Don Larsen Perfect Game – October 8, 1956
The cap that Don Larsen wore when he pitched the perfect game, is part of the collection at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. So is the catcher’s mitt that Yogi Berra used that same day. Unlike Larsen, when you go to Cooperstown, you can see Yogi’s face on a plaque on the wall. Because unlike Larsen, Yogi Berra is also a member (deservedly) of the Hall of Fame.
The total number of Major League games ever played is now well over 200,000, and Larsen’s perfect one is arguably the most memorable of them all. (We can argue about that at length in another blog post.) But if not for Larsen’s other worldly performance in game five of the 1956 World Series, his legacy would barely pierce the threshold of being a fair-to-middling journeyman pitcher.
Larsen was a 7-12 rookie in 1953 with the St. Louis Browns. He moved with the Browns to Baltimore in 1954 (where they became the Orioles) and staggered through a 3-21 season. In fairness to Larsen, the Orioles overall were a pathetic 54-100, but managed to avoid last place thanks to the Philadelphia A’s who at 51-103, were making sure they would not be missed in Philly before moving to Kansas City the following season.
During the off season between 1954 and 1955, Larsen was the “other pitcher” in a 9 for 3 trade that brought Bob Turley and Larsen to the Yankees.
It’s amazing how getting traded from a 54-100 club to one with a 103-51 record, tends to make a pitcher look good. Larsen posted a 9-2 record for the pennant winning Yankees in 1955.
He started game four of the World Series that year against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, and lasted through four innings. The Dodgers tagged him with five earned runs and the loss. Going into the game, the Brooklyn was down two games to one, but they went on to win it seven games, the only World Series that the Brooklyn Dodgers ever won.
In 1956, with the likes of Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Moose Skowron, Hank Bauer, and oh yeah – Mickey Mantle, providing support, Larsen went 11-5. He never won more games than that in a single season. Then again, Casey Stengel thought enough of him to start Larsen against the Dodgers, in game two of the 1956 World Series, a game that was also played at Ebbets Field.
The Yankees handed Larsen a 6-0 lead, but Stengel yanked him the second inning after he gave up a single and two walks. The Yankees went on to blow the lead and the game 13-8, and now trailed Brooklyn, two games to none.
The Subway Series went back to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and the Yankees bounced back winning the next two games and tied the series. Stengel decided to “go home with the girl that he brung to the dance.” Despite having only lasted a total of five and two thirds innings in his previous two World Series starts (with six walks against only two strikeouts) Larsen was the Yankees starter for game five. And of course, we know what happened.
He kicked off the 1957 season with a thud. In his first start, against the Red Sox, Larsen only managed to retire four batters, while giving up five hits and four earned runs. The Yankees wound up winning that game, so he got away with a no decision. For the entire 1957 season Larsen posted a 10-4 record. In the World Series against Milwaukee, he started and won game three, a 12-3 laugher. He was also on the mound for the start of the decisive seventh game, but this time it was the Braves Lew Burdette who made history, winning his third game of the series, while Larsen took the loss.
During their 1958 World Series rematch with the Braves. He pitched seven shutout innings and got the win in game three. Larsen started game seven and once again was opposed by Burdette. In the third inning, with the Yankees leading 2-1, he gave up a pair of singles, and Stengel decided to try his luck with his ace Bob Turley. Turley had already lost game two, won game five and saved game six, but he still had enough left to hold the Braves to one run the rest of the way. The Yankees won the game 6-2 and the series 4-3. Turley got the win and the series MVP, and Larsen had to “settle” for a second World Series ring.
In 1959 Larsen’s record was 6-7 and the Yankees finished third, their first non-pennant winning season since 1954. Before the start of the 1960 season he was traded to Kansas City. Larsen then went on to play for five more teams before calling it quits in 1967. He ended his career with a record of 81-91.
Don Larsen is to this day, probably, the most famous sub .500 pitcher in the history of baseball.