We remember Don Larsen for just one moment — throwing a third strike past Brooklyn Dodgers pinch hitter Dale Mitchell. It was his 97th and final pitch for the New York Yankees on Monday, Oct. 8, 1956, the culmination of the only perfect game in World Series history.
Twenty-seven batters up, 27 down. None reached base. There have been 18 perfect games in major league baseball since 1900, its modern era. Three had come before Larsen's, the last one in 1922, seven years before he was born.
The instant that home-plate umpire Babe Pinelli ended New York's 2-0 victory in Game 5 by punching the air with his right arm, Larsen trotted off the Yankee Stadium mound, not fully aware of what he had just accomplished.
"I knew I had the no-hitter going all the way. … I didn't know it was a perfect game until somebody told me in the clubhouse after the game," Larsen, now 81, told the AARP Bulletin in a telephone interview from his home in Hayden Lake, Idaho. "I didn't know what a perfect game was."
A few steps from the first base line, catcher Yogi Berra leaped onto him. The grainy black-and-white photograph of that moment is one of baseball's iconic images.
Pinelli's call was, and still is, hotly debated by Brooklyn's players and many Dodger fans who insisted the pitch was high and outside. So did some of the Yankees on the field that day, outfielder Mickey Mantle, third baseman Andy Carey and shortstop Gil McDougald among them.
The game was an extraordinary moment in Larsen's otherwise unremarkable 14 seasons. The right-handed pitcher's overall record: 81 wins, 91 losses. His nickname: Gooney Bird, given him by his Yankees teammates in recognition of his widely known rambunctiousness.
"Larsen was easily the greatest drinker I've known, and I've known some pretty good ones in my time," Mantle (a pretty good drinker in his own right) was quoted as saying in the book Perfect: Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen, by Lew Paper.
The morning after Larsen's feat, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young came up with this lead: "The imperfect man pitched the perfect game."
Larsen's only other contribution to Yankees lore was being traded to the Kansas City Athletics after the 1959 season. It brought Roger Maris to New York; in 1961 Maris would break Babe Ruth's record for most home runs in a season.
Larsen was born to James and Charlotte Larsen on Aug. 7, 1929, in Michigan City, Ind., and was 15 when the family moved to San Diego, where he starred at Point Loma High School.
After graduation in 1947, the St. Louis Browns offered him a $500 signing bonus and a $150-a-month contract to pitch for the Class C Aberdeen (S.D.) Pheasants. In 1953 he made his big-league debut with the Browns. The next year, the franchise moved to Baltimore.
In 1954, the season before the Orioles traded him to the Yankees, Larsen won three games and lost a league-leading 21. In 1960, the season after the Yankees traded him to Kansas City, he won one and lost 10.
With his no-windup delivery, Larsen started Game 2 of the 1956 World Series. Manager Casey Stengel pulled him out during Brooklyn's six-run rally in the second inning. Larsen thought he would spend the rest of the World Series in the bullpen — but before Game 5 he found a baseball tucked into a shoe in his locker. It was Stengel's way of letting him know he would be starting.
On the game's 50th anniversary, Berra said in an interview that he "knew pretty soon [Larsen] had his best stuff going for him. He went to three balls on just one hitter, Pee Wee Reese, in the first inning. After that he had great control. He never shook me off. He was throwing the pitches I called for, and he was getting them all in the right spot."
In the fourth inning, Mantle got the first of New York's five hits off Sal Maglie, a home run over Yankee Stadium's 45-inch fence, barely inside the right-field foul pole, just 296 feet from home plate. Hank Bauer's sixth-inning single scored the other run.
Defense saved Larsen's gem several times. In the second inning, Jackie Robinson hit a liner off Andy Carey's glove at third. McDougald grabbed the deflection on one bounce. His throw to first baseman Joe Collins barely beat Robinson.