By Steve Svetovich
It was a perfect day for a Legends game at Moosic’s PNC Field this past June 21.
After all, it was Father’s Day and 31 former New York Yankees, including Don Larsen, were on hand for an old-timer’s game before a near capacity crowd.
The biggest name there was No. 44, Mr. October. Yes, Reggie Jackson, with 563 career home runs, was there and had a base hit to right field in the contest.
But standing in the left corner of the dugout during pre-game warmups was the only man to ever pitch a perfect game in World Series history. Don Larsen, who will be 86 in August, accomplished the legendary feat almost six decades ago in Game Five of the 1956 World Series.
Larsen was keenly glancing at the younger former Yankees in the corner of the dugout when approached by this scribe for an interview.
Larsen is a fixture at the annual old-timers day at Yankee Stadium. He was just there for that event the day before. “I am not sure how many old-timers games I have been to,” he said. “I know it is a lot. Maybe near 50. It was very nice this year when they honored Willie Randolph and Mel Stottlemeyer. I know Mel was surprised. He has not been well lately. He deserved it. It was a good function, very nice. And I am enjoying this function today.”
Larsen’s battery mate for his perfect game, Yogi Berra, 90, was absent during this year’s old-timers game at Yankee Stadium. “I don’t know why he couldn’t make it,” Larsen said. “I have not seen Yogi in a while.”
The talk quickly turned to A-Rod and his recent 3,000th hit, a home run.
“I am very happy for A-Rod,” said Larsen. “I like A-Rod. I was hoping he would do well this season. And he is playing extremely well and helping the Yankees. I think the Yankees treated A-Rod very bad. I don’t like the way they treated him at all. No way should he have been treated like that. He is a member of the team. He is starting to win the favor of the fans back. I hope he continues to perform well. It is nice to see that.”
Larsen said he likes the makeup of this year’s Yankees team. “It is not for me to decide where they end up,” he said, “but I like the team and think they will make the playoffs. They have been playing well. It’s a good team.”
Larsen acknowledged his biggest thrill in the game was his perfect game, but said there were other big moments. “Pitching in all those World Series was a big thrill. I got to pitch in a few of them and that was always a thrill.” Larsen had a career pitching record of 4-2 in World Series play. Getting to the World Series and winning was always a goal.”
Larsen, stoic at times, but polite, was interrupted by a heckler from the media during the course of the interview. The media heckler repeatedly asked Larsen in a joking manner if he was sober. Larsen, known during his playing days as one who enjoyed a few beers on the town with teammates, responded with a cold stare to the heckler while continuing the interview.
Larsen made his major league debut April 18, 1953 for the old St. Louis Browns. He pitched for seven major league teams, compiling an 81-91 record and 3.78 ERA. He struck out 849 batters. But it was for the New York Yankees where he really shined. He pitched in New York from 1955 through 1959, compiling an impressive 45-24 record. He made 90 starts in 128 appearances under manager Casey Stengel.
Larsen reported to spring training with a sore shoulder in 1955. He was ineffective in the beginning of the season and was demoted to the Denver Bears. However, he came back to the Yankees and pitched in 19 games, starting 13 of them. He had a 9-2 record with a 3.07 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 97 innings. He pitched his first career shutout against now Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and the Detroit Tigers on August 5, 1955.
The 1956 season was the best of Larsen’s career. He posted an 11-5 record, with a career best 107 strikeouts and 3.26 ERA. He pitched in 38 games, starting 20. By the end of May, he had a 5.64 ERA. He steadily improved throughout the magical season which culminated for him with the perfect game.
In a seven-start stretch to finish the season, he had five complete games and pitched 10 innings in another. He pitched a four-hit shutout against the Orioles September 3 and finished the season with a 7-3 win over Boston September 28.
His perfect game came October 8, 1956 in Game 5 of the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Larsen had lost Game 2 of the Series. His opponent for Game 5 was Sal “The Barber’ Maglie. Larsen needed just 97 pitches to nail down the perfect game.
The only Dodger to get a three-ball count was Pee Wee Reese in the first inning.
“I had great control,” Larsen said. “I never had that kind of control in my life.”
The final pitch was a called third strike to pinch hitter Dale Mitchell, a career .311 hitter. The lasting shot of catcher Yogi Berra jumping into Larsen’s arms is considered one of the greatest moments in baseball history.
Larsen received the Babe Ruth Award and was named MVP of the 1956 World Series. Larsen did some promotional work throughout the country following his perfect game, but stopped soon after because he felt the endorsements were disrupting his routine.
Larsen had a 10-4 record and 3.74 ERA for the Yankees in 1957. He pitched in 27 games, 20 of them starts.
He picked up a win in relief in Game 3 of the 1957 World Series against the Milwaukee Braves. The Braves won the Series in seven games. Larsen won another game in the 1958 World Series. He slipped to a 6-7 record in 1959 and the Yankees traded him to the Kansas City Athletics in the deal that brought the Bronx Bombers Roger Maris. Larsen had an 8-2 record pitching for the Athletics and Chicago White Sox in 1961. Pitching for the San Francisco Giants in 1962, he won Game 4 of the 1962 World Series pitching in relief of Juan Marichal.
Larsen had a career 4-2 World Series record and 2.75 ERA. He was a two-time World Series champion. Larsen had a 4-8 record and 2.27 ERA for the Houston Colt 45s in 1964.He pitched for the Orioles in 1965, toiled in the minor leagues in 1966 and hurled the final four innings of his big league career in 1967 for the Chicago Cubs. Larsen pitched briefly in the minor leagues in 1968 before retiring.
Larsen was a good hitting pitcher. He finished his career with a .244 batting average and 14 homers. He was used as a pinch hitter 66 times and once had a stretch where he had seven hits in a row. There were many legends at PNC Field this past Father’s Day, but Don Larsen really stood out standing and staring in the corner of that dugout.
The master of the only World Series perfect game on a perfect day.