Imperfect But for One Afternoon: Don Larsen (1929-2020)

Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Ford… Don Larsen did not have a career that placed him among the pantheon of great Yankees. Indeed, he was quite the journeyman, a league-average righty who toiled for seven teams during his 14-year major league career (1953-65, ’67) without making a single All-Star team. Yet on October 8, 1956, Larsen captured lightning in a bottle, assuring himself a permanent welcome among pinstriped legends and throughout baseball by throwing the only perfect game in World Series history. Larsen, who became a regular at Old Timers’ Day celebrations alongside more decorated Yankees, died of esophageal cancer on Wednesday in Hayden, Idaho at the age of 90.

In front of 64,519 fans at Yankee Stadium, facing the defending champion Dodgers — who sported a lineup that featured future Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider — the 26-year-old Larsen retired all 27 batters he faced, seven by strikeout. The last of those was Dale Mitchell, pinch-hitting for pitcher Sal Maglie, who had held the Yankees to two hits and five runs. On Larsen’s 97th pitch of the afternoon, Mitchell checked his swing on a pitch on the outside corner. “Got him!” exclaimed Vin Scully, who had taken the baton from Mel Allen in calling the game for NBC. “The greatest game ever pitched in baseball history by Don Larsen, a no-hitter, a perfect game in a World Series… When you put it in a World Series, you set the biggest diamond in the biggest ring.”

Note that Scully erred in referring to “only the second time in baseball history” where such a feat had happened. To that point, it had been over 34 years since the previous perfect game, and there had been just five in major league history: two in 1880, then ones by Boston’s Cy Young (May 5, 1904), Cleveland’s Addie Joss (October 2, 1908), and Chicago’s Charlie Robertson (April 30, 1922).

Larsen, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound righty who had spent 1955 and ’56 alternating between starting and relief for the Yankees, had previously been roughed up by the Dodgers. They touched him for five runs in four innings in Game 4 of the 1955 World Series, with homers by Campanella and Gil Hodges, then chased him in the second inning of his Game 2 1956 start at Ebbets Field after he walked four batters and allowed four unearned runs while helping to squander a 6-0 lead in what became a 13-8 loss. Larsen didn’t expect to start again, but three days after that debacle, with the Series tied at two games apiece, he showed up to Yankee Stadium and found that manager Casey Stengel had left a baseball in his shoe, signifying his assignment.

“The imperfect man pitched a perfect game,” wrote the New York Daily NewsDick Young, pinch-hitting a lede for overwhelmed colleague Joe Trimble. Indeed, at that point Larsen, who had four big league seasons under his belt, was renowned for having one of the league’s best fastballs but had already acquired a reputation for putting his night life ahead of his day job. During spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1956, he had fallen asleep at the wheel after drinking into the wee hours and crashed his brand-new Oldsmobile into a telephone pole; later that season, a Bronx Superior Court Justice ordered his World Series share to be seized in order to pay child support. Mickey Mantle — no stranger to the night life himself — once said of Larsen, “Don had a startling capacity for liquor. Larsen was easily the greatest drinker I’ve known and I’ve known some pretty good ones in my time.”

Born in Michigan City, Indiana on August 7, 1929, Larsen took up baseball after watching his father, a watchmaker in a jewelry store, play sandlot ball. In 1944, his family moved to San Diego, where at Point Loma High School, Larsen starred in basketball as well as baseball. He bypassed college scholarship offers to pursue his hoop dreams in favor of signing with the St. Louis Browns, who paid the 17-year-old righty a whopping $850 bonus. Larsen spent four seasons in the Browns’ chain before being drafted into the US Army in 1951 and spending two years in noncombat roles during the Korean War; he pitched and played first base for an Army team while serving in a Special Services unit at Fort Shafter in Honolulu.

After being discharged, Larsen made the Browns out of spring training, and debuted on April 18, 1953, shutting out the Tigers for 5.1 innings before yielding three runs and being chased; he did go 2-for-2 at the plate. The dreadful Browns went 54-100, finishing last in the eight-team AL, but Larsen acquitted himself respectably, going 7-12 with a 4.16 ERA (99 ERA-), 3.40 FIP, and 3.9 WAR in 192.2 innings. He also hit well (.284/.318/.457 with three homers and 10 RBI in 85 PA).

