- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

“The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar.”

Columnist Shirley Povich

After umpire Babe Pinelli shot his right hand in the air, the big pitcher began walking slowly off the mound like a man in a daze. Catcher Yogi Berra ran to meet him and jumped exuberantly into his arms. The pitcher’s knee caught Berra right in the crotch — ouch! — but Yogi might not even have noticed. Meanwhile, all around them, bedlam ensued.

Don Larsen, a quintessential baseball journeyman, had pitched the first and only perfect game in World Series history — 27 batters up, 27 batters down. It happened 50 years ago this week, on Oct. 8, 1956, and for longtime fans the memory remains as indelible and unbelievable as ever.

If you were around and aware of horsehide matters then, you’ll know the answers to all sorts of trivia about that astonishing afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

• What was the score? (Larsen’s New York Yankees 2, Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers 0.)

• Who was Brooklyn’s losing pitcher and last batter? (Sal Maglie and pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell.)

• Which two participants never appeared in another game? (Pinelli and Robinson, both of whom retired.)

• Who preserved the prospective perfecto with a dazzling outfield catch in the second inning and homered in the fourth for the only run Larsen needed? (Center fielder Mickey Mantle.)

Though any perfect game obviously is dramatic — there have been only 17 “official” ones in baseball annals — this was more so than any of the others. For one thing, it came in the World Series, then the premier event in sports. For another, there hadn’t been one for 34 years, since the otherwise unfamed Charles Robertson achieved perfection for the Chicago White Sox on April 30, 1922. Larsen’s gem was only the fourth of the 20th century.

Since then, for whatever reasons, perfect games have become more frequent; no fewer than 11 have unfolded since Larsen’s, the most recent by Randy Johnson in 2004. And appropriately enough, Larsen was on the scene when David Cone unfurled his own masterpiece on Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium in 1999.

You have seen the final moment of Larsen’s epic effort numerous times in TV replays. With the count 1-and-2, his 97th pitch appears to be high and outside. The left-handed Mitchell starts to swing, then holds back. Pinelli, not one inclined to interfere with inexplicable fate, makes his call and runs off the field. It is done. Baseball history has been made, totally eclipsing that the Yankees had taken a 3-2 Series lead in games.

As Mitchell walked to the plate in the ninth, a hush descended over Yankee Stadium despite the presence of 64,519 fans. And the most nervous people in the big ballyard in the Bronx were the guys wearing white, pinstriped uniforms.

“I was so weak in the knees, I thought I was going to faint out there,” Larsen wrote in “The Perfect Yankee,” his 2001 autobiography. “My legs were rubbery, and my fingers didn’t feel like they were on my hand. I said to myself, ‘Please help me out somebody.’”

Mantle, who was patrolling center field, described the stress level this way: “I never was so nervous [before]. I was afraid I would do something to mess it up.”

Adding to the mystery as well as the majesty of the moment was its improbability. Larsen was a hard-drinking free spirit who had gone 3-21 for the Baltimore Orioles just two years earlier. In the spring of 1956, he gained considerable notoriety by wrapping his car around a telephone pole at 5 a.m. As the Yankees’ fourth starter, he was 11-5 during the season but lasted only 12/3 innings in Game 2 of the Series against the Dodgers’ fabled if aging Boys of Summer lineup, which included Robinson, captain Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Carl Furillo.

“I didn’t think I’d get another chance,” Larsen said in his book, but when he got to the clubhouse before Game 5 three days later, he found a new ball in his shoe — manager Casey Stengel’s preferred way of telling a pitcher he would start. Larsen might have been coming off a night of partying, too. Accounts vary, but New York restaurateur Toots Shor told people afterward he had introduced Larsen to Chief Justice Earl Warren in the wee, small hours.

“Seeing that ball [in the shoe] almost made my heart stop,” Larsen wrote, insisting that he had been a good boy the night before.

Whatever, he proceeded to make the hearts of the Dodgers faithful almost stop, using a then-revolutionary no-windup motion. Pitch after pitch, inning after inning, he put nearly all his fastballs, sliders and curves exactly where he wanted. “I never had control like that in my life,” he later said.

No kidding?

Larsen pitched three more seasons with the Yankees before shuffling among six other clubs before retiring. His record for 14 seasons was 81-91 with a 3.78 ERA. But never again did he recover the magic of Oct. 8, 1956. Then again, how could he?

Five decades later, he scarcely gets through a day without someone mentioning his monumental claim to fame. On Nov. 4, there will be a celebration in New York to which players from that game and other perfect game pitchers are being invited. But Larsen, now retired at 77 and living in Hayden, Idaho, will be the star among stars.

And, as the Associated Press noted in a piece about him last week, Don Larsen’s Idaho license plate says it all: DL-000.

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