Oct. 8 has long been a High Holy Day on my baseball calendar. On that day 67 years ago, Don Larsen threw what was immediately proclaimed to be the Greatest Game Ever Pitched. For Larsen, a 27-year-old righthander of modest accomplishment, tossed a perfect game in Game 5 of the World Series, doing so against the defending champion Brooklyn Dodgers, whose lineup featured future Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, and Gil Hodges.
What else was going on in the world of American sports in 1956? Well, the Philadelphia Warriors had won the NBA title; the Montreal Canadiens had won the first of what would be five consecutive Stanley Cup titles; the New York (Football) Giants would thrash the Chicago Bears, 47-7, to win the NFL title; Floyd Patterson would win the vacated heavyweight boxing title by beating Archie Moore; Needles had won the Kentucky Derby; Pat Flaherty had won the Indianapolis 500; Dr. Cary Middlecoff (who had quit his dental practice to join the PGA Tour full time) had won the US Open golf championship; and Ken Rosewall had won the US Open tennis title. That’s what.
But in 1956 baseball was still the unquestioned king of American sport, so when Larsen did something that had not been done since Charlie Robertson had thrown a perfecto in 1922, and since he had done it in the World Series, this was unquestionably the No. 1 sports story of the year.
Larsen, an 81-91 lifetime hurler whose résumé included a 3-21 record (yes, you read that correctly) with the 1954 seventh-place Baltimore Orioles, had become a Yankee as part of a record-breaking 17-player (yes, you also read that correctly) trade with the Orioles. Two of those three 1954 wins had come against the Yankees and apparently manager Casey Stengel had been impressed. After Larsen’s respectable 11-5 season in 1956, Stengel gave him a start in Game 2 of the Series, only to see Larsen unable to hold an early 6-0 led. Larsen was yanked after facing 10 batters, four of whom he had walked.
The Series stood at 2-2 as the teams returned to Yankee Stadium for Game 5. Larsen had no reason to think he’d be pitching, so he spent the night before in classic Larsen way by, well, drinking and carousing. It was well known that Larsen was a man who never encountered a curfew he couldn’t ignore. “Larsen was easily the greatest drinker I’ve ever known and I’ve known some pretty good ones in my time,” marveled Mickey Mantle.
Let it be known that Larsen’s escapades included smashing his brand-new Oldsmobile into a St. Petersburg, Fla., telephone pole during spring training.
But, boy, was he surprised when he arrived at the ballpark the morning of Oct. 8 to discover that coach Frank Crosetti had placed a baseball in one of his spikes. which was Stengel’s unique way of identifying that day’s starting pitcher. And so Larsen and his newly adopted, completely radical, “no windup” approach to pitching took the mound to face the Dodgers.
What transpired was historic and necessary because Brooklyn starter Sal Maglie was en route to a five-hit complete game, marred only by a Mantle solo homer in the fourth and an RBI single by Hank Bauer in the sixth. Larsen countered with his 97-pitch masterpiece, which included but one three-ball count.
There were two scary moments. The first was a second inning Robinson smash off third baseman Andy Carey, the ball ricocheting to shortstop Gil McDougald, whose throw beat the 37-year-old Robinson by a step. A few years earlier it would have been a base hit. The second moment of trepidation came in the sixth, when Hodges bombed one to left-center. Unfortunately for the Dodgers slugger, this was baseball’s official “Death Valley,” and Mantle was able to run it down with what he claimed was “the greatest catch of my career.” Maybe, maybe not, but it was surely the most important.
There was drama aplenty surrounding out No. 27. The plate umpire was Babe Pinelli, a former ballplayer who was concluding his 21-year umpiring career with his final appearance behind the plate. And this being the pre-DH era, it meant the final obstacle to a perfect game would be a pinch hitter for pitcher Maglie.
Dale Mitchell was a 35-year-old lefthanded batter picked up from the Indians late in the season. He was a .312 lifetime hitter whose calling card was his uncanny ability to make contact. I trust you’re sitting down as I inform you that in 3,984 regular-season at-bats he fanned 119 times, with a season high of 21 (in 577 plate appearances) in 1950. Giancarlo Stanton, what do you think of that?
Here goes: Ball one, outside. Swing and miss, strike one. Foul ball back, strike two. And then . . . Larsen delivered a pitch somewhat elevated and a hair, maybe two, outside. Mitchell held his swing. In the second or fourth, it undoubtedly would have been a ball. But Pinelli, obviously mindful of history, did what we all must feel was the right thing. He raised his right hand. Strike three, yer out! Catcher Yogi Berra sprinted out and famously leaped into Larsen’s arms.
Up in the press box, New York Daily News beat writer Joe Trimble was overwhelmed. He was searching for an appropriate lead. His colleague, legendary baseball writer and columnist Dick Young, came to his rescue. “Just say, ‘The imperfect man pitched a perfect game’ ” Young advised, and Trimble was off and running. Why would someone hand a great line to someone else? “Young’s credo was, ‘Always take care of your beat man,’ ” explains Spink Award honoree Bill Madden, who later worked with Young, “and that was the epitome of it.”
Famed columnist and TV host Ed Sullivan rewarded Larsen with an appearance on his popular Sunday night show. In 1956 America, there were few greater honors. And yes, Sullivan, a big sports fan, had been in attendance at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 8.
You cannot exaggerate the scope of the achievement. Baseball had not seen a perfect game in 34 years, and for it to come in the most important sporting event in this country was spellbinding. We have now seen 18 subsequent perfect games, with the longest gap being 13 years (Catfish Hunter in 1968 to Len Barker in 1981) and we’ve even seen two in one year when Philip Humber and Matt Cain each threw one in 2012.
The 11-year-old Bill Madden was at the historic game, his father having picked him up from school at 10:30 a.m. for the 1:05 start. Down in Trenton, N.J., the sixth-grade me knew when he boarded the bus to go home from school that Larsen was working on that perfect game because the radio was always on somewhere in St. Joseph’s School when the World Series came. Ah, the glorious ‘50s.
Happy anniversary, Don. We know you’re hoisting one in that Ballplayer’s Bar In The Sky. Excuse me, did I say “one?” No chance.
Bob Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.