erik lundegaard

Friday January 03, 2020

Don Larsen (1929-2020)

Larsen, the imperfect man, in the midst of perfection. 

I'd say he was among the least likely to do it, but then the history of baseball is made up of the triumph of least-likely guys: Bill Wambsganss, Pat Seerey, Gene Tenace, Bucky Dent, David Freese.

And Don Larsen.

He made his Major League debut for the lowly St. Louis Browns on April 18, 1953, and by mid-August his record was 2-11 with a 4.78 ERA. Not auspicious. Then over his next five starts something clicked, and he went 5-0 with four complete games, two shutouts, a two-hitter, and a 1.83 ERA. That string of victories probably helped save his career, but it didn't save the Browns, who moved to Baltimore the following season to become the Orioles. 

In ‘54, Larsen actually had a worse season, going 3-21 with a 4.37 ERA and more walks than strikeouts (89/80). His losses led the league. It was the only time he ever led the league in anything.

So after two seasons, he was 10-33. He was known as a heavy drinker and partier. His career should’ve been over.

Instead, he got a gig with baseball's most successful franchise, the New York Yankees, and did something no one in baseball history had done before or probably ever will. How did that happen?

Well, for starters, the ‘54 Yanks won 103 games but lost the AL pennant to the Cleveland Indians, who won 111. Apparently Yanks management, good guys all, blamed its aged pitching staff for winning “only” 103 games, so it went shopping for youth. And as part of a 17(!)-player trade with the O’s, the main prize being pitcher Bob Turley, Larsen was tossed in. Why did the Yankees even want him as a toss-in with a 3-21 record? Because in five starts against the Yanks, he pitched four complete games, won two, and his ERA was a respectable 3.00. Casey Stengel liked what he saw. 

Until he didn‘t. Larsen had a rocky start to the ’55 season, was sent to the minors, returned, rallied, went 11-4 with a 2.82 ERA the rest of the way, and was tapped to start Game 4 of the 1955 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. And that's when ... No, not yet. Spotted a 3-1 lead in the 4th, Larsen gave up a homer, a single and a homer, and was pulled after walking the leadoff batter in the 5th. A few days later, the Dodgers won their first World Series.

‘56 for Larsen started similar. So-so until September, then he went 4-0, with 2 CGs, one shutout and a 0.52 ERA. (He seemed to do better late: His career September record reads like a Cy Young season: 21-11, 3.01 ERA.) Tapped again to start in the World Series against the Dodgers, he again floundered. In 1 2/3 innings, he walked four, struck out nobody, and left with the bases loaded. The Dodgers won, 13-8.

So at this point, Don Larsen is meh pitcher who can’t rise to the occasion. And that's only half of it. Nobody pitched perfect games anymore. I mean nobody. There'd only been three in the 20th century, two by pitching greats during the dead-ball era (Cy Young and Addie Joss), and none since 1922. Certainly none in the World Series. God, no. There hasn't even been another no-hitter in the World Series, before or since, and the only other no-no in the postseason was Roy Halladay's in the 2010 NLDS against the Reds. 

It just wasn't done. 

Which brings us to October 8, 1956. I‘ll let Joe Posnanski pick it up from here:

On this day, this perfect day, he wanted to be one heckuva pitcher. The Dodgers first batter, Junior Gilliam, just looked as strike three went by. So did the Dodgers second batter, Pee Wee Reese. Something indescribable had come over Larsen, something almost mystical. The day before, after Game 4, Larsen had driven back to the Bronx with a friend — probably the sportswriter Arthur Richman, though the identity wasn’t revealed in the papers — and rather suddenly said, “I got one of those crazy feelings that I'm gonna pitch a no-hitter tomorrow.”

“A four-hitter will be good enough,” the friend said.

“Nope,” Larsen responded. “It's gonna be a no-hitter, and I'm gonna use my ghoul ball to do it.”

Larsen was a devoted, almost obsessive, comic book reader at the time, and he had grown convinced that he had his own superpower and that was the ability to throw a pitch called a “ghoul ball.” He never fully explained what the ghoul ball did. But whatever it was, he certainly had it going on that perfect day. ...

But mostly, Larsen didn't need Ghouls. He was in control. The perfect day was mostly Don Larsen and Yogi Berra playing catch. Larsen got to three balls on just one hitter all game. “He was uncanny,” said home plate umpire Babe Pinelli, who poetically happened to be calling the last game of his 22-year career.

“I never saw him pitch like that before,” Berra said. “He never shook off one sign. He hit the glove wherever I put it.”

The last out of the perfect day was perfect in itself — Brooklyn's Dale Mitchell watched strike three go by. It was as if, to the very end, the Dodgers could not quite believe what Don Larsen was doing. Nobody else could either. Yogi Berra leaped in the air and raced toward the mound and jumped into Larsen's arms.

“The imperfect man pitched a perfect game yesterday,” the New York Daily News wrote.

“I hope my Ma saw me,” Larsen told reporters.

How big was this feat? Larsen didn't pitch again in the Series but he won the MVP. Has any other 1-0 pitcher won a World Series MVP? Yogi Berra actually set a new World Series record with 10 RBIs, while hitting 3 homeruns, and with a .360/.448/.800 slashline. He also caught the perfect game; he called the perfect game. And the MVP still went to Larsen. And maybe deservedly. Did Game 5 break the Dodgers? They scored 25 runs in the first four games, and just one thereafter—a 10th inning run to win Game 6. But they were shut out in Game 7.

Larsen's best years were with the Yankees. With them he went 45-24; with everyone else 36-67. After the ‘59 season he was traded to the Kansas City A’s, in one of those bullshit Yankees/A's trades of the ‘50s, when the A’s were like a little minor league farm system for the Yanks. The A's got Larsen, a past-his-prime Hank Bauer, “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, and Norm Siebern. The Yankees got two throwaways and Roger Maris, who would win the AL MVP the next two years in a row, while breaking Babe Ruth's single-season homerun record in ‘61. Larsen, with the A’s, would go 1-10 with an ERA over 5.00.

But he hung on. He pitched for five more teams, pitched in the World Series again, for the ‘62 Giants, in relief against the Yankees, and won Game 4. After retiring in 1967, he became a paper-products salesman in California. In 2012, he sold his perfect-game uniform to pay for the college educations of his grandkids.

He hung on in life, too. Mickey Mantle once said, “Don was easily the greatest drinker I’ve known, and I‘ve known some pretty good ones in my time.” Yet he lived to be 90. He died on New Year’s Day in Hayden Lake, Idaho.

Of his perfect game, Larsen once said, “Goofy things happen.” Also this: “Everyone is entitled to some good days.”

Posted at 03:58 PM on Friday January 03, 2020 in category Baseball  
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