Don LARSEN - Pitcher Perfect

July 02, 2006

Some mornings,when the wind is light and the water calm, Don Larsen takes his pontoon boatout and casts his fishing line. Bass, salmon and trout are plentiful in thelakes near his Idaho home, and it is usually not long before he has caught morethan enough for dinner. But Larsen, 76, often lingers out on the water for awhile, enjoying the quiet or, if it is one of those days when he has rounded upcompany, conversation with a friend or two. Then he heads back to shore andmakes his way into town, maybe stopping at the post office or the pharmacy,where he is a familiar face after 13 years in the community. By early afternoonhe is at his home in Hayden Lake (pop. 500), and in the evening he and Corrine,his wife of 49 years come December, enjoy his morning haul and the glow of thesunset.

That is, in Larsen's estimation, the perfect day.

In October it will have been 50 years since he enjoyed a flawless outing ofanother sort, becoming the only man to pitch a perfect game in the WorldSeries. Larsen was 27 then, a New York Yankees righthander whose career wasunremarkable both before and after that day, but on Oct. 8, 1956, he was asmasterly as any pitcher has ever been. He dominated a Brooklyn Dodgers lineupthat featured four future Hall of Famers--Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, JackieRobinson and Duke Snider--as well as Gil Hodges, in a 2--0 Game 5 victory."It's an amazing memory," he says. "But that's what it is, amemory. I'm just as happy with the life I have now as I was backthen."

The fairy tale lasted into the off-season, when the suddenly famous Larsenappeared on Bob Hope's TV show, on which he met James Cagney, Lucille Ball andDesi Arnaz. But after that it was back to real life, beginning with thecontract he received that winter from Yankees general manager George Weiss. Forhis 11--5 regular-season record and perfect game, the Yanks initially offeredhim only a $1,000 raise. Larsen's friend Arthur Richman, a baseball writer forthe New York Daily Mirror, wrote a letter to Weiss on Larsen's behalf, makingthe case for a larger raise. Larsen recalls that Weiss replied with a note thatread, "If you forget you wrote this letter, I'll forget that I receivedit." After some negotiating, however, Larsen and the team reportedlysettled on a $5,000 increase to $18,000. He pitched three more seasons for theYankees before they traded him to the Kansas City Athletics in December 1959 aspart of a deal that brought New York another player who would make Yankeeshistory: Roger Maris. After spending 1960 and part of '61 with the A's, Larsenpitched for the White Sox, Giants, Colt .45s, Orioles and Cubs before retiringin 1968 with a record of 81--91 in 14 seasons.

After that he didwhat most players of his generation did when their careers ended--he gothimself a real job. Larsen, who grew up in San Diego, worked for 24 years as asalesman for Blake, Moffitt and Towne, a paper company in San Jose. Larsennever mentioned his baseball career to prospective clients, partly because he'stoo humble a man for that and partly because he knew they would eventuallyfigure it out anyway. "It usually took them a little while, but when theyrealized who I was, it pretty much meant I had a deal," he says.

Retirementbrought Larsen to Hayden Lake in search of peace and quiet, an interestingchoice for a guy who was such a carouser during his playing days that one ofhis nicknames was Night Rider. The season that ended with Larsen's perfect gamebegan when he wrapped his car around a utility pole at 5 a.m., during springtraining; the joke was that no one could be sure whether he was coming in orgoing out. When David Wells pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in 1998, heand Larsen spoke by phone about some of the other things they shared, includingan alma mater--Point Loma High in San Diego--and an enjoyment of New York'safter-hours pleasures. "I told him we ought to get together and raise alittle hell," says Larsen, who does not apologize for his taste for thenightlife. "I was young and living in the big city," he says. "Whatwould you do? Sit in your room and read?"

Larsen can begruff like that and, at times, seemingly unsentimental. Take, for example, theCorvette he was given by Sport magazine for being named MVP of the Series."I drove it for a couple of years and got rid of it," he says. "Itwas a beauty of a car, a two-tone convertible, cream white and red. But Ialready had a car, so what did I need another one for?" He didn't part soeasily with the ball with which he struck out pinch hitter Dale Mitchell forthe final out of the perfect game. After the Series he had the ball cast insilver, along with his hat and glove. But in 2002 he put the items up forauction to start a college fund for the two children of his only son, Scott.The memorabilia sold for $120,750, but Larsen doesn't know who the buyer was,nor does he want to. "There's no point," he says. "I made thedecision to sell it, and I don't regret it in the least." But does he missthe mementos? His booming voice grows a bit softer. "Yes, I do," hesays.

The memories,though, are Larsen's forever. He shares them with fans who line up for hisautograph at card shows, telling them about how, because of a bad Game 2 start,he didn't even know he was starting that morning until he arrived at YankeeStadium and found the ball in a shoe in his locker. He recalls the runningcatch that Mickey Mantle made on Hodges's blast to deep left center in thefifth inning--a ball that he says would have been a home run in today'sremodeled Yankee Stadium--and also remembers perhaps the closest call of theday, Robinson's shot in the second inning that caromed off third baseman AndyCarey's glove to shortstop Gil McDougald, whose throw to first narrowly beatRobinson.

But for the mostpart, the Dodgers went down quietly against Larsen, who had changed to anabbreviated windup late that season in hopes that it would help his controlproblems. The new delivery could not have worked better than it did that day.Larsen threw 97 pitches, only 26 of them balls, and five of his sevenstrikeouts were on called third strikes. "I never had control like thatbefore or since," he says. "It just seemed that everything I threw wason the black." Even now Larsen sounds a little amazed at hisaccomplishment. Perhaps that's why he doesn't resent having missed out on thehuge endorsement money and other benefits that surely would have followed if hehad achieved perfection today. Just to be touched by greatness on that one day,it seems, was reward enough for him. "If Nolan Ryan had done it, if SandyKoufax had done it, if Don Drysdale had done it, I would have nodded and said,'Well, it could happen,'" Yankees public address announcer Bob Sheppardonce said. "But Don Larsen?" You get the feeling that Larsen has saidthe same thing to himself.

He claims hecannot remember a single day in the last 50 years when the events of thatafternoon in the Bronx have not come to mind. Even if no one asks about theperfect game, "on those days I just think about it myself," he says.Larsen can still recall the day with near-perfect clarity, including the way hesneaked a cigarette in the dugout during the seventh inning and his surprisewhen his catcher, Yogi Berra, told him in the clubhouse afterward that he hadthrown not just a no-hitter but a perfect game.

The onlyquestions Larsen cannot answer are what he calls "the vague ones," suchas, What was it that transformed him that afternoon? And its corollary, Why washe never able to recapture it? Those are not among the mysteries he ponderswhile floating on the lake. For years he has told people that the beauty of hisperfect game is that it is not a record that can be broken. As Larsen once putit, "Not many people get to do something that's only been done once."Larsen's achievement can be matched but never surpassed. When a man has thatknowledge, he can feel quite at peace out on the water, waiting for the fish tobite.

"It's an amazing memory," Larsen says."But that's what it is, a memory. I'm just as happy with THE LIFE I HAVENOW as I was back then."

PHOTORICH FRISHMAN SEVEN PHOTOSPhotographs by APMIRACULOUS - When it was over, it was over, but on that day in 1956 Yogi Berrahad to tell Larsen he'd done the baseball equivalent of walking onwater. PHOTOUPI/CORBIS BETTMANNZEROHOUR - For his history-making Series performance, and the better-than-averageseason that preceded it, Larsen earned a raise of $5,000.

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