Donald “Don” James Larsen, an imperfect pitcher whose perfect game in the 1956 World Series cemented his legacy, spent the last 25 years of his life at Hayden Lake pursuing fish rather than fame.
Larsen, 90, died on Wednesday following a battle with esophageal cancer, said retired Spokane attorney and friend Tom Keefe. The former legislative director for late U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson met Larsen in 2016 as part of Keefe’s annual pilgrimage to honor Eddie Gaedel, a 3-foot-7 performer who had one at-bat in 1951 as part of a publicity stunt for the St. Louis Browns.
Larsen is survived by his wife, Corrine, 88, who recently moved into assisted living. Keefe said he joined the Larsens for their 62nd wedding anniversary on Dec. 7. Larsen was born the year the stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression.
“The trajectory of his whole life coincided with epic events,” Keefe said of Larsen.
From the time he broke into the big leagues in 1953 with the St. Louis Browns until he retired in 1967 from the Chicago Cubs, Larsen won 81 games and lost 91. He also had 26 saves and finished with a respectable 3.78 earned run average.
However, he never won more than 11 games in a season and compiled a 3-21 record in 1954, the year Yankees manager Casey Stengel included Larsen as the last player in a 17-player trade with Baltimore after Stengel remembered that two of Larsen’s wins that year had come against the Yankees.
A losing record and 81 career wins are hardly the stuff of legend necessary for induction into Cooperstown.
But the epic event that carried Larsen into sports immortality came in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, as Larsen pitched for the New York Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a 97-pitch masterpiece, Larsen did not allow any of the 27 batters to reach base.
While most of the game does not, the iconic moment that remains on film is when Yankees catcher Yogi Berra ran and jumped into Larsen’s arms after the historic victory.
“It was just a close game,” Larsen told The Spokesman-Review in 2002 of the 2-0 Game 5 victory. “I just tried to do my best and hoped we won it.”
Marty Appel, an author, baseball historian and former Yankees public relations official, said in 2002 that Larsen’s performance will forever remain special for Yankees fans.
Larsen “primarily gave the team, the franchise, an event that they could call the greatest game ever pitched,” Appel said of Larsen’s Game 5 performance.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement Thursday that Larsen’s perfect game has “remained unique for 63 years and counting.”
“On a team of many stars, Don illustrated that anyone can make history – even perfection – on our sport’s biggest stage,” Manfred said according to the Associated Press.
Following his retirement, Larsen spent his later years fishing on Hayden Lake and Lake Coeur d’Alene every chance he could. It was Keefe’s obsession with Gaedel and his access to fresh salmon that cemented his friendship with Larsen.
Keefe was in St. Louis in 2016 when Larsen approached him for the first time.
“I met him in the lobby of the Hilton. I gave him my Eddie Gaedel card. He handed it back to me and asked me, ‘Can you autograph this?’ ” Keefe said. “I said, ‘I will sign it under one condition. I have to get a picture taken when I’m signing it because no one will believe that Don Larsen wanted a Tom Keefe autograph otherwise.’ ”
That started a friendship, which included lots of talk of baseball. Keefe, 71, had represented local efforts by Native Americans to restore fishing rights on the Columbia River. As a result, he often brought Larsen fresh salmon.
“Salmon got me into his house,” Keefe said. “When I first got to know Don, I told him, ‘You and Eddie have a lot in common. You are both only remembered for one game.’ We enjoyed bantering back and fourth. His and my sense of humor sometimes clashed.”
This past year, Keefe inducted Larsen into the Eddie Gaedel hall of fame. He traveled to St. Louis with Don and Corrine Larsen in August. Both were struggling with health, and Keefe later helped Larsen move Corrine into an assisted-living facility.
Soon after, Larsen, who smoked from the age of 10 and once was featured in a Camel cigarettes commercial after his perfect game, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Keefe has been living with Larsen the past four months to help him out.
During that time, Keefe took the opportunity to research Larsen’s past. He grew up in Michigan City, Indiana, where at 14 he won a pingpong competition. After high school, the 6-4, 225-pound Larsen turned down a scholarship to play college basketball.
“My take on him, what he proved that day (in 1956), was that he had everything he needed to be the greatest pitcher in the history of the game,” Keefe said. “But he had an appetite for life that probably got in the way. He loved the nightlife. He loved sneaking out after curfew.”
At the end of his career, Larsen played a stretch for the Pacific Coast League team in Tacoma that brought him to Spokane. He officially retired from the Chicago Cubs in 1967. During some of the offseasons, Larsen would travel to Mexico so he could play the game all year long.
“That was Don Larsen’s heaven on earth, playing baseball every day,” Keefe said.
Recently, as Larsen’s health began to fail, the conversations turned to tougher topics.
“On the way to radiation therapy one day, I was telling him about meditation,” Keefe said. “His response: ‘I do what I want when I want and that’s the way it’s always been.’ I said, ‘Maybe we should put that on your tombstone.’ He said, ‘Save your money. I’m getting cremated.’ ”
After several visits from care providers from Hospice of North Idaho, Larsen agreed on Monday to leave his home overlooking Hayden Lake and move to the hospice facility.
“We were waiting for the ambulance. He told me, ‘Do me one more favor. Get me a Pacifico beer and a glass full of ice,’ ” Keefe said. “He sipped it down and kicked the can at me and was out the door.”
In addition to his son, Scott Larsen, and wife, Corrine, Don Larsen is survived by daughter-in-law Nancy and grandsons Justin and Cody. Services are pending.
“It was a long road for the kid from Michigan City, Indiana,” Keefe said. “But he enjoyed every inch of it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.