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This Don Was Absolutely Dandy 38 Years Ago : Baseball: Larsen recalls 1956 and the only perfect game in World Series history.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He is retired now, living the good life in his beautiful lakefront home with wife Corrine and memories that will last forever. Not only for him, but for generation after generation of American sports fans.

Don Larsen was a rather ordinary pitcher during his 14 years in the major leagues. He lost more games than he won, bounced around from team to team and league to league and finally ended his career in the minor leagues in 1968.

But 38 years ago, on Oct. 8, 1956, a glorious fall day in New York, Larsen mastered the game like no one before or since. Pitching for the New York Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers, in a subway series matching two of the storied teams in baseball, Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history.

Twenty-seven up, 27 down. No runs, no hits, no walks, no balks, no errors, no hit batsmen, no catcher’s interference, nothin’.

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Perfect.

“Sometimes I wonder why it happened to me,” said Larsen, a smile lighting a battle-worn face that turned 65 in August. “Or if it happened.

“A lot of people say it was one of the greatest games (ever pitched). Well, I wouldn’t dispute that, but I would have to see it myself as a player or fan to give you an opinion on that, because I never saw it.”

Only three days earlier, he had taken a seat in the clubhouse after having been yanked in the second inning of Game 2, unable to hold on to a 6-0 lead.

“I did a . . . job,” muttered Larsen, still steamed 38 years later.

Larsen’s problem in Game 2, and throughout much of his career, was control. In Game 5, however, the ball was a magnet in Larsen’s hand, and Yogi Berra’s catcher’s mitt was a steel trap.

“I had as good of stuff many times and didn’t last the first inning,” Larsen said. “I just had better control. I’d never had such good control. I threw the ball most times pretty close to where Yogi wanted it.”

Larsen said he had no inkling that history was in the making when he made the short walk from the Bronx hotel where he lived to Yankee Stadium the morning of the game. In fact, it was only after arriving at the ballpark that Manager Casey Stengel told him he was starting.

When he was warming up--in front of the dugout, sans mound, as was the custom in those days--Larsen sensed nothing special.

“You never know until the battle starts,” he said. “You never know. Not till it counts.”

There were 10,000 empty seats that Monday afternoon when Larsen took the mound opposite Sal (the Barber) Maglie. More than 64,000 spectators and millions of television viewers observed a sensational pitching duel in which Maglie pitched a five-hitter and lost, 2-0.

“An error, I could have walked somebody, and any one of those guys could have hit a home run and the game would have been tied up,” Larsen said.

As it was, Larsen needed nothing more than Mickey Mantle’s fourth-inning homer. Not to mention Mantle’s running backhand catch in left-center of a long drive by Gil Hodges in the fifth.

“It would have been a home run in most other parks,” said Larsen, who also recalled a near home run by Sandy Amoros that barely sailed foul down the right-field line.

“Mickey wasn’t the greatest fielder, but he had the speed to outrun most of the balls that hung up in the air,” Larsen said.

A 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-hander, Larsen relied on his usual mix of fastballs and sliders, with an occasional slow curve. He struck out seven and said he never felt nervous--except in the dugout in the later innings, when teammates observed the time-honored tradition of not speaking to a pitcher throwing a no-hitter.

Larsen does not recall ever throwing another no-hitter, never mind a perfect game, even as a youngster.

Larsen threw his perfect game--one of only 12 produced in hundreds of thousands of major league games since 1876--shortly after adopting the no-windup delivery that became his trademark.

“It was a little confusing for hitters, because they hadn’t seen that kind of delivery,” he said.

Larsen generally discusses the perfect game in modest terms--"Everyone’s entitled to a good day before they die.” But he takes great pride in having turned in his superb performance against one of baseball’s great teams.

Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe, Jackie Robinson, Clem Labine, Carl Furillo, Sal Maglie, Junior Gilliam. . . . The Dodgers were awesome, even though they hit only .195 as a team while losing the ’56 Series in seven games.

Of course, Larsen’s Yankees weren’t too shabby, either. Mantle, Berra, Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Moose Skowron, Elston Howard, Gil McDougald, Billy Martin, Hank Bauer and Enos Slaughter helped lead the Bronx Bombers to their sixth World Series championship in eight years.

Larsen, who won a career-high 11 games--against five losses--during the 1956 regular season, spent three more years in New York before going to the old Kansas City Athletics in the infamous Roger Maris trade.

Infamous? Well, Marvelous Marv Throneberry was one of the other players New York gave up to acquire Maris, who was a year away from his record 61-homer season.

Earlier, Larsen was involved in another famous trade, the unprecedented 18-player deal between New York and Baltimore. That deal was made after Larsen had suffered through a 3-21 season in 1954, with the first Oriole team--the transplanted St. Louis Browns.

His 21 losses that season led the American league--the only time Larsen ever led a professional league in any major category. He was 81-91 lifetime, with a 3.78 earned-run-average--including a respectable 4.37 for those horrible ’54 Orioles.

Asked why he never achieved stardom, Larsen shrugged and said, “I don’t know. That’d be tough to answer.

“You go out and try to do the best you can. Sometimes, the results aren’t there.”

But on one special day, the results were magnificent. Nearly four decades later, Larsen still receives autograph requests, almost daily, by mail. A San Diego native, he moved to Coeur d’Alene, Ida., a year ago, after retiring from a sales job with a paper company near San Jose. He moved into his custom-built home on Hayden Lake, about 40 miles east of Spokane, Wash., last spring.

Larsen keeps a low profile these days, save for the occasional card show or autograph session. He smiles an easy smile when asked why he holds no resentment for being remembered by most people for just one day in a long, often successful career.

“That’s easy,” he says. “They forget all the mistakes I made.”


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