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.
Game 5 was Sal Maglie (13-5, 2.89) versus Don Larsen (11-5, 3.26)
In the top of the 1st, Jim Gilliam led off by striking out and Pee Wee Reese did the same on a 3-2 slider. No one amongst the 64,519 Yankee Stadium fans would have ever imagined that the Reese at bat would be the only time Larsen went to three balls on any batter. Duke Snider then lined out to Hank Bauer and the side was retired.
Maglie quickly disposed of the Yanks 1-2-3 and the game moved to the 2nd inning.
Leading off the 2nd inning was the immortal Jackie Robinson. Robinson would retire after this World Series and the 37 year old star in an article in Look Magazine explained that “my legs are gone and I know it.” Fifty years later these words still resonate as Robinson fouled off a fastball and then hit the second pitch on a line to toward third baseman Andy Carey. The ball caromed off his glove over to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out by a step.
By the time the game reached the bottom of the 4th inning, neither team had recorded a hit. By the time The Mick stepped to the plate, Larsen had retired 12 in a row, Maglie had retired 11 straight, the combined 23 in a row becoming a record that still stands. Mantle had had a tremendous season hitting .353, slamming 52 homers and knocking in 130 runs to win the Triple Crown. Using a bat he borrowed from Jerry Lumpe, a Yankees reserve who wasn’t on the postseason roster (Mantle usually used Hank Bauer’s bats), Mantle hit his third homer of the Series and Larsen and the Yankees had a 1-0 lead. Later, Mantle said, “This will be the first time a home run by me will not make the headlines.”
Because Hodges was so strong, Mantle had backed up and moved over a bit to his left. Larsen threw Hodges a slider that “hung.” Hodges swung and hit a tremendous shot to left-center field. Larsen recalls to this day that the shot would have been a home run in any other ballpark, certainly Ebbets Field. But this was Yankee Stadium with its huge center field alleys.
Mantle took off with the crack of the bat and ran full speed. Just when it appeared the ball would hit the ground, Mantle stretched out and made a backhand grab of the ball. Mantle said, “It was the greatest catch I ever made.”
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In the 6th Larsen easily retired Carl Furillo, Roy Campanella and Sal Maglie, although Maglie stretched him to seven pitches, the most Larsen would throw to any batter this October day. Maglie struck out and Larsen had faced 18 Dodgers and retired them all.
In the bottom of the 6th Andy Carey led off with a single. It was only the second hit of the game for the Yankees. It was only the second hit of the game for anybody. Up stepped Larsen, who was a very good hitting pitcher. Often used as a pinch hitter, Larsen ended his career with a lifetime .242 batting average, 14 homers, 72 RBI and yet only 11 sacrifice bunts in 14 seasons. After failing twice, Larsen laid down a two-strike bunt to move Carey to second. Carey scored on a Hank Bauer single to make it a 2-0 game.
Larsen retired the Dodgers in the 7th on just eight pitches. It was 21 up and 21 down, but as the Yankees came to bat in the bottom of the inning, something happened to Larsen … he looked at the scoreboard.
Larsen will tell you with all sincerity that he had no idea he was pitching a no-hitter, “All I cared about was winning the game. That’s all I was focused on.” If Larsen didn’t know what was going on, he was the last one to notice. Vince Scully was announcing the game for the Dodgers. Mel Allen was calling the game for the Yankees and Bob Wolff was doing radio play-by-play for the independent Mutual Network. Wolff recalls that he didn’t want to jinx Larsen by using the term "no-hitter," instead saying things such as "21 up and 21 down" after seven innings (Larsen insists that he didn’t know it was a perfect game until someone told him after the game in the shower).
Larsen remembers the Yankee dugout was as quiet as a morgue. Everybody sat in the same place inning after inning, silently not wanting to whammy Larsen. They would occasionally talk to each other but never to Larsen. At the end of the 7th Larsen was having a smoke in the runway when he looked up and saw nothing but goose eggs following “BKLYN” on the scoreboard. He turned to Mantle and said, “Look at the scoreboard! Wouldn’t that be something? Two more innings to go!” Mantle shook his head, saying nothing and simply walked away to his seat.
Maglie held the Yankees in the 7th and Larsen retired the Dodgers in order in the 8th. By the time Larsen came to the plate in the bottom of the 8th inning, the announcers were running out of words to describe the tension. Wolf recalls, ''I was pitching the game with Larsen.'' While Scully thought to himself: ''Don't make a mistake. Don't say it's a no-hitter.''
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