In the world of baseball, Don Larsen’s name will forever be synonymous with perfection. He was not a legendary pitcher like some of his peers, nor did he boast a glittering career record. Yet, for one extraordinary day in 1956, he etched his name into the annals of sports history by throwing the only perfect game in World Series history. Don Larsen’s recent passing at the age of 90 leaves us with more than just memories of a perfect game; it offers a chance to reflect on a remarkable journey of triumph over adversity.
On October 8, 1956, when Don Larsen took the mound at the original Yankee Stadium, he was an ordinary pitcher in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable career. Standing at 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing around 215 pounds, with a crew cut and oversized ears, he was far from a typical baseball heartthrob. Larsen relied on a combination of a fastball, slider, and curveball, which seemed like a modest arsenal for a major league pitcher.
However, his path to that perfect day had been far from smooth. Just two years prior, he faced a significant setback, losing 21 games while playing for the Baltimore Orioles. He struggled not only with controlling his pitches but also with his off-field choices, especially a penchant for the nightlife. It seemed that Don Larsen’s star might never shine bright in the baseball world.
But the whims of fate sometimes have a different script. That unforgettable day, Don Larsen emerged as the embodiment of perfection. In a historic game against the Brooklyn Dodgers, he defied all odds. Twenty-seven times, the Dodgers’ batters faced him, including four future Hall of Famers, yet not one managed to record a hit, a walk, or provoke an error from a Yankees fielder.
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Larsen’s 2-0 masterpiece not only broke a 34-year perfect game drought in Major League Baseball but also left an indelible mark. To this day, no other pitcher has achieved a no-hitter in the World Series. As Larsen himself once said, “Goofy things happen.”
His journey to this pinnacle had been far from smooth. The 1956 season started on a shaky note when Larsen drove his car into a telephone pole during spring training. He insisted he had fallen asleep at the wheel, and despite speculations about alcohol, he maintained that he had not been drinking. The incident led to playful mockery from teammates, who affectionately nicknamed him “Gooney Bird.”
Yet, his fortunes took a turn for the better that season. Larsen went 11-5, with his late-season success attributed to a unique no-windup delivery he developed, providing better balance and pitch disguise.
Casey Stengel, the Yankees’ manager, took a gamble on Larsen during Game 2 of the World Series, but the Brooklyn Dodgers quickly drove him from the mound. His redemption would come in Game 5 when he unexpectedly received the starting nod. The series was tied at two games apiece, and Don Larsen’s life-changing moment began with a baseball placed in his shoe as a sign of his starting assignment.
Pitching against the Dodgers’ Sal Maglie, Larsen matched his opponent pitch for pitch, creating an aura of perfection. Then, in the fourth inning, Mickey Mantle’s home run handed the Yankees a one-run lead, and another run followed in the sixth.
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Don Larsen progressed smoothly through the game, with only a few heart-stopping moments. Jackie Robinson’s hit in the second inning bounced off third baseman Andy Carey but was saved by shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw out Robinson. Duke Snider missed a home run by inches, Gil Hodges’s drive was caught by Mantle, and Sandy Amoros’s hit grazed the edge of the ballpark.
By the seventh inning, Larsen was aware that he was working on a no-hitter but did not realize it was a perfect game. He reached three balls only once, during the first inning, and his control seemed impeccable.
The clubhouse was where Don Larsen realized the historical significance of his game, throwing the only perfect game in World Series history. His catch by Yogi Berra, depicted in a timeless photograph, marked a jubilant moment. For Larsen, it was a point of pride second only to his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
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Don Larsen’s journey began in Michigan City, Indiana, on August 7, 1929, but his family relocated to San Diego when he was young. His talent on the mound garnered attention from the St. Louis Browns, leading to an offer in 1947. (Interestingly, another Point Loma High School alumnus, David Wells, pitched a perfect game for the Yankees against the Minnesota Twins in 1998.)
Larsen made his major league debut in 1953 with the Browns, recording a 7-12 record. A challenging season followed in 1954 as the Browns transformed into the Baltimore Orioles, and Larsen posted a dismal 3-21 record. However, it was this period that marked a pivotal moment in his career when he was traded to the Yankees in a 17-player deal, which also brought them the formidable Bob Turley, the Cy Young Award winner in 1958.
Don Larsen’s accomplishments in 1955, with a 9-2 record, were further overshadowed by his historic perfect game in 1956. However, beyond that glorious moment, he never won more than 10 games in a single season. Subsequent trades took him to various teams, including the Kansas City Athletics, San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros (then known as the Colt .45s), Baltimore Orioles once more, and the Chicago Cubs. He retired after 14 seasons with a career record of 81-91, having appeared in four World Series with the Yankees and once with the Giants.
Don Larsen’s life after baseball led him to a career as a salesman for a paper-products company in California. In his later years, he and his wife, Corrine (Bruess) Larsen, settled in the picturesque town of Hayden Lake in Idaho. Here, he found solace in fishing in the nearby lake, while also engaging with fans at autograph and memorabilia shows and attending Yankee old-timers’ games.
To secure the future of his grandsons, Justin and Cody Larsen, Don Larsen made a poignant decision. He auctioned his uniform from the perfect game, a pinstriped jersey with the No. 18 and matching pants. This remarkable sale garnered $765,000 and would go towards their education. His legacy continued through his family, leaving an enduring connection to his baseball glory.
Despite his departure, Don Larsen’s impact endures, encapsulated in his iconic license plate: “DL000,” signifying his initials alongside the perfect game’s box score: no runs, no hits, and no errors. Every day, his mind revisited that historic moment, and his drive to achieve something great stayed with him throughout his life.
On the 45th anniversary of his perfect game, Don Larsen’s perspective remained steadfast: hard work and determination could lead to extraordinary moments. He believed that everyone deserved a chance at their own “good days.”
Don Larsen may have had an unremarkable career in the conventional sense, but he left behind a legacy that transcends statistics and records. He exemplified the power of perseverance, showing that within every underdog lies the potential for greatness. Don Larsen’s perfect game was not just an isolated event in the history of sports; it is a timeless reminder that every pitcher can strive for perfection, even when the odds are stacked against them.
As we remember Don Larsen, we honor not only his historic achievement but also his enduring spirit. He may have pitched only one perfect game, but his legacy is far from ordinary. It is a testament to the unwavering human spirit and the indomitable will to conquer adversity. Don Larsen’s name will forever be etched in baseball’s cherished history, reminding us that sometimes, the underdog can emerge victorious, and perfection can be achieved against all odds.