Every baseball fan of a certain age knows that in 1956 the New York Yankees’ Don Larsen threw a perfect World Series fifth game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. But even though Larsen’s recent passing has once again drawn attention to his long-ago gem, his unique achievement is still under-appreciated.
Thirty four years had passed since the Chicago White Sox’s Charlie Robertson set down 27 Detroit Tigers in a row at old Nevin Field. And before Robinson, the Cleveland Naps’ Addie Joss threw the last perfect game in 1908 – 78 pitches, game time, 1:32.
Since Larsen, perfect games have become, by comparison, common. Seventeen have been tossed, but none in World Series play. Perfect games were so rare that Larsen after the game confessed to his battery mate Yogi Berra that he was unaware that he had accomplished the elusive feat.
Because the series was played between two intra-city rivals, Brooklyn and the Bronx-based Yankees, there were no off days. Larsen, shelled in game two, took to the mound with only two days’ rest. He faced a Dodgers’ lineup that led the National League in runs scored, and was loaded with sluggers like Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella. Brooklyn’s contact hitters were imposing, too – Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Junior Gilliam and Jackie Robinson.
Even though he had to pitch cautiously, Larsen fell behind in the count 3-0 only once. And since Larsen never enjoyed more than a 2-0 lead after the sixth inning, he pitched the game’s final, tension-filled three innings with the potential tying run always deck. The game’s last batter, Dale Mitchell, who Larsen struck out on a called third strike, had only 119 strike outs in nearly 4,000 career at-bats.
Larsen came to the Yankees in 1955 via a 17-player trade with the Baltimore Orioles, who had just transferred from St. Louis where the team was called the Browns. In his first season with the Orioles, Larsen’s record was an embarrassing 3-21. Larsen’s .125 winning percentage is the lowest mark registered since 1920, and eighth lowest all-time. But Larsen, in his defense, had anemic batting support. The O’s hit only 54 homers during the 1954 campaign, a mere three more than National Leaguer leader Ted Kluszewski smashed that same season.
Luckily for Larsen, two of his three wins came against the Yankees. Yankees’ manager Casey Stengel decided to bolster his starting rotation by adding Larsen. As Stengel said at the time, pitchers have to be good to lose 20 games. The inference is that if the manager keeps trotting out a pitcher even though he’s regularly charged with a loss, it shows he has confidence in his starter. And managers always had faith in Larsen, despite his consistently mediocre pitching record.
Stengel gave Larsen the bulb for the seventh games of the 1957 and 1958 fall classics against the Milwaukee Braves. Then after being traded to the San Francisco Giants, manager Alvin Dark called on Larsen in a crucial fourth game situation during the 1962 series. Larsen replaced Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, and notched the win. In all, Larsen won four World Series victories against only two loses.
Berra, who hit three home runs in the series and won three Most Valuable Player regular season awards, said that catching Larsen’s perfect game was his biggest baseball thrill. Yogi helped guide Larsen through his perfect game. Berra had developed an extensive book on the Dodgers’ hitters with entries like “Snider… impatient hitter,” “Reese… tough to pitch to” and Robinson… “Strictly a big ball hitter.”
Larsen, who was 27 the day he pitched his perfect game, said he thought about his masterpiece every day. That likely included his final day on Earth, January 1, 2020, when he died at age 90.
A joyous memory like a World Series perfect game should be savored, and Larsen, understandably, did exactly that for more than 60 years.
Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association. Contact him at [email protected]