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In Perfect Control On A Goofy Day Larsen’s Gem 40 Years Ago

Richard Sandomir New York Times

The gangly, big-eared party guy with the brush cut and the nickname of Gooney Bird won three games and lost 21 for Baltimore in 1954. Jimmy Dykes, his manager there, could not rope him in. “The only thing Larsen fears is sleep,” he said.

Control, on the mound and off, was a problem. Early one spring training morning in 1956, his second year with the Yankees, he dozed off at the wheel of his Oldsmobile convertible. It crashed into a telegraph pole. He swears he was not drunk.

Then on Oct. 8, 1956, Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history, against the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Sal Maglie, who had pitched a no-hitter two weeks before. Larsen needed 97 pitches and 2 hours, 6 minutes. He was ahead in the count on 21 of 27 batters and went to a full count only once, to Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese. When it ended, catcher Yogi Berra raced jubilantly to Larsen.

“My mind went blank when he hit me,” Larsen said of the famous embrace between the comic-book aficionados. “I knew Yogi would do something when he ran at me. But I don’t recall a lot. Maybe I’m not woke up yet. Who wants to wake up?”

The 40th anniversary of the game comes today (a day when he will appear on QVC to sell signed trinkets). Larsen knows that with a career record of 81-91, the perfect game will be the sole feat history will recall of him. He is 67. He and his wife, Corrine, retired three years ago to Hayden Lake, Idaho. After years of rebuffing writers, he reluctantly told his story to Mark Shaw in a new book, “The Perfect Yankee” (Sagamore Press). “He’d rather fish and hunt frogs than talk about the perfect game,” Shaw said.

Larsen has a simple response to why he pitched the World Series perfect game, and not a greater pitcher before him nor a better Yankees or Dodgers pitcher in the 1956 Series, like Whitey Ford, Don Newcombe or Carl Erskine.

“Goofy things happen,” he said.

The night before the game, Larsen dined with Arthur Richman, a sportswriter friend of his. They wound up at Bill Taylor’s on 52nd Street. Said Richman: “I said, ‘You’re pitching tomorrow; let’s have a few toddies and get you back to the hotel early.’ If we had three or four drinks, that wasn’t much for us.”

They returned to the Concourse Plaza Hotel between 11:30 and midnight. “I told him, ‘I feel you’ve got a hell of a game in you,’ and he said jokingly, ‘Maybe I’ll pitch a no-hitter,”’ said Richman, now the Yankees’ senior adviser for media relations.

Said Larsen: “I might have said that. You say a lot of things.”

Briefly attached to Larsen’s hotel door were two mock newspaper front pages made in Times Square by Ken Carey, the father of Yankee third baseman Andy Carey. One said, “Gooney Bird’s Pick Larsen to Win Fifth Game.” The other, “Larsen Pitches No-Hitter.” “But my father took down the the no-hitter one, tore it up and flushed it down the toilet, because he didn’t want to jinx Don,” Andy Carey said.

“I never saw it,” Larsen said.

By Larsen’s account in his book, he did not know he would pitch Game 5 until he walked into the clubhouse about 10 a.m. and saw a baseball in one of his shoes, a custom practiced by Frank Crosetti, the Yankees’ third-base coach. “I looked at it and said, ‘Don’t screw this up,”’ Larsen said.

Three days before, manager Casey Stengel yanked Larsen in the second inning of Game 2 after he had yielded four walks in a 13-8 Yankee loss. “I made a mess of things,” Larsen said.

For his sixth consecutive start since Sept. 3, Larsen used an abbreviated no-windup delivery. He joked that the comic book “Ghoulies” inspired the change, but he discovered balance, control and a way to not tip his pitches. He won his last four regularseason starts, ending the year at 11-5. When he warmed up Larsen in the bullpen on Oct. 8, Charlie Silvera, a backup catcher, said, “He had pretty good control.”

Many no-hitters are saved before anyone realizes something extraordinary is at stake. In the second inning, Jackie Robinson led off and lashed a hard shot to Carey that ricocheted to Gil McDougald at shortstop. McDougald threw Robinson out at first. “It hit off the fingertips of my glove,” Carey said. “A few years before, Robinson would have beaten it out.”

In the top of the fifth, an inning after Mickey Mantle broke up Maglie’s shutout with a solo home run, he raced into left-center to grab a Gil Hodges line drive. “Mickey did not say anything to me,” said Enos Slaughter, the Yankees’ left fielder. With two outs that inning, Dodgers left fielder Sandy Amoros hit a long fly to right on a 1-1 count. Ed Runge, the right-field umpire calling his first World Series, quickly called it foul. “By 6 inches,” Runge recalled.

The game moved rapidly. Larsen never needed more than 15 pitches in an inning. He required as few as seven in the third.

“I didn’t have a chance to think of a lot of stuff,” Larsen said.

