Don Larsen was a mediocre pitcher for the New York Yankees. But 50 years ago in a World Series game against the Brooklyn Dodgers, he pulled off one of the greatest individual feats in sports, the only perfect game in playoff history.
Prior to this October there have been:
291 World Series games, 174 American League Championship Series games, 184 National League Championship Series games, 100 American League Division Series games, 92 National League Division Series games, for a grand total of 841 postseason games.
But it is so much easier to think of it as 50 years since Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in the postseason. A feat that is the greatest pitched game in the history of major league baseball and arguably the greatest single feat by an American athlete.
While Don Larsen will tell you that records are made to be broken, he also adds, “this one can only be tied.” In baseball, the term “perfect” is an absolute and therefore cannot be modified. One pitcher cannot be “more perfect” than another, nor can a pitcher throw a “relatively perfect game;” the game is either “perfect” or it is not. There have been only 16 other perfect games in baseball’s history and while none is more perfect than the other, Don Larsen threw his perfect game at the most prominent time and against the highest level of competition.
The setting was Yankee Stadium. In those days early October meant the World Series and by Oct. 8, 1956 it was already Game 5. The Yankees were tied in the Series two games apiece against the defending World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers. In the Fall Classic the prior year the Dodgers defeated the Yankees to win their only championship in Brooklyn.
These were two immensely talented teams.
The Yankees were led by Mickey Mantle, the 1956 Triple Crown winner. Yogi Berra was behind the plate. Joe Collins was at first, Billy Martin was at second, Andy Carey was at third, Gil McDougald was the shortstop and joining the Mick in the outfield were Hank Bauer and Enos Slaughter.
The Series began at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and the Dodgers looked every bit like World Champs. Sal Maglie defeated Whitey Ford in the opener, 6-3. Mantle, Robinson and Hodges all homered.
In the second game the Yankees put together a 6-0 lead thanks in part to Berra's grand slam off Don Newcombe. But on that day Don Larsen’s no-wind-up delivery was not a factor. He couldn’t get the ball over the plate; he walked four in just an inning and a third and got a quick hook from Casey Stengel. The Dodgers came back to win 13-8 and Brooklyn was up in games, 2-0.
The Subway Series moved to Yankee Stadium.
Whitey Ford came back on three days rest while Walter Alston threw Roger Craig. The Dodgers led 2-1, but Enos Slaughter hit a three-run homer and the Yankees got their first win of the series, 5-3.
Game 4, saw Tom Sturdivant, behind homers from Mantle and Bauer, top Carl Erskine and, 6-2.
The Series was tied, 2-2.
Yankees pitching coach Jim Turner and Stengel were mum (a miracle in itself) as to who would pitch Game 5.
The stories about how Don Larsen spent the night before Game 5 has become a cottage industry. Larsen long had a reputation as a partier. Larsen doesn’t deny that the reputation was deserved, and when I spent the day with him in his beautiful Idaho home he enjoyed a “sip” throughout the day. Time Magazine of 10/22/56 described Larsen as “a lighthearted playboy noted most for spectacular achievements such as wrapping his car around a Florida telephone pole during spring training.”
Richman reportedly had been told by Stengel that Larsen would pitch the next day and said to Larsen, "We can't have too much to drink because you're pitching tomorrow." Richman recounted that Larsen did say that if he did pitch tomorrow, he might throw a no-hitter.
When Larsen entered the clubhouse the next day he found that Frank Crosetti, the Yankees’ third base coach, had placed the warm-up ball for that day's game in Larsen’s spikes in his locker, signifying that he was the starting pitcher.
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