From time to time during the spring of 1956, postcards and packages would arrive at my house, first from Florida and then from various American League cities. They were sent to me by my second cousin, Yankee pitcher Don Larsen. One postcard that I still have bears a Chicago postmark dated May 17: "Here's luck on your baseball. I'm rooting for you and maybe I'll get a chance to see you soon. Don Larsen." On the other side was a black-and-white photo of my great-uncle Jim's mammoth son. He looked, as he did in the pictures on his baseball cards, as though he had been shot and stuffed while in the act of following through on a pitch.
On May 31, my ninth birthday, I opened a present wrapped in brown paper. It was my cousin's Yankee hat. Stains around the sweatband and a bent bill certified that it was genuine. I brought it to school the next day and pointed out that it was just like Mickey Mantle's hat. Everyone tried it on, and then it was passed back to me. "Won't make you play any better," someone finally said. "Anyway, he's no good."
"You got a cousin on the Yankees?" I demanded.
"I don't need one," came the reply.
The truth was that Don Larsen and I were both in the middle of hard baseball times. The winter before, I had moved to Speedway, Ind., from South Bend, where nobody in my neighborhood or at my school had played baseball. In Speedway, baseball was everything: A boy's caste was established by his performance in the games we played during recess. I had never held a bat. It took one swing for my classmates to recognize an untouchable.
My dad bought me a bat and a ball, but he couldn't help me put the two together. He had never played baseball either. Sensing my desperation, one morning before school my dad offered me what must have been the only three words of advice that he could think of. "Never stop running," he said firmly. A few hours later at recess, I hit a thrown ball for the first time, causing it to roll back to the pitcher. With my father's words pounding in my ears, I raced head down around the bases and slid into home as my schoolmates doubled up with laughter.
Larsen wasn't doing much better. With Baltimore in 1954, "Big Don," as the bubble gum company called him, won three games and lost 21. It was the worst record I or any of my new friends had ever seen on a baseball card. "It is safe to say," the gum people noted dryly, "that Big Don would have won more games with a better hitting team behind him." The strange thing was that after doing so poorly, Larsen had been traded to the Yankees, baseball's best team.
Privately, I had to agree with my classmates, who kept saying that no one in his right mind would keep a Don Larsen baseball card if he could get rid of it. I remember that of all of the Larsenalia I showed them in the spring of 1956, the item that made the biggest impression was a clipping from The Indianapolis Star—my new Bible—reporting that my cousin, whom the Star called "Playboy Don Larsen," had wrapped a car around a telephone pole as dawn began to color the Florida sky. Everyone admired a quote in the story from the Yankee manager, Casey Stengel. "The only thing Larsen fears," Stengel said, "is sleep."
I first met my cousin in July 1956, when our family drove from Indianapolis to Chicago to see the Yankees play the White Sox. We left early in the morning so that I could get there in time to see Mantle take batting practice. I sat alone in the backseat, absorbed in a Baseball Digest. One article, about Enos Slaughter scoring from first on a single in the 1946 World Series, had a sentence that read, "Slide, you bastard, slide!"
"What's a bastard?" I asked my mother. My father nearly drove the car off the road. The sky began to turn gray near Lafayette and then black as we passed through Gary. It was pouring when we reached Chicago.