Friday, October 8, 2010

October 8, 1956: Perfect

BRONX, N.Y. - The Boys of Summer were getting a little long in the tooth in 1956. After having finally claimed their elusive World Series in 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers were aging, a team in transition. Jackie Robinson was now a 37-year-old utility player, Roy Campanella struggled to keep his average above .200, and Pee Wee Reese had become merely average. The outfield was still powerful, though, and the pitching was still strong, and the Dodgers were still good enough to top the National League and head back to the World Series.

The Yankees, of course, were still the Yankees, frighteningly efficient and clearly the class of the American League. Led by Mickey Mantle's triple crown and a pitching staff featuring nobody who lost 10 games, New York eased into the World Series hoping to exact revenge for the previous year's loss.

The Yankee were clearly the better team in the '56 series, but Brooklyn had finally figured out how to beat them the previous year and so were given a legitimate chance to beat the Yankees again. The Dodgers' offense took off in the first two games in Ebbets field, scoring 19 runs in the two games to take a 2-0 series lead to the Bronx.

For the pivotal game 5, the Dodgers would send Sal Maglie, their longtime Giants nemesis and now their second-best pitcher. As for the Yankees, their pitcher would be revealed a couple hours before the game. Yankees manager Casey Stengel kept his pitchers on their toes, often not telling them they were pitching until the day of the game. The pitcher would know it was his turn to throw when he arrived at the ballpark and saw a ball in his shoe in his locker.

And so Don Larsen entered the Yankee Stadium clubhouse in the afternoon of October 8 and saw the fateful ball in his spike. He was a bit of a surprising choice, as he had been battered around in game 2, getting knocked out in the second inning. Also, depending on who you believe, he got between one and five hours of sleep the night before and may very well have been hung over. But the ball was his in a game the Yankees needed to win to avoid having to win twice in Brooklyn.

The first three innings flew by, as neither team got a baserunner the first time through the lineup. The closest either team came to a baserunner was when Robinson hit a smash that deflected off third baseman Andy Carey's glove straight to Gil McDougald at short, who just barely threw Robinson out.

Larsen got through the fourth unscathed, and Maglie got the first two outs in the fourth before Mantle put one in the right field seats on a ball that was fair by inches. It didn't seem at the time that Mantle's home run would be too important - just the first run, nothing more. But oh, was it important.

The Dodgers' first big threat came in the top of the fifth, as Gil Hodges hit a one-out pitch to the deepest part of left-center. But Yankee Stadium's left-center gap was the deepest in baseball, and Mantle made a running catch to keep the Dodgers off the bases. Sandy Amoros followed with a deep drive to right that went foul by inches before he grounded out.

New York added another one in the sixth, as Larsen's sacrifice was followed by a Hank Bauer single to make it 2-0. Bauer went to third on a single, but was caught in a rundown for the second half of a double play to end the inning. A 2-0 lead normally wouldn't seem safe against a lineup as potent as the Dodgers', but in order to score twice, you have to get a baserunner first, something they had failed to do through six innings.

By this time, the Yankees dugout had grown silent. Nobody wanted to say anything for fear of jinxing the perfect game. Normally someone who couldn't stop talking or joking around, Larsen at one point turned to Mantle and said "wouldn't it be something if I got this no-hitter?" Mantle hurried away like Larsen had the plague. Larsen was more relaxed, though, even taking a cigarette break during the seventh inning stretch. He felt more comfortable on the mound than in the silent dugout.

Larsen got through the seventh on eight pitches, a ground out and two flyouts. The Yankees put a couple of runners on base in the bottom of the seventh but couldn't score. They probably had other things on their minds. The eighth went through without incident, with Larsen needing only 10 pitches to finish the job then. One inning to go.

The Yankees clearly had other things on their minds in the bottom of the eighth, as Maglie cut them down on three straight strikeouts. Now it was just Larsen and history. The crowd was going crazy. The announcers had been trying to avoid mentioning the no-hitter, hinting at it without actually saying it. And the Yankee players were secretly hoping that Larsen would finish the job with three straight strikeouts.

Carl Furillo's fly ball to right landed safely in Bauer's glove, and Billy Martin had no problem with Campanella's grounder. Two outs. Up stepped Dale Mitchell, pinch-hitting for Maglie and starting what would end up being the final plate appearance of his career. Larsen's first pitch was a ball, then two strikes. Mitchell fouled off the first two-strike pitch, and Larsen threw his 97th pitch of the game. It looked a little high, perhaps outside. Mitchell checked his swing, but umpire Babe Pinelli, calling the last game of his career, raised his fist.

Yankee Stadium erupted. Larsen ran off the mound toward the dugout, only to be intercepted by a jubilant Yogi Berra leaping into his arms. The rest of the Yankees surrounded their pitcher, followed by swarms of fans. The first postseason no-hitter, and it was a perfect game to boot.

The Dodgers offense, in shambles after Larsen's perfect game, disappeared for the rest of the series. They managed to win game 6 with a 1-0, 10-inning victory, before getting blown away in game 7 in the final World Series game ever played in Brooklyn. Robinson retired after the season rather than accept a trade to the Giants, and the Dodgers were playing in Los Angeles by 1958.

Larsen pitched until 1967, bouncing around a lot and never matching the 11 wins he got in 1956. He did win another World Series game, taking game 4 of the 1962 series in relief, beating the Yankees while playing for the Giants. He finished with a losing record for his career, and would likely be forgotten if not for his one magical day.

After his retirement, Larsen stayed in the limelight because of his perfect game. After Berra's feud with Yankee management ended in 1999, Larsen was invited back for Yogi Berra Day in New York. That day, with Larsen in attendance, David Cone threw a perfect game for the Yankees. It was the first baseball game Larsen had watched from start to finish since his retirement.

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