Former New York Yankees pitcher and 1956 World Series hero Don Larsen passed away earlier this week. Here is a look at his defining moment in baseball history.
It was a magic moment in baseball history. The Brooklyn Dodgers trailed the New York Yankees 2-0 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of the 1956 World Series Game Five. Bronx Bombers pitcher Don Larsen had retired the first 26 batters of the game. Dale Mitchell was tabbed by Brooklyn Manager Walter Alston to pinch-hit for Dodgers pitcher Sal Maglie.
Two years prior, if anyone would have suggested that these two men would be facing each other in the World Series, let alone in this situation, they probably would have been laughed out of the room.
Dale Mitchell was 35-years old in 1956, in the twilight of a great career. The two-time Americal League all-star and owner of a .312 career batting average was purchased by the Dodgers from Cleveland just six weeks earlier. It was expected he would end his career with the Tribe following their appearance in the 1954 World Series, but he hung around as reserve for another two seasons.
If it was strange that Mitchell, an Indians lifer, was appearing in a Dodgers uniform. The fact that Larsen was in this situation might be absurd. Two years prior to the moment now at hand, Larsen led the AL in losses as he went 3-21 for the hapless Baltimore Orioles. He was part of a 17 player swap between the O’s and New York Yankees after the 1964 season.
While he had pitched pretty well in pinstripes, Larsen was used as only a part-time starter by manager Casey Stengel. In 1955-56 the hard-throwing righty started only 33 of 57 games he pitched in. What made Larson’s heroics of Game 5 more amazing was that he was pulled from his Game 1 start after only one-and-a-third innings. Even he was surprised to make the start that day.
Larsen pitched well, but like all no-hit/perfect games, he caught some breaks. Early in the contest, Jackie Robinson hit a hard line drive that bounced of Yankees third baseman Andy Carey‘s glove and went right to shortstop Gil McDougald, who barely threw out Robinson at first. Then Mickey Mantle ran down Gil Hodges‘ line drive in deep left-center. It was a ball that would have left most ballparks, but there was a reason that part of Yankee Stadium was called death valley.
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Back to the big moment. With the scoreboard reading ALL zeroes for Brooklyn, Mitchell came to the plate. Yankees catcher Yogi Berra called a great game up tho that point. Larsen loved pitching to Berra because of the way Yogi framed pitches. Three fastballs later, Larsen was ahead in the count 1-2.
Here came another heater which Mitchell tried to hold up on his swing, but couldn’t. He was called out on strike three. A perfect game. The first and only perfecto in Series history. Every baseball fan has seen the iconic picture of Berra leaping into Larson’s arms to celebrate.
It was Mitchel’s final at-bat, he retired after the game. Larsen stayed in the Bronx another three seasons before spending the final six years of his career as primarily a relief pitcher with five different teams. Even though he spent five above-average years as a New York Yankees player, he was treated like royalty by the organization. His presence was always welcomed and celebrated at Old-Timers Day.
Fast forward to July 18, 1999, Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium. Larsen was on hand to throw the ceremonial first pitch to the honored catcher. Maybe there was a little more magic left from Larsen’s aura. Later that day David Cone took the mound that day for the Bronx Bombers and threw a perfect game against the Montreal Expos.