Following the season, the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles, but they remained inept, again going 54-100. Larsen played the palooka, going 3-21 — his loss total led the league — with a 4.37 ERA (125 ERA-) and 4.10 FIP in 201.2 innings. While manager Jimmy Dykes was more patient with Larsen’s curfew violations than St. Louis predecessor Marty Marion, he observed, “The only thing Don fears is sleep.”

Two of Larsen’s three wins were complete-game victories against the Yankees, with the second one, on July 30, a seven-hit shutout. Stengel and general manager George Weiss noticed. On November 17, 1954, the Yankees and Browns completed a 17-player trade — the biggest in baseball history — with 24-year-old Orioles righty Bob Turley, who had earned All-Star honors while leading the AL in both walks and strikeouts, at the center but Larsen also a key piece. He spent the first 3 1/2 months of the 1955 season battling a sore shoulder, pitching in Triple-A, and making just four appearances for the Yankees, but he threw a complete-game four-hitter against the A’s on July 31, then reeled off four more consecutive wins, three of them complete games, including a shutout of the Tigers and a 13-inning marathon agains the Red Sox. He pitched well down the stretch, finishing the season 9-2 with a 3.06 ERA and earning a World Series start. But after beating the Dodgers three times in the previous six Octobers, the Yankees’ luck ran out and Dem Bums claimed their first championship.

Though he notched a complete-game win over the Senators on Opening Day in 1956, Larsen was in and out of the rotation for most of the season. Thanks in part to an unorthodox no-windup delivery introduced in his penultimate start of the regular season, he flourished late in the year, posting a 1.84 ERA in 73.1 innings from August 7 onward; he finished 11-5 with a 3.26 ERA and 4.27 FIP in 179.2 innings. Stengel liked the deception that his new delivery provided; Larsen later told MLB Network’s Bob Costas that the no-windup helped him concentrate more on the plate and the catcher, saying, “I didn’t need to take the big ol’ windup, I could still throw as hard without it.”

It didn’t always work, but in Game 5, it kept the Dodgers off balance. Wrote the New York Times‘ John Drebinger, after referencing Larsen falling asleep at the wheel during spring training:

“Yesterday big Don remained wide-awake through every moment of the nine innings as he wrapped his long fingers around a baseball to make it do tricks never seen before in world series play. He did it, too, with a most revolutionary delivery, which might account for his sudden rise to fame. Don takes no windup at all. Each pitch is served from a standing delivery that he adopted only a little over a month ago. … So accurate was Larsen’s control that of the twenty-seven batters to face him, only one [Reese, the second batter in the first inning] managed to run the count to three balls.”

[Update: As Keith Olbermann reminded me, Larsen may have had another thing going for him that day: the crowds that day were so great that the Yankees allowed them into the batters’ eye, the empty area in center field against which batters are to be able to see the ball. The photographic evidence is compelling (click the link to see the whole thing)… 

…but such a theory doesn’t explain how there weren’t any other perfect games thrown in the 41 other World Series games during which the Yankees hosted even bigger crowds. Where were they putting fans then?]

Larsen didn’t shake off a single sign from catcher Yogi Berra, and survived a few close scrapes. In the second inning, a Robinson liner ricocheted off third baseman Andy Carey’s glove, but shortstop Gil McDougald grabbed it on one hop and threw out the aging speedster. In the fifth inning, after Mantle had hit a solo homer to right field to produce the game’s first run, Snider nearly tied the game, but his drive to right curved foul. Two batters later, Mantle flagged down a Hodges drive in left-center field, making a back-handed catch that he later called the best he ever made:

The next batter, Sandy Amoros, hit a towering fly to right field that also curved foul. In the eighth inning, Carey speared a low Hodges liner by diving to his left.

Wrote the Washington Post’s Shirley Povich:

“The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first game in a World Series.

…First there was mild speculation, then there was hope, then breaths were held in slackened jaws in the late innings as the big mob wondered if the big Yankee righthander could bring off for them the most fabulous of all World Series games.”

Berra’s celebratory embrace of Larsen became iconic, as did the entire performance, to the extent that when MLB Network debuted on January 1, 2009, it aired a kinescope of the surviving game footage (from the bottom of the second inning onward), followed by Costas interviewing the battery.

