoriety as one of the bumbling New York Mets in that team’s infancy, was one of the other players traded for Maris. One year later, Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 homers in a season.

Larsen first joined the Yankees after another famous trade, the unprecedented 18-player deal between New York and Baltimore in 1954.

Larsen was coming off a miserable 3-21 season. The 21 losses represents the only major category in which Larsen ever led a professional league. He was 81-91 lifetime, with a 3.78 earned run average.

Asked why the man responsible for the most famous pitching performance in history failed to achieve lasting stardom, Larsen shrugs and says, “I don’t know. That’d be tough to answer.

“You go out and try to do the best you can. Sometimes, the results aren’t there.”

On one memorable day, the results were magnificent. Half a century later, Larsen fields autograph requests almost daily. Larsen and wife Corrine moved into their custom-built home on Hayden Lake in 1994 after Larsen retired from his longtime post-baseball job as a sales representative for a paper supplies company in northern California.

At 77, Larsen remains popular at card shows and autograph sessions. He smiles an easy smile when asked why he’s not resentful of people who remember him for just one day in a long, often successful career.

“That’s easy. They forget all the mistakes I made.”

Howie Stalwick is a freelance sports writer in Post Falls, Idaho. His baseball articles have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Baseball America, Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul, etc. Stalwick's claim to fame -- besides marrying way out of his league and fathering the world's two most beautiful and charming daughters -- is that he was the world's smallest (and, his teammates stress, worst) college baseball pitcher many, many beers and pizzas ago as a 5-foot-7, 130-pound, submarine-throwing, roundhouse-curveball-serving relief pitcher at Eastern Washington.


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