- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

As a major league pitcher, Don Larsen was a lot of things. He was a carouser who crashed his

convertible into a telephone pole at 5 o’clock one morning during spring training (“The only thing Larsen fears is sleep,” said one of his managers). He was a comic-book aficionado who, in the midst of a slump, reputedly decided to pitch without a windup because “Ghouls” from his comics suggested it. He was a journeyman who played for eight different teams during a 14-year career that ended in 1967, compiling a record of 81 wins and 91 losses.

The one thing Don Larsen was not was flawless, save for the magical afternoon of Oct. 8, 1956, when he became the only player in baseball history to pitch a perfect game in the World Series. The 27-year-old Mr. Larsen retired 27 batters in a row in Game 5 of the 1956 series, leading the New York Yankees to a seven-game victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. If it wasn’t the greatest pitching performance in baseball history, it was certainly the most surprising display of brilliance, given Mr. Larsen’s otherwise forgettable career.

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For Phillip Hoose, it was a surprise of a similar magnitude to discover that Don Larsen was his cousin. Mr. Hoose was eight years old when his parents dropped this bombshell one Sunday in 1956 as they drove home from church. “This was news on the order of a cure for polio or that the Russians had converted to freedom,” writes Mr. Hoose in “Perfect, Once Removed,” an endearing account of how his young life was changed by his cousin’s perfect game.

With consummate skill Mr. Hoose evokes the era of apple pie and white picket fences, but his book is more than just a period piece. His portrait of a boy’s passion for baseball will ring true to anyone who has ever listened to a game on the radio after lights out or engaged in the oft-argued debate about whether the gum that came with baseball cards was, in fact, tasty. His tale is as enduring as Don Larsen was flawless that one afternoon 50 years ago.

Mr. Hoose learned about his major-league cousin at an opportune time. His parents had just moved from South Bend to Speedway, Ind., near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he was having a hard time making new friends.

“Each of my new classmates was already completing a verdict from which there would be no appeal,” writes Mr. Hoose about standing in front of his new class for the first time. “I could have saved them the trouble and written it on the board: ‘Phil Hoose: Small. Wears glasses. Big butt. Bad haircut. Weird name.’”

As Mr. Hoose soon discovered, the game of choice during recess was baseball, for which his glasses and size were significant obstacles. His father, an engineer, could offer little in the way of instruction other than “Never stop running.” So young Mr. Hoose turned for inspiration to Baseball Digest, Sporting News and John R. Tunis’ novels (such as “Highpockets,” in which a cocky center fielder for the Dodgers gets in a car crash, gains newfound perspective and helps lead his team to the pennant).

He also wrote a letter to his cousin. “Dear Don Larsen. My Dad, Darwin Hoose, says you’re his cousin. That makes you my cousin too. I’ve just started playing baseball. It’s my first season. I’m having a horrible time learning. Do you have any advice?”

Mr. Larsen sent a postcard, then his sweat-stained Yankees cap, then tickets to a Yankees-White Sox game. The game was rained out, but Mr. Hoose got a chance to meet his cousin in the lobby of the Del Prado Hotel in Chicago:

“Don Larsen was by far the biggest human being I had ever seen. He wore a loose-fitting brown suit with pants whose creases seemed to converge somewhere over my head … He wrapped his arms around me and pulled my head into his stomach. He seemed glad to see me. He asked if I would like to meet a few of the Yankees. I could barely answer him.”

Mr. Hoose was disappointed to learn that Mickey Mantle, the celebrated slugger and idol of boys everywhere, was off-limits. Mr. Larsen approached Mantle alone and got an autograph for the young Mr. Hoose. As the pitcher later explained, “Sometimes Mick could get a little moody and a kid could get disappointed.”

But the other Yankees humored Mr. Hoose. He ate lunch with Yogi Berra, the catcher known for his way with the English language (“It’s like deja vu all over again”). Whitey Ford, the pitcher with the most career wins in Yankee history, cautioned him not to throw a curveball before his arm was strong enough. Manager Casey Stengel, surrounded by a cluster of reporters, dispensed more advice: Don’t grow up to be a writer, he told Mr. Hoose, eliciting laughter from the journalists around them.

Mr. Hoose, of course, didn’t listen to Stengel, and so we have this gem of a book. With humor and insight, the author captures how baseball informed his passage into adulthood: “Mickey Mantle improved my vocabulary by introducing me to words such as ‘filigree’ and ‘facade.’ These were architectural features of Yankee stadium that he alone occasionally struck or even cleared with monstrous shots.” Mantle, who in Camel advertisements claimed that smoking helped him relax, also prompted the author to try his first cigarette.

Mr. Hoose’s narrative assumes the trajectory of a rising fastball as it heads towards its climax: Mr. Larsen’s perfect game. The pitcher performed so poorly in Game 2 of the World Series, giving up four walks and getting pulled in the bottom of the second inning, that he wondered if he would be relegated to the bullpen. So he was surprised before Game 5 to find a baseball inside his left shoe, which was how the Yankees designated the starting pitcher.

Mr. Hoose, unable to convince his parents to let him skip school, first heard about his cousin’s feat when the principal of his school announced it in front of the entire class. Mr. Larsen’s life was forever changed. “It’s amazing,” he said a few days after his heroics. “Not long ago I was a nobody, and now everybody wants me.” So, too, was it a turning point for Mr. Hoose, whose classmates increasingly began to accept him.

In September 2005, after staying in only casual contact, Mr. Hoose and Mr. Larsen saw each other for the first time in more than four decades. The author visited his cousin in Hayden Lake, Idaho, where Mr. Larsen, now in his mid 70s, often fishes for bass, salmon and trout.

“The Don Larsen I found, fifty years after I sent him my first desperate postcard for help, was many of the things people said he was: an outdoorsman, plain-spoken with a sense of fun, certainly a man of large and various appetites,” writes Mr. Hoose. “He was tickled to know that his encouragement had helped me.”

A few weeks ago, a poll conducted by the Associated Press and AOL Sports found that just 32 percent of Americans consider themselves fans of professional baseball. Mr. Hoose’s book should be required reading for the disillusioned among us, for it is a grand celebration of the national pastime. But more than that, “Perfect, Once Removed” is a celebration of the American dream, of how perfection may suddenly find us no matter who we are or how long we have toiled in the shadows.

Mr. Larsen puts it this way: “Sure, I can still feel it,” he says of the perfect game. “I think about it at least once or twice a day, and I can still see it. It was a good day for me. Everyone is entitled to a good day. You work hard enough, sometimes it’ll come true.”

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