Despite being blanked by Larsen, the Dodgers did not surrender their title without a fight. Clem Labine pitched a 10-inning shutout opposite Turley in Game 6, with Robinson singling in the winning run, but the Yankees won a 9-0 laugher in Game 7 at Ebbets Field. Larsen was named Series MVP, an award that had only been established the previous year.

Larsen spent three more years with the Yankees, and pitched in two more World Series. He pitched twice in the 1957 matchup against the Braves, throwing 7.1 innings of two-run relief in a win after Turley struggled early, but getting chased during a four-run third inning that proved decisive in Game 7. In the 1958 rematch with the Braves, he threw seven shutout innings in a Game 4 win, and again started Game 7, but exited in the third inning despite allowing just one run; Turley extricated the Yankees from a two-on, one-out jam and threw the final 6.2 innings as the Yankees won 6-2.

After struggling in 1959, Larsen was traded to the Kansas City A’s as part of a seven-player deal that brought Roger Maris to New York. He was tattooed for a 5.38 ERA while going 1-10 for the A’s in 1960, and even spent four weeks in the minors. He spent most of 1961 — and indeed, the remainder of his career — pitching out of the bullpen. On June 10, 1961, he was traded to the White Sox as part of an eight-player deal, and then on November 30 of that year, he and Billy Pierce were sent to San Francisco in a six-player trade.

Though he was mediocre for the Giants in 1962, pitching to a 4.37 ERA in 49 appearances totaling 86.1 innings, all in relief, Larsen collected two key wins in October. First, in the rubber match of the three-game tiebreaker series against the Dodgers, he relieved Juan Marichal in the eighth inning and pitched a scoreless frame; when the Giants rallied for four runs to turn a 4-2 deficit into a 6-4 lead, he got the win, and Pierce followed to collect the save. In the World Series against the Yankees, Larsen made three appearances totaling 2.1 innings and allowed one run. Entering a two-out, two-on situation in Game 4, with the score tied 2-2, he walked Berra but induced Tony Kubek to ground out to end the threat; replaced by a pinch-hitter in a rally that culminated with Chuck Hiller’s grand slam in the top of the seventh, he was credited with the win, though the Giants lost in seven games.

Larsen spent all of 1963 with the Giants, but was sold to the Houston Colt .45s in early ’64. In 10 starts and 26 relief appearances totaling 113.2 innings, the 34-year-old posted career bests in ERA (2.45) and FIP (2.65). He made a single appearance for Houston the following year before being traded to an Orioles squad that was much improved from the one he left 10 1/2 years earlier. Though he pitched well (2.67 ERA, 3.17 FIP in 54 innings) in low-leverage duty for a 94-win third-place club, he was released the following April; the Orioles went on to win the World Series without him. Larsen spent most of the remainder of his career in the minors, first with the Giants’ Triple-A Phoenix squad (1966) and then with three Cubs affiliates (1967-68); he made just three more major league appearances, all with the Cubs in the first week of July in 1967.

After his career, Larsen spent 25 years working as a salesman for a paper company in the San Jose area, then retired to the Idaho panhandle. He became a frequent guest at Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Days and other festivities right up through the most recent one last June. Serendipity found him; David Wells, who threw a perfect game for the Yankees against the Twins on May 17, 1998, also graduated from Point Loma High School in San Diego; after his gem, Larsen called to congratulate him. Fourteen months later, on July 18, 1999, Larsen and Berra were in the House That Ruth Built for a day honoring the latter. After a pregame celebration, David Cone threw a perfect game against the Expos while Larsen watched. The Fox broadcast cut to him several times before and after Cone induced Orlando Cabrera to foul out to Scott Brosius for the final out:

Larsen finished his major league career with an 81-91 record, a 3.78 ERA (101 ERA-), 3.94 FIP, a .242/.291/.371 batting line with 14 homers, and a total of 15.6 WAR including offense — respectable but modest numbers, to be sure. Nonetheless, he was the right man to rise to the occasion at the right time, and in doing so, carved out a perfect niche in baseball history.

We hoped you liked reading Imperfect But for One Afternoon: Don Larsen (1929-2020) by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

What was his xFIP of that game?