The Perfect Yankee
An overcast recent Wednesday saw me parked at my usual booth inside O’Doherty’s, waiting to meet one of the pinstriped heroes that turned me into a diehard Yankees fan as a kid.
Don Larsen: namely, the only major leaguer to pitch a perfect game in a World Series.
No hits. No runs. No errors.
Twenty-seven up, 27 down.
It was all over in just 97 pitches, the Yankees winning 2-0.
Larsen threw his miracle fifth game against the Brooklyn Dodgers on Oct. 8, 1956, a feat no pitcher before or since has equaled. And with another baseball season underway, it seemed like the ideal time to introduce you to the now 88-year-old legend who calls this area home.
At least, that was my plan until…
“You can’t take any notes,” warned Tom Keefe, who sat across from me and gave me the stink-eye when I brandished my pen and pad.
I managed to choke out “What!?!!” before adding an accusatory, “and why not?”
“I didn’t tell Don this was an interview,” explained Keefe, leaning in and chuckling. “He just thinks you’re some overly obsessed fan I invited to have lunch with him.”
Keefe is a Spokane attorney and as well-regarded as anyone could be in his, um, profession. More to the point, he’s my close pal, consigliere and eccentric sidekick.
Also a good friend of Larsen’s, Keefe set up this confab when I wouldn’t stop whining about how much I wanted to meet my idol.
“Don’t worry,” he continued in the reassuring tone he’d use to seduce jurors into acquitting an ax murderer. “Don won’t care if you write about him.”
Before I could bean Keefe with the nearest saltshaker, in came Larsen with Corrine, his bride of nearly 61 years. The couple became North Idaho residents years ago, choosing scenic Hayden Lake as the perfect place to hunt and fish and put down roots.
We all said our hellos and gave our lunch orders while I tried to play it cool and not appear too star-struck by being in the presence of the man who threw what sportswriter Bert Randolph Sugar dubbed “the greatest single pitching performance in the history of baseball.”
I didn’t get that from Larsen.
To prepare for this meeting, I read “The Perfect Yankee,” Mark Shaw’s authoritative book on Larsen and his famous game.
Which was a fortuitous move as it turned out. Larsen really wasn’t so inclined to rehash the accomplishment that earned him a place in history, not to mention MVP honors after the Yankees clinched the ’56 Subway Series 4 games to 3.
Quick-witted and possessing an age-defying memory, Larsen is an affable man who enjoys talking more about the places his career took him and the many friends he made along the way.
Larsen loves talking about frogs.
Much to my surprise, frog hunting (or “frog gigging” as its practitioners call it) is a cherished pastime that Larsen learned as a kid growing up in Michigan City, Ind., and later San Diego.
It’s apparently all about sautéing the little froggy legs in a pan with butter and …
“Delicious,” Larsen exclaimed when I confessed to having never bellied up to the culinary wonders of a batrachian buffet.
Larsen claimed to have dispatched a hopping legion of frogs during his long life and in all manner of ways: Clubbing. Hooking. Gaffing. Bare-handed catching…
From the sound of it, the former pitcher would be Human Enemy No. 1 should the frog community ever take a vote.
Even during his playing days, Larsen said he always managed to find time to heed the croak of the wild.
Once while prowling the weedy banks of New York City’s East River, for example, Larsen said he managed to grab the Babe Ruth of the bullfrog world.
Weird. I always thought of the East River as being more home to expired stoolies wearing cement shoes.
Anyway, this creature was apparently so grand that, instead of executing it, Larsen gave it a pardon, tied it to a leash and paraded it like Marilyn Monroe’s chihuahua right into the Yankees clubhouse. Larsen, laughing at the memory, said he arrived to find Yogi Berra sitting on a bench with his shirt off.
Throughout his playing days with New York, Larsen enjoyed a reputation as partying prankster, earning the nickname Gooney Bird. Which probably explains the famed catcher’s lack of shock or awe. Larsen said Berra simply shook his head at the sight of the oddball pair and muttered sarcastically: “Don Larsen walking a frog. Nothing unusual there.”
Larsen enjoyed the best years of his career as a Yankee, playing alongside names that still give me goose bumps.
Mickey Mantle. Billy Martin. Whitey Ford. The aforementioned Yogi…
This was a golden era for baseball-loving young baby boomers like me.
We didn’t hoard baseball cards back then. Most of us stuck the ones of our favorite players into the spokes of our one-speed bicycles.
My Schwinn American probably chewed up a small fortune in Mantle rookie cards alone.
Getting back to the ’56 series, consider the Brooklyn Bums that Larsen dispatched while throwing his perfect game:
Jackie Robinson, no less. Gil Hodges. Duke Snider. Roy Campanella…
The Dodgers that year possessed a powerhouse lineup that had won 93 games during the regular season and had taken the World Series over the Yankees the year before.
Larsen, I’m told, is the last living member of both teams that played in that game. And he still remains humble as to the how or why of it. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he had all the physical tools of a professional athlete. Larsen was actually considered a better hitter than pitcher, ending his career with a .242 average and 14 home runs.
But on that fateful fifth game, the big right-hander stepped onto the mound at Yankee Stadium, before a crowd of nearly 65,000 fans, and discovered he had otherworldly control.
“I still wonder why I was chosen to pitch the miracle game on that autumn day,” Larsen wrote in the book with Shaw. “I never was possessed with the most talent, and just two short years before the perfect game, I lost 21 games and won only three.”
Wrote Time Magazine in a retrospective piece:
“In baseball terms, the magnitude of Larsen’s no-hitter is hard to overstate. That it had never been done before in a World Series and has never been matched since is astonishing enough in a game where records fall and career-defining moments occur with dizzying frequency.”
The scene after Larsen threw his final toss was captured forever by the iconic photographic image of Berra leaping into his arms of his lanky pitcher with childlike joy.
“This was absolutely the best pitched game I’ve ever seen as a player or spectator,” remarked the great Joe DiMaggio.
Although Larsen’s 14 years as a major leaguer (1953-1967) saw him playing on eight teams and with unspectacular results, he said he considers himself a Yankee first and forever.
With good reason. Larsen compiled a winning record with New York, which won the series again in 1958, giving Larsen his second World Championship ring.
As for my ethical dilemma, it was resolved when Keefe exited the booth and scampered off to plug his parking meter. I seized the opportunity to ask my hero if he would mind if I wrote about him in my magazine column. Sure, he said, and even posed for a photograph wearing my own Yankees cap.
What a gracious guy. I just hope he never invites me to Hayden Lake for a platter of Kermit and chips.
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