Don Larsen, an otherwise ordinary pitcher who achieved the extraordinary when he threw the only perfect game in World Series history, died on Wednesday in Hayden Lake, Idaho. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by Andrew Levy, his agent.
Larsen’s son, Scott, said in a statement last week that his father was being treated for esophageal cancer, which had been diagnosed this summer.
When Larsen took the mound against the Brooklyn Dodgers on the afternoon of Oct. 8, 1956, at the original Yankee Stadium, he was in the fourth season of an unremarkable career.
He possessed an imposing physique for his time, at 6 feet 4 inches tall and 215 pounds or so, his frame topped by a brush cut and oversize ears. His repertory of a fastball, slider and curve seemed weapons enough for a fine career.
But Larsen had lost 21 games pitching for the Baltimore Orioles two years earlier, and he had difficulty controlling not only his pitches but also his affinity for night life.
Nonetheless, for one day Larsen was the picture of perfection. Twenty-seven times, the batters in a Dodgers lineup with four future Hall of Famers came to the plate, and all returned to the dugout without a hit, a walk or an error by a Yankees fielder.
Larsen’s 2-0 masterpiece came 34 years after the major leagues had last witnessed a perfect game. No pitcher, before or since, has so much as thrown a no-hitter in the World Series.
As Larsen once put it: “Goofy things happen.”
Larsen’s 1956 season had not begun on a promising note. During spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., he drove his car into a telephone pole while returning to the team hotel around 4 a.m. He said later that day that he had fallen asleep at the wheel, and when he was asked about the incident through the years, he maintained he had not been drinking.
He came away with nothing worse than a chipped tooth, but his misadventure inspired Yankees teammates to dub him Gooney Bird, for the albatross, found mostly on Midway Atoll in the Pacific, known for what are taken to be pratfalls while it scurries on land.
But Larsen went 11-5 in 1956, flourishing late in the season when he developed what was then an unorthodox no-windup delivery that gave him better balance while disguising his pitch selection.
Manager Casey Stengel took a chance on him in Game 2 of the World Series, only to see him knocked out in the second inning at Ebbets Field when the Dodgers scored six runs in a 13-8 victory.
When Larsen arrived at Yankee Stadium three days later, he had no idea whether he would face the Dodgers again. He learned that he would start Game 5, the Series tied at two games apiece, only when he found a baseball placed in one of his shoes — the customary signaling of a starting assignment — by Frank Crosetti, the third-base coach. No one had been chosen by Stengel the day before.
Larsen and the Dodgers’ Sal Maglie were both perfect going into the fourth inning. But Mickey Mantle hit a home run with two out in the fourth to give the Yankees a one-run lead, and the Yanks added another run in the sixth.
Larsen breezed along, surviving a few scares.
In the Dodgers’ second inning, Jackie Robinson led off with a hard shot that bounced off third baseman Andy Carey, but shortstop Gil McDougald grabbed the ricochet and threw out Robinson, who was lacking the speed of his early years, on a close play. “It hit off the fingertips of my glove,” Carey once recalled. “A few years before, Robinson would have beaten it out.”
In the fourth inning, Duke Snider missed a home run to right by a few inches. In the fifth, Gil Hodges’s drive to left center was run down by Mantle, and Sandy Amoros missed a home run to right by a hair.
By the seventh inning, Larsen knew he was working on a no-hitter, though he did not realize he had a perfect game. He had reached three balls on only one hitter, Pee Wee Reese, in the first inning, his pitches hitting the corner of the plate throughout the afternoon.
“I never had control like that before or since,” he told Sports Illustrated decades later. “It just seemed that everything I threw was on the black.”
Teammates, fearing they would jinx him, walked away in the dugout when he tried to start a conversation in the game’s late stages.
With more than 64,000 fans roaring, Carl Furillo, the Dodgers’ first batter in the ninth inning, flied out to right field. Then Roy Campanella grounded out to second base. Dale Mitchell, an outfielder pinch-hitting for Maglie, came to the plate, and, as Larsen recalled it, “I said a small prayer.”
With the count one ball and two strikes, he delivered a fastball, his 97th pitch. Mitchell checked his swing, but the umpire Babe Pinelli signaled strike three. At a few minutes past 3 o’clock, baseball history had been made.
Catcher Yogi Berra leapt into Larsen’s arms, the madcap embrace captured in a photo that became a classic baseball image. “Next to getting to the Hall of Fame in 1972, it was probably my greatest thrill in baseball,” Berra once said.
But Larsen became aware that he had pitched a perfect game only when he entered the clubhouse.
Donald James Larsen was born on Aug. 7, 1929, in Michigan City, Ind., but his parents, James and Charlotte Larsen, moved the family to San Diego when he was 15 or so. His pitching for Point Loma High School brought an offer from the St. Louis Browns in 1947. (David Wells, another alumnus of Point Loma, pitched a perfect game for the Yankees against the Minnesota Twins in 1998.)
Larsen reached the majors in 1953, when he was 7-12 for the Browns.
He went 3-21 in 1954 when the perennially lowly Browns became the Baltimore Orioles, then was traded to the Yankees in a 17-player deal that also gave them the fastballing Bob Turley, who went on to win the 1958 Cy Young Award as baseball’s finest pitcher.
Larsen had a 9-2 record for the 1955 Yankees. After his 11 victories in 1956, he never won more than 10 games in a season.
He was traded to the Kansas City Athletics in December 1959 in a deal that brought Roger Maris to the Yankees. Two years later, Maris would set another iconic record, hitting 61 home runs to break Babe Ruth’s single-season mark.
Larsen also pitched for the Chicago White Sox, the San Francisco Giants, the Houston Astros (then the Colt .45s), the Orioles again and the Chicago Cubs. He retired after 14 seasons with a record of 81-91 and had pitched in the World Series four times with the Yankees and once with the Giants.
“I’m not happy with my career record,” Larsen once said. “It could have been better. Partying had something to do with it. But I always needed companionship, even if there were just two people in town.”
After leaving baseball, Larsen was a salesman for a paper-products company in California.
Larsen and his wife, the former Corrine Bruess, spent their later years in the small town of Hayden Lake, in Idaho’s panhandle. Larsen enjoyed fishing at a lake adjoining their home, but also appeared at autograph and memorabilia shows and attended Yankee old-timers’ games.
He sold his uniform from the perfect game — the pinstriped jersey bearing No. 18 and his pants — to a memorabilia dealer at auction for $765,000 in December 2012 to provide for the educations of his grandsons, Justin and Cody Larsen. In addition to his wife and son, they survive him.
Larsen often said that a day didn’t go by when he did not think about his feat, and he drove a car with the license plate DL000, for his initials and the box score reading no runs, no hits and no errors.
On the 45th anniversary of his perfect game, Larsen reflected anew on the moment. “My belief is, you work hard enough and something good is going to happen,” he said. “Everyone is entitled to some good days.”
Tyler Kepner contributed reporting.