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60 Years of Perfection

This Saturday, October 8, marks the 60th anniversary of what is arguably the single greatest performance in baseball history. Simply put, it was perfection.  It was in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers that Don Larsen faced the minimum 27 batters. 27 up, 27 down. A perfect game. The only perfect game in post-season history. (Until the Philadelphia Phillies’ Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter during the 2010 playoffs it was also the only no-hitter in post-season history.)

There have been singular magnificent feats in baseball, but none has had the magnitude of Larsen’s perfection. As the story goes, Larsen was not scheduled to pitch on October 8th so he spent the night of October 7th “on the town”. It was only upon his arrival at Yankee Stadium when he saw the game ball sitting in his cleats, (the custom at the time), did he realize he would be on the mound that day.

Prior to his “moment in the sun” Larsen was a mediocre, but serviceable pitcher in the Major Leagues. Signed as an 18-year old free agent by the St. Louis Browns in 1947, Larsen made his debut in 1953. A year later in Baltimore, with the team renamed the Orioles, Larsen lost a league-worst 21 games. That November he was part of a 17-player deal between the Orioles and the Yankees.  Among the players dealt with Larsen to the Bronx was pitcher Bob Turley, who would be the hero of the 1958 World Series.

Larsen spent time as a starter and reliever for the Yankees in 1955 and appeared in 13 minor league games for the Denver Bears. 1955 was a down year for the Yankees in terms of the World Series. The Brooklyn Dodgers won their one and only World Series that year. It was a seven-game classic that saw Dodgers pitcher Johnny Podres shut out the Yankees, 2-0 in the deciding game.

In 1956, the two teams met again in the Fall Classic. Larsen had his best season in ’56, striking out over 100 batters for the only time in his career.  He also won a career-high 11 games and posted a 3.26 ERA in 20 starts and 18 relief appearances. The World Series started out disastrously for the Yankees, though.

Yankees ace Whitey Ford got knocked out early in a Game 1, 6-3 loss. Larsen was handed a six-run lead after two innings of Game 2 but didn’t make it out of the bottom of the 2nd inning when the Dodgers tied the game. Brooklyn went on to a 13-8 win and took a commanding two-games-to-none lead.

Game 3 saw Ford bounce back from his Game 1 loss, with a complete-game 5-3 win at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees evened up the series with a 6-2 victory in Game 3 behind the pitching of Tom Sturdivant and Mickey Mantle’s second home run in as many games. Game 5 would be the final game of the year played at Yankee Stadium with the Series shifting back to Brooklyn for Game 6, and if necessary, a seventh game.

64,519 fans were in attendance for Game 5, including future Yankees manager Joe Torre. Larsen’s opponent was 39-year old Sal Maglie, who had been acquired from the Cleveland Indians early in the season. Maglie had faced the Yankees in the World Series as a member of the New York Giants in 1951. The two starters matched zeroes through the first three innings.

Maglie had set down the first 11 batters he faced before Mantle strode to the plate in the 4th inning. Mantle drilled a Maglie pitch into the right field corner seats to break the scoreless tie and end the double perfect game. With one out in the top of the 5th inning, Mantle would come through again, this time with his defense.

The Dodgers hitters gave Larsen two scares, but the Yankees defense came up big. In the 2nd inning, Jackie Robinson smashed a ball that ricocheted off third baseman Andy Carey. Luckily for the Yankees, it went right to shortstop Gil McDougald who threw Robinson out. In the 5th inning, Gil Hodges drove a ball into the power alley in left-center field. Mantle raced over from center field and made an outstretched, backhanded grab for the putout.

With Larsen perfect through six innings, the Yankees added a big insurance run in the bottom of the 6th inning. Carey singled to start the inning and moved to second base on Larsen’s sacrifice bunt. Right fielder Hank Bauer followed with an RBI-single to left that put the Bombers up 2-0. The Yankees had a chance to add more runs in the inning after Joe Collins’ single put runners on the corners. But, Maglie got out of further trouble by getting Mantle to hit into a double play that was assisted by some poor Yankees baserunning.

