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Goofy Things Happen- The Don Larsen Story

Posted by on January 3, 2020 at 4:10 PM

“Goofy Things Happen”. This is a quote by Don Larsen, baseball player, pitcher of the only perfect game in Major League Baseball Postseason history. Don Larsen died on New Years Day 2020 at the age of 90, tucked away at a small ranch in Idaho’s panhandle, about 30 miles from the Canadian border. To many, celebrating the passing of the old year and the coming of the new one, probably missed the announcement or having heard it at the tail end of the newscast, gave it no heed. Being a big baseball fan, I immediately thought back to images I had seen of the perfect game Larsen threw on October 8, 1956. The image of catcher Yogi Berra jumping up into Larsen’s outstretched arms, the check swing by the 27th batter, pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell and the strong arm raise of umpire Babe Pinelli signaling the final out. But I also got thinking about the things I had learned about Larsen years ago- about a career of mediocrity, a life of dodged responsibility and of hard living. I thought about the lessons I could learn thinking about the times that I had a “perfect” day during a mediocre week, or month or year. I thanked God for mercies renewed every morning, regardless of my lack of perfection, or my stubborn need to live it up. Larsen received the gift of baseball immortality on that October day in 1956, and everyday I am given the gift of a God of second chances. Don Larsen was born in Michigan City, Indiana on August 7, 1929. He starred in high school in multiple sports but refused scholarships because he didn’t want to spend his life studying. He met his first wife; Vivian and they had a child out of wedlock. He wanted the baby adopted, but when Vivian refused, he married her out of obligation. Their marriage lasted less than 4 years and was marked by court battles regarding child support that Larsen chose not to pay. He was called up by the St. Louis Browns in 1953, the teams last season in St Louis before making the move to Baltimore the following spring. In 1954, Larsen led the league in losses with 21. He was traded to the New York Yankees in 1955 and had his best 4 seasons. His 1956 season started with a spring training accident, allegedly caused by him falling asleep at the wheel, but more likely from a night of drinking. He was a part of the great Yankee teams which included the great Mickey Mantle, another notorious revel rouser. Mantle, when asked about Larsen years later said, “Don had a startling capacity for liquor. Larsen was easily the greatest drinker I’ve known, and I’ve known some pretty good ones.” His Baltimore manager, Jimmie Dykes said, “The only thing Don feared was sleep.” After an 11-win season in 1956, the Yankees found themselves in the World Series for the seventh time in the last eight years. Larsen was pegged to start Game 2. After Sal Maglie beat Yankee ace Whitey Ford in the first game, Larsen’s start was important. Larsen, however, had a rough day, being pulled after only 10 batters, 6 of whom reached base. The 13-8 loss put the Yankees down 2 games to none. After victories in games 3 and 4, the Yankees arrived at Game 5 with the series tied. Manager Casey Stengel had not named a starter for the game and Larsen spent the night before in his normal style, drinking and exploring New York nightlife. Team tradition when a starter had not been named was that the baseball would be put in between the cleats of the pitcher selected. When Don arrived the next morning, the ball was between the cleats. 64,519 people jammed Yankee Stadium that day to watch the crucial Game 5. They had no idea that they were about to be present for baseball history. The Brooklyn Dodgers of 1956 were defending World Champions. After several failed attempts to beat the powerful Yankees, they were finally successful in 1955. The lineup facing Don Larsen that day contained four future Hall of Famers: Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. 3 of the other 4 position players (Gil Hodges, Jim Gilliam, Carl Furillo) and the opposing starting pitcher Sal Maglie were all multi year All-Stars. On that October day, Don Larsen was unhittable. He plowed through the Brooklyn lineup with relative ease until that called third strike to Mitchell ended the game. 27 up, 27 down. No one got a hit, no errors were committed behind Larsen, no one was walked. It was a perfect game. Let me put this achievement into a little perspective. There have been approximately 218,400 major league baseball games played in the history of the league. There have been 23 perfect games. When Larsen through his, it was just the 6th ever thrown (2 in 1880, Cy Young in 1904, Addie Joss in 1908 and Charlie Robertson in 1922). No one had ever thrown a no-hitter in post season play, let alone a perfect game. Since 1903, there have been 1612 post season games and Larsen stands alone. In October 2010, Roy Halladay of the Phillies no-hit the Cincinnati Reds in the Divisional Season, but he walked one batter. Don Larsen had done the improbable, the nearly impossible. He was an imperfect player with a perfect game. The San Francisco Chronicle put it this way, “Don Larsen, a carefree sould who breaks automobiles, likes bright lights, reads comic books, and is about the last person in baseball who might be expected to pitch a perfect game.”

Don Larsen pitched until 1964 and then had a brief three game stint with the Cubs in 1967. Overall, he pitched for eight teams (Browns, Orioles, Astros, Athletics, Cubs, White Sox, Giants and Yankees). He finished his career with a losing record (81 wins, 91 losses). He retired with his second wife Corrine and became a salesman for a paper company for over 25 years. Years later, Larsen summed up his perfect game with this quote, “My belief is, you work hard enough and something good is going to happen…Everyone is entitled to some good days. Don Larsen’s story inspires me because I, like Larsen, have taken gifts for granted. Don sought his later life making amends; his widow Corrine was his wife for over 60 years after he took his first marriage and newborn for child for granted. He struggled to come up with $420 in back child support during his 1956 World Series game. The court order demanding the support was in his locker while he was out on the mound in Yankee Stadium. In 2012, Larsen sold the uniform he wore on that fateful day for $765,000. Among the things he used that money for was the education of his two grandsons. Was he perfect? Absolutely not. When interviewed in 2017 by the Coeur D’ Alene Press at age 88, he was asked if he still liked to have a drink or two? “Damn right, I do” replied Larsen. Don Larsen, and you and I are given new mercies daily by a merciful and loving God. Larsen taught me that perfection is exceedingly rare, that second chances count, and that the blessings God bestows are not deserved but the irrevocable gift of an incredible God

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