Don Larsen, 67, stands 6'4" and weighs close to the 225 pounds he carried during his prime as a New York Yankees pitcher. His sideburns are white, but his eyes shine a bright and youthful blue. On a living-room table in the west Idaho home he shares with Corrine, his wife of 38 years, 100 leather-bound copies of The Perfect Yankee await Don's signature. The book, written with Mark Shaw and released last month by Sagamore Publishing, is being promoted as Larsen's autobiography. In fact, it does little more than chronicle a single game.
It took Don Larsen precisely two hours and six seconds of an autumn afternoon to create his life's legacy. He went to the Yankee Stadium mound at 1:03 p.m. on Oct. 8, 1956, to face the Brooklyn Dodgers in the fifth game of the World Series, and when the Yankees' 2-0 victory was complete, the phrase Don Larsen's perfect game entered the American lexicon. Larsen's effort, 27 up and 27 down, is the most famous single-game pitching performance in baseball history. "I think about it every day," Larsen says.
Four decades ago Larsen was a righthander four seasons into what would be an erratic 14-year career. Despite the fact that he had gone 3-21 with the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, the Yankees had requested his inclusion in a multiplayer trade between the two teams after that season. Larsen rewarded New York by going 20-7 over the next two years. He also earned a reputation as an enthusiastic partygoer who, one late night in the spring of '56, drove a car into a telephone pole and escaped unmarked, except for a chipped tooth. Larsen was an affable sort who read comic books by the stack and was nicknamed Gooney Bird by his teammates. In Mickey Mantle's memoir My Favorite Summer—1956, Mantle, who played centerfield in the perfect game and whose opinion was expert, called Larsen "the greatest drinker I've known."
But Larsen wasn't drinking the night before the fifth game of the '56 Series. Expecting to be called out of the bullpen by Yankees manager Casey Stengel, he simply went out for dinner—"Well, and maybe just a couple of beers," he concedes—then returned to his Bronx hotel room before midnight and went to sleep. The next morning Larsen raised the shades to see a sunny sky. Without eating breakfast, he left the hotel and walked three blocks through the crisp air to the Stadium. When he got to his locker, he found a baseball in his left shoe. That was Stengel's way of telling him he was the starting pitcher. "I just stood there, very surprised," says Larsen, who had lasted less than two innings as a starter in the Yankees' 13-8 loss in Game 2 of the Series. "I didn't want to mess it up."
Today, after decades of telling and retelling the story of his seminal game, Larsen can scrutinize every at bat and assign to each a lasting significance. Yet as he recalls the game, it becomes clear that as he pitched it, events unfolded largely in a blur. The Series was knotted at two games apiece, and the Dodgers lineup, with Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Carl Furillo, seemed relentless. The game was close—1-0 on a Mantle home run in the fourth inning, 2-0 after six. Larsen, pitching against the crafty Sal Maglie, concentrated on keeping the Yankees on top.
Larsen had marvelous control. "The best ever," he says. "Lord knows why I had it that day." He worked fast, throwing biting sliders, moving fastballs and occasional curves, all with his signature no-windup style. "All I knew," Larsen says, "was that I felt good."
Larsen got ahead of batters (a full count to Pee Wee Reese in the first was the only three-ball count of the game) and kept them off balance. But Larsen was also fortunate. In the second Robinson lashed a ground ball off third baseman Andy Carey that rebounded to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out by less than a step. Two batters—Snider in the fourth and Sandy Amoros in the fifth—hit balls with home run distance that landed foul by less than 18 inches. And in the fifth inning Mantle brought the crowd to its feet by outrunning a 400-foot drive by Gil Hodges and snaring it with his back to home plate.
Still, it was not until after Larsen had set down the Dodgers in the seventh inning that he realized what might happen. Sitting in the dugout, a lit cigarette in his hand, he stared out at the scoreboard and saw the string of zeros. "Hey, Mick," said Larsen to Mantle, who was beside him. "Look at that. Two more innings. Wouldn't it be something."
Mantle stood and walked away without saying a word. At that point superstition took over. No one dared mention the no-hitter or even talk to Larsen. The dugout, usually full of banter, fell suddenly silent. "It was lonely in there those last two innings," Larsen recalls. "The only time I felt comfortable was when I was on the mound."
In the top of the eighth Larsen handled his only fielding chance of the game and threw out Robinson at first. And with one out in the bottom half, the fans up and roaring, Larsen came to the plate. He tried to block out the noise, tried to ignore the confetti drifting down from the stands. But, though he was a dangerous hitter, Larsen went out meekly on strikes. Moments later he came out to pitch the ninth inning, and Yankee Stadium was, in Yogi Berra's inimitable words, "As loud as I've ever seen it."