Back in the dugout after the top of the 7th inning, Larsen himself did the unthinkable. You never discuss a perfect game or no-hitter in mid-game, and you definitely don’t talk to the pitcher involved. In this case, the pitcher did the talking. Larsen said to Mantle, “Mick, look at the scoreboard. Wouldn’t it be something with two more innings to go?”. Mantle looked at him like he had two heads.

The Yankees looked to add some insurance when they came to bat in the 7th inning as they put two men aboard with two outs. But, Maglie retired Carey on a groundout to keep it a two-run game. Larsen retired Robinson, Hodges and Sandy Amoros in the 8th inning to continue his “perfecto”. Maglie finished strong, striking out the side in the bottom of the 8th inning.

Carl Furillo led off the 9th inning for Brooklyn. He swung at a 1-2 pitch and flew out to Bauer in right for the first out. Catcher Roy Campanella was next. He fell behind in the count 0-1 and then proceeded to ground out to second baseman Billy Martin. With two outs and Maglie due up, Dodgers manager Walter Alston sent left-handed hitter Dale Mitchell up to pinch-hit. On a 1-2 pitch, Mitchell checked his swing, but home plate umpire Babe Pinelli called him out on strikes to preserve the perfection.

Larsen started to trot off the field, but his catcher, Yogi Berra, leaped into his arms. His teammates quickly joined in the on-field celebration. In the clubhouse afterward Larsen told the press that he didn’t even realize it was a perfect game. No one had thrown one since the Chicago White Sox’ Charlie Robertson in 1922. (Remarkably, 17 have been thrown since Larsen’s game.)

The Dodgers evened up the Series up at three games apiece in Game 6 when Clem Labine and Turley locked into another pitcher’s duel. The game ended when Robinson delivered a two-out single in the bottom of the 10th for a 1-0 Dodgers’ win. The run snapped an 18-inning Dodgers scoreless streak and forced a seventh game at Yankee Stadium.

Pitching duels were done with the Yankees dominating the finale. Johnny Kucks held the Dodgers to three hits in a complete-game shutout. Meanwhile, Berra homered twice and Elston Howard and Moose Skowron hit one apiece in a 9-0 Yankees rout.

Larsen’s perfect game and the 1956 World Series were part of the end of an era in New York. It was the last World Series between the Yankees and one of the other New York teams. The Dodgers and Giants moved west after the 1957 season, which meant there would be no more “Subway Series until the New York Mets were added to baseball in 1962 and faced the Yankees in the 2000 World Series. Jackie Robinson, who had broken baseball’s color barrier, played the final game of his career in Game 7 of the ’56 Series. Prior to the 1957 season, the Dodgers did the unthinkable. They dealt him to the rival Giants. But, Robinson refused to report and retired instead.

Larsen would play three more seasons for the Yankees before he and Hank Bauer were two of the four players traded to the Kansas City Athletics for a package that included Roger Maris. After three seasons with the Athletics, Larsen spent the rest of his career with the Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants, Houston Colt .45s/Astros, Baltimore Orioles, and the Chicago Cubs. He retired after the 1967 season with a lifetime record of 81-91, though he was 78-70 after his terrible sophomore season.

The Yankees and Larsen have always had a special connection and still do to this day. The next Yankees pitcher to throw a perfect game was David Wells (May 17, 1998). Wells and Larsen attended the same Point Loma High School in California. David Cone’s perfect game in July 1999 was downright eerie.

July 18, 1999 marked the day Berra returned to the Bronx after a long feud with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Larsen was in attendance on “Yogi Berra Day” and threw out the first pitch to Berra. The Yankees Hall of Fame catcher used then-Yankees-catcher Joe Girardi’s mitt for the ceremony. Cone took the mound against the Montreal Expos and started pouring strikes into that same catcher’s mitt. It was kismet. Orlando Cabrera popped up with two outs in the 9th inning. Third baseman Scott Brosius caught the 27th out as Cone dropped to his knees and was quickly wrapped into a bear hug by Girardi.

It was perfection.