Baseball is different than other games. Not only do teams keep track of wins and losses and division standings, but the performance of every single player is closely tracked, each swing of the bat noted, every out and everyone who touched the ball to make the out. It is all traced in meticulously kept statistics. With a large enough reference, the number cruncher talking into the earpiece of the color commentator can feed him the info on exactly how the switch hitting third baseman fares against right handed knuckle ball pitchers with men on base and two outs.
There are certain stats that represent feats so rare and marvelous that they happen only a handful of times a season, or sometimes only once or twice in a decade. When a pitcher throws a no-hitter, a short-stop turns an un-assisted triple play, a batter legs out an inside the park home run, or a runner on third base steals home the achievement will be front page news in sports sections all over the country and slo-mo tape will lead every sportscast and be replayed endlessly on ESPN highlights.
But as special as these accomplishments are none hold a candle to the Holy Grail—the Perfect Game. Non baseball fans and even many casual fans are often confused between a no-hitter and a perfect game. No-hitters are special but a handful are thrown every year. A perfect game is truly extraordinary. In the history of Major League Baseball there have only been 20 perfect games thrown, 18 of them in Modern Era—since the turn of the 20th Century. In a perfect game no one reaches base for any reason—no hits, no reaching base on an error, no base on balls, no hit batsmen, no taking base on a third strike and wild pitch. 27 batters in 9 innings come up to the plate and head back to the dugout dejected.
A perfect game requires not only brilliant pitching, but flawless fielding, an off day for the opposing team’s offense, sheer luck, and every close call by the umpires going just right. In every perfect game pressure begins to mount on the pitcher in about the 7th inning when both the pitcher and everyone in the stands begins to realize that at the very list a no-hitter. By the 9th inning the tension is almost unbearable. Several pitchers have lost their perfect games with two outs and a full count to the batter.
So with all of the stress of a perfect game in any circumstances, imagine it in a World Series. The unimaginable happened on October 8, 1956 in Yankee Stadium against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5. The Series was a legendary match-up of two New York City teams with a history and the focus of unprecedented press attention—and a nationwide audience thanks to television.
The Series was tied at two each. Brooklyn manager Walt Alston opted to go with opening game winner and staff ace Sal Maglie. It was a wise choice. Maglie pitched a gem giving up only 5 hits and 2 runs in a complete game effort. But it wasn’t enough.
Casey Stengel wanted to save his ace Whitey Ford and opted to bring Don Larson to the mound, a decision that surprised sports writers, fans, and the pitcher himself. Larsen had blown a six run lead in Game 2 and was out of it in the second inning.
Larson was at best a journeyman pitcher. He was having his best year, finishing with a win-loss record of 11-5. That year he developed a no-windup style that confused batters. Over his entire Major League career of 14 years with 8 clubs, much of the time as a spot starter and reliever, he racked up a losing record of 81-91. In fact he was best known not for his on the mound performance but for breaking curfew and spending late nights in Manhattan night spots. Stengel told the press, “The only thing he fears is sleep.”
But for whatever reason, Larson was nearly flawless that day. He had complete command of his pitchers. Only the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese was able to work the count to three balls, and that was in the first inning before the Yankee right hander settled down.
He was also the beneficiary of solid defense. In the second inning Jackie Robinson smashed a line drive that bounced off the third baseman’s glove into the mitt of shortstop Gil McDougal who threw out the speedy Robinson in a bang-bang play. In the fifth inning Mickey Mantle, a center fielder best remembered as a hitter, snagged a back-handed catch of a deep drive by Gil Hodges.
The next batter, Sandy Amoros hit one deep to right field that went foul by inches. After that it was pretty much clear sailing. Mantle’s three hits including the home run in the fourth inning that broke the scoreless tie provided all the offensive punch Larson needed.
By the sixth inning tension began to build in the stadium. In the television broadcast booth Mel Allen and Vin Scully adhered to the superstition of not mentioning a no-hitter in progress. Larson was casual and relaxed, even as his dug-out grew tense. He spent the seventh inning stretch smoking a cigarette in the club house. Later in the game he broke tradition himself by asking Mantle if he thought he “could do it.” The superstitious Mantle reportedly told the pitcher to “Shut the fuck up” and stalked away. No one on the bench would talk to him.
With two outs in the ninth inning pinch hitter Dale Mitchell fanned on Larson’s 97th pitch. Mitchell thought the pitch was high. So did Mantle from his vantage point in center field. But veteran umpire Babe Pinelli, in his last game behind the plate before retirement called it a strike. It was over. An unimaginable perfect game in the World Series.
Catcher Yogi Berra raced to the mound and leapt into Larson’s arms, the moment captured in one of the most iconic photographs in baseball history. The dugout emptied and he was mobbed by team mates, fans rushed onto the field.
The Yankees went on to win the fall classic in seven games. Larson was named the series Most Valuable Player.
It was the last hurrah for the Dodger in Brooklyn. After the next season when they did not get into the post-season, the team relocated to Los Angeles.
Larson never had as good a season. By the time he was finished with the Yankees in ’59 he was a spot starter and a reliever. Over the final seasons of his career he hurled for the Kansas City Athletics, Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants, Houston Colts/Astros, and the Baltimore Orioles. Out of the big leagues entirely in 1966, he returned for one final turn in the Majors the following year with the Chicago Cubs. The comeback was not successful. He threw his last game in the Bigs at Wrigley Field on July 7, 1967. He finished the season and the following one toiling in the Cubs farm system before finally retiring.
For years kinescope footage of the television broadcast was believed to be lost. But in 2007 all but the first inning was discovered by Illinois memorabilia collector Doak Ewing. It was privately screened for Larson, Berra and about a hundred others later that year and broadcast on the MLB Network on New Years Day 2009 with Bob Costas interviews of Berra and Larson.
The 82 year old Larson is still living and enjoys talking about his perfect game. Who wouldn’t.