Obituary: Don Larsen (1929-2020)

RIP to Don Larsen, an above-average pitcher who, for one magical game, was absolutely perfect. He died on January 1, after entering into hospice care for esophageal cancer. He was 90 years old. Larsen pitched for the St. Louis Browns (1963), Baltimore Orioles (1954, 1965), New York Yankees (1955-59), Kansas City Athletics (1