DON LARSEN and David Cone encountered each other in the middle of a packed New York City hotel ballroom last Saturday night and, like reunited fraternity brothers, shared a rousing handshake and hearty backslaps. The 77-year-old Larsen and the 43-year-old Cone, both sons of the Midwest, will be forever linked, not only because each threw a perfect game during his major league career but also for doing so in the pinstripes of the New York Yankees. "He's got the better fastball," said Cone of Larsen, now white-haired but still sporting long sideburns. Replied Larsen, who in a serendipitous twist threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium before Cone's 1999 perfect game against the Montreal Expos, "I'll take his slider."
Of the 17 men who have thrown perfect games, 11 are living; six of them gathered at the Marriott Marquis to celebrate their unique bond and the 50th anniversary of Larsen's perfecto against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, while raising money for charity. The pitchers share a kinship that comes not only from "seeing some of these guys pretty often at the same card shows or events, but also because we shared an exhilaration and emotion that [few others have] ever felt," says Mike Witt, who was a 24-year-old California Angel with a 37--40 career record when he tossed a perfect game on the final day of the '84 season, against the Texas Rangers.
Says Dennis Martinez, who missed his team bus from the hotel and showed up only 90 minutes before the first pitch on the afternoon he threw a perfect game for the Expos against the Dodgers in '91, "When I see other players have a perfect game, I cry. I cried when Randy Johnson had his [for the Arizona Diamondbacks, against the Atlanta Braves in 2004]. I know all the feelings that he is going through."
The men with a perfect game on their résumés are a varied lot, ranging from Hall of Famers, such as Cy Young and Sandy Koufax, to journeymen long forgotten, such as Charlie Robertson and Len Barker (chart, right). "We all had such different careers and [pitched] our games at different points in our career, too," says former Cincinnati Reds lefthander Tom Browning, who threw his 1988 perfect game against the Dodgers after a 147-minute rain delay. "For most of us, when you look at some of the great names on the list and see how short it is, you have to pinch yourself."
Larsen, who had an otherwise unremarkable career (81--91 over 14 seasons), is an example of how one game can define a career. His masterpiece—the only World Series no-hitter—came three days after the Dodgers bombed him for four runs in 1 2/3 innings in Game 2. "I didn't even think I'd get another chance to start," he says. On the morning of Game 5 he found a ball in a shoe in his locker, his manager Casey Stengel's way of informing him that he was starting. After the seventh inning Larsen was smoking a cigarette in the dugout when he said to teammate Mickey Mantle, "Look at the scoreboard, Mick. Wouldn't it be something? Two more innings."
On Saturday he shared a stage with his catcher that day, Yogi Berra, who called Larsen's gem "the greatest moment of my career," and five men—Barker, Browning, Cone, Martinez and Witt—who come the closest to understanding what he felt on that October day 50 years ago. Says Larsen, "No one ever needs to remind me of what I did. There's not a day goes by that I don't think about it."
The Fine Fifteen
Of the 15 pitchers who have thrown a perfect game since 1900, six have won better than 60% of their career decisions, four are in the Hall of Fame and three, including Larsen, had losing career records.