Yesterday it was announced that Don Larsen’s son Scott had announced that his father had entered hospice. He stated that his father, a former New York Yankees player, had had treatments for esophageal cancer in recent months, but had taken a turn for the worse and had entered hospice care. He died shortly thereafter in Hayden Idaho at the age of 90. Don Larsen holds the record for having pitched the only World Series perfect game in baseball history. I wanted to take this opportunity to post my Don Larsen Legend article that was previously published on November 10, 2019.
Don Larsen was not one of the greatest Yankee pitchers. In fact he’s probably not in the top twelve. But he does have a claim to fame for the Yankees and all of baseball. He is the only pitcher to have a perfect game in the World Series. As of this writing, Larsen is 90 years old and is a mainstay at the Yankees Old Timer’s Day Game.
Larsen was born in 1929 to a humble family in Michigan City, Indiana. When he was 15, he and his family moved to California, where his Dad was a department store salesman and his Mom a housekeeper. Larsen attended Point Loma High School, where he played basketball and baseball. Although Don got scholarships for basketball, he chose baseball, citing that he wasn’t all that good at his studies. While playing baseball there, he was noticed by a St. Louis Browns scout. He was offered a minor league contract, and he accepted. The Browns eventually became the Baltimore Orioles. Don was assigned to the Aberdeen Pheasants in 1947. He went 4-3 with an ERA of 3.42.
The next season he won 17 games. In 1949 he moved up to the Globe Miami Browns. Soon after, Larsen was promoted to the Wichita Indians of the Class-A Western League in the second half of the 1950 season. With the Indians, Larsen had a 6â€“4 record with a 3.14 ERA in 21 games. In 1951, Larsen was drafted to the United States Army for the Korean War. He spent the next two years in the Army, working in a variety of non-combat jobs. He was discharged from the Army in 1953 and made the St. Louis Browns roster before the beginning of the season. On April 17, 1947, he made his major league debut in a game against the Detroit Tigers. His first game was a no-decision, but he won his second game giving up one earned run to the then Philadelphia Athletics. In 1954 the Browns became the Baltimore Orioles where he was 3-21 (that’s not a misprint) with a 4.37 ERA.
In 1954 the Yankees lost the World Series to the Indians, and the Yankee Manager blamed it on the older pitching staff of the Yankees, who were in their late 30’s. Wanting to beef up the staff in a 17 man trade, the Yankees acquired Don Larsen from the Baltimore Orioles. Larsen would pitch behind Yankee ACE Whitey Ford. The original deal was to get Bob Turley, but Manager Casey Stengel wanted Larsen in the trade because of how he beat down the Yankee hitters. From 1955 to 1959, Stengel used Larsen as a starter and reliever, during that period he went 45-25 in 90 starts.
Larsen started out the 1955 season with a sore arm and didn’t pitch well and was demoted to the minors. He ended up pitching in 19 games going 9â€“2 record with a 3.07 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 97 innings pitched. On August 5 of the year, he would pitch a shutout of the Tigers. His best year was 1956 when he went to an 11â€“5 record, with a career-best 107 strikeouts and a 3.26 ERA. He pitched another shut out, this one against the Orioles. Late in the season, he pitched five complete games out of seven. But these stats were not the highlight of his pitching year.
On October 8, 1956, Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history. It was game 5 of the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Larsen needed just 97 pitches to complete the classic game, and only one Dodger batter (Pee Wee Reese in the first inning) was able to get a 3-ball count. Brooklyn’s Maglie gave up only two runs on five hits. Mickey Mantle’s fourth-inning home run broke the scoreless tie. The Yankees added an insurance run in the sixth. After Roy Campanella grounded out to Billy Martin for the second out of the 9th inning, Larsen faced pinch hitter Dale Mitchell, a .311 career hitter. Throwing fastballs, Larsen got ahead in the count at 1â€“2. On his 97th pitch, a called third strike by home plate umpire Babe Penelli Larsen caught Mitchell looking for the 27th and last out. After the pitch, catcher Yogi Berra leaped into Larsen’s arms in celebration, setting up the “everlasting image” that you can see in my photo collage. Larsen’s unparalleled game earned him the World Series Most Valuable Player Award and Babe Ruth Award.
In 1957, Larsen had a 10â€“4 record with 3.74 ERA in 27 games, 20 of them starts. Near the end of the season, he hurled a 3-hit shutout against the Kansas City Athletics on September 15, his fifth shutout with the Yankees. In seven innings in relief in game 3 of the World Series against the Braves as the Yankees won 12-3. He started game seven but only went 2 1/3 innings in the loss as the Braves won the series. Larsen had another winning season in 1958, although the Yankees did not make the World Series. In 1959 Larsen’s performance dropped considerably, and he was sent down to the minors. In the offseason, he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics.
In his first year with the Athletics, he had his worst year ever but rebounded in 1961, having his best year since 1955 with both the Athletics and the White Sox. From 1962 to 1967, he would play with the Giants, Colt 45’s, Orioles, and the Cubs, but would never regain his pitching success. Don Larsen retired from baseball during the 1967 season. Little is ever said of Larsen’s hitting ability, but he was one of baseball’s best hitting pitchers, having 14 home runs and a career .242. In 1956 he had a grand slam against the Red Sox. He was a good enough hitter that he was used 66 times as pinch hitter. Yankee fans hope to see Don at Old Timer’s Day for years to come.
Don Larsen was present at Yankee Stadium for two perfect games, his own in 1956 and David Cone’s in July 1999. Don passed away on New Year’s Day 2020.