Vin Scully and Bob Wolff, who called the game on TV and radio, respectively, hewed to the superstition to not say “no-hitter,” lest they jinx the pitcher.

“Don Larsen is spinning quite a web today, retiring 16 in a row,” Scully said in the sixth. “There have been four hits in the game, and the Yankees have notched them all,” Wolff said, also in the sixth.

Erskine, who was watching from the Dodgers bench, said: “Someone said, ‘Y’know, we don’t have a base runner yet.’ And we said, ‘No kidding?’ All of a sudden, our batters were up and back.”

Larsen realized by the seventh inning that he was pitching a no-hitter, but not a perfect game. Teammates ignored him in the dugout. Mantle walked away when Larsen struck up a chat. “The dugout was a morgue,” Larsen said, “and I wanted help.”

Wolff, a college outfielder, recalled that as he tried to focus on the game, “my body was tensing with every pitch.”

“I was pitching the game with Larsen,” he said. A nervous, young Scully thought to himself: “Don’t make a mistake. Don’t say it’s a no-hitter.”

As Larsen came up to the plate in the eighth, Wolff continued to avoid the dreaded words.

“You just can’t describe all that has been going on,” he said, “but I’m sure that you have been listening and are well-informed of the drama he is holding in his grasp.”

Scully, in the dramatic, almost musical, style he is known for, said: “Don was born in Michigan City, Ind., and lives in San Diego. There are two cities in the United States about to come to a standstill.”

With 24 Dodgers up and out, and the Yankees ahead, 2-0, Larsen was tense.

“Well,” Scully said, “let’s take a deep breath as we go to the most dramatic ninth inning in the history of baseball.”

Several times, Larsen stepped off the mound to dry his right hand with the rosin bag or mop his brow, wet in the 60-degree afternoon.

Larsen threw six pitches to retire Carl Furillo on a fly ball to right field.

On a one-strike pitch, catcher Roy Campanella grounded out to Billy Martin at second.

“My legs were shaking,” Larsen said. “I was nervous. But I wasn’t tired.” With one out left, he had thrown only 92 pitches.

In the Dodgers dugout, manager Walter Alston sent Dale Mitchell up to pinch-hit for Maglie, who had yielded five hits.

“Dale was a good contact hitter,” said Erskine, who had pitched two no-hitters and was the losing pitcher when Brooklyn was last no-hit, in 1950, by the Braves’ Vern Bickford. “No one questioned Alston.”

“I said a small prayer,” Larsen said, “and there was Dale Mitchell.”

“Yankee Stadium,” Scully said on TV, “is shivering in its concrete foundation right now.”

Larsen’s first pitch to Mitchell was low and outside, for ball one. A called strike followed.

Wolff: “The crowd is straining forward at every pitch.”

A swinging strike. A 1-2 count. Mitchell fouled off the next pitch.

The home plate umpire, Babe Pinelli, asked for a batch of new balls.

At third base, Carey said he was thinking, “Hit the ball to me.”

Finally, at a few minutes past 3 o’clock, 27-year-old Don Larsen delivered a fastball. Mitchell started to swing, then held back.

Pinelli’s right arm went up anyway. Strike three. Game over.

“It was a high strike,” Erskine said, “the vogue in those days.”

With the 5-foot-8-inch Berra aboard the dazed 6-4 Larsen, Scully summed up the Dodgers’ game: “No runs. No hits. No errors. In fact, nothing at all.”

The Dodgers filed out of the dugout, to prepare for Game 6, which they would win, 1-0. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Erskine said, “we didn’t go out and congratulate Larsen.”

After the clubhouse celebration, Larsen went to his nearby hotel room to call his family. His mother Charlotte, in La Jolla, Calif., could not bear to watch the game. Richman and Larsen celebrated until 3 a.m., winding up at the Copacabana. “We got blasted,” Richman said.

The comedian Joe E. Lewis performed that night at the Copa. Larsen was the biggest star in New York City that night, but he and Richman did not have enough cash to pay the $400 tab. “Lewis picked it up,” Richman said.

Only the next day, in the newspapers, did Larsen find out that his first wife, Vivian, was suing him for back child support for their daughter. “It was a marriage of convenience,” Larsen said.

In the spring, Larsen held out for $27,500 on his 1957 contract. But Yankees general manager George Weiss gave him only a $3,000 raise, to $15,000. He was traded after the 1959 season to the Kansas City Athletics, then played for the White Sox, Giants, Astros, Orioles, Cubs and five minor-league teams before retiring in 1968.

His no-windup delivery never worked much magic again.

“I’m not happy with my career record,” Larsen said. “It could have been better. Partying had something to do with it. But I always needed companionship, even if there were just two people in town.”

But he will always have the one and only World Series perfect game.

“It was a gorgeous day,” he said. “And everyone’s entitled to a good day.”

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