The World Series begins on Oct. 23. Sometime during the endlessly long telecasts, announcers will laud New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen and the perfect game he tossed in 1956. Larsen’s game is without question the most impressive single feat in baseball’s long history.
Two interesting sidebars jump out at me immediately. First, Larsen’s masterpiece came on Oct. 8, the fifth game of the best of seven series. Since 1994, when Major League Baseball introduced a three-round elimination system, instead of the first week of October marking the end of the World Series, the playoffs are just beginning.
Second, Larsen dispatched the Brooklyn Dodgers in a tidy two hours and six seconds. This year, the average game took nearly three hours to complete.
Before Larsen became a Yankee, he was a St. Louis Brown, one of baseball’s most ragtag teams. The Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles. Then, in a stroke of good fortune for Larsen, the Orioles traded him to the Yankees in one of baseball’s biggest-ever deals. The Yankees sent nine players to Baltimore in exchange for eight Orioles.
Larsen quickly established a reputation as a hard-living, hard-drinking guy who loved the night life with his like-minded teammates Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin. The laid-back Larsen also liked to read comic books to relax.
One of the myths that’s evolved about Larsen’s perfect game is that the night before, he had been out until the wee hours. After all, no less an expert than Mantle had already declared that Larsen “was the greatest drinker I’ve ever known.”
The truth was that Larsen had an early dinner, drank “a couple of beers,” and went to bed in his Bronx hotel room early. Since Yankee manager Casey Stengel had a habit of not naming his starters until game day, Larsen didn’t expect to pitch; he thought he would be in the bullpen.The next day, Larsen retired 27 batters in a row to beat the Dodgers, 2-0.
Larsen’s baseball life after his perfect game was more downs than ups. Although he performed well for three more seasons, the Yankees traded Larsen to Kansas City in 1960, where he went 1-10. Through 1968, Larsen bounced in and out of the minor leagues and pitched for six other teams, including the San Francisco Giants. Larsen finished with a 81-91 record. After he retired, Larsen moved to California to be closer to his mother. He began a 24-year career as a paper salesman.
Recently, Larsen said that he thinks about his perfect game “every day.” More than 50 years later, Larsen can still detail every pitch he threw to every batter. Last year, the 76-year-old Larsen auctioned off his uniform jersey. The winning bid was $756,000, which Larsen gave to his grandchildren to help them defray their college tuition costs.
Larsen is still in demand as a public speaker. Last month, he gave the keynote address at a St.Louis Browns’ reunion. As Larsen puts it, “People said I didn’t do enough in my career and maybe they’re right. But I had one great day.”
Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.