Don Larsen retired from baseball in 1967 having spent his career as a perfectly serviceable pitcher. His career stats do not place him among the greats. For example, he lost 10 more games than he won throughout his career, and he never made the All-Star team or won a seasonal pitching award.
But for one day – Oct. 8, 1956 – Don Larsen was perfect.
On that day in the Bronx, with Yogi Berra behind the plate, Larsen pitched a perfect game in Game 5 of the World Series. Twenty seven Brooklyn Dodgers came to the plate, 27 went down. Larsen’s perfect game, one of only 21 ever pitched since 1900, remains the only one ever pitched in a World Series.
In a strange twist of fate, the perfect combination of Berra and Larsen were also the last two living players on the field that day in Yankees Stadium. Berra died in 2015 at the age of 90. Larsen died on Jan. 1, 2020, also at the age of 90.
Don Larsen’s Early Life
Don Larsen’s trip to baseball immortality began in Michigan City, Indiana. Larsen was born on Aug. 7, 1929, the son of a jewelry salesman and a retirement home housekeeper. The family moved to San Diego when Larsen was a young teen, and he played both baseball and basketball in high school.
In 1947, Larsen caught the attention of a scout from the St. Louis Browns, who signed him to a contract. That suited Larsen, who had never cared for school and had no interest in attending college.
At 17, he pitched for the Aberdeen Pheasants in South Dakota. Over the next three seasons, he moved up the minor league system, making stops in Arizona, Illinois and Texas. In 1951, the Army drafted him for the Korean War, and he spent two years in the military.
During his time in the minors, Larsen’s teammates remembered him as a guy who liked to go to bars, have a few beers and talk to people. That’s something that would continue, especially during his time in New York City.
Don Larsen MLB Career
Larsen started his career with the St. Louis Browns, pitching his first game on April 17, 1953, against the Detroit Tigers. His results during the season set the stage for this career. He led the team in innings pitched and complete games, but also gave up the most hits and ended with a 7-12 record.
When the Browns relocated to Baltimore and became the Orioles in 1954, Larsen stayed in the rotation. The Orioles won only 54 games, and Larsen went 3-21, leading the league in losses. In November 1954, Larsen was traded to the New York Yankees in a massive, 17-player deal.
After a poor start in 1955, Larsen was sent down to the minors. He didn’t report at first, going back to St. Louis for a week, but eventually took the assignment. He came back up later in the year and ended up posting a 9-2 record for the season.
In 1956, Larsen pitched in 38 games, 20 of them starts. He posted an 11-5 record. Then, came the playoffs and the World Series.
The Perfect Game
Larsen started Game 2 of the World Series but lasted only 1 ⅔, giving up only one hit but walking four batters in a row. In Game 5, with the series tied at two games apiece, manager Casey Stengel chose Larsen to start again. The result was perfection.
Larsen got 27 outs on just 97 pitches. Pee Wee Reese was the only Dodgers batter to even get a three-ball count. The Dodgers lineup that day included Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges. It is one of the most memorable games in baseball history, capped with Berra leaping into Larsen’s arms after the last out. Larsen knew he had pitched a no-hitter, but didn’t realize he had pitched a perfect game until it was over.
After the game, Larsen said he never experienced control like he had it that day. For nine innings, everything he threw went exactly where it wanted it to go. It’s the sort of day that stays with a person forever.
In 2012, Larsen said: “I have thought about that perfect game, more than once a day, every day of my life since the day I threw it.”
Nothing else that happened in the rest of this career came close. Larsen won another World Series as part of the 1958 Yankees. He then finished his career with a series of teams, including the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles.
Larsen later admitted that all the late night partying might have impacted his career. But on the 45th anniversary of his perfect game, he said: “My belief is, you work hard enough and something good is going to happen. Everyone is entitled to some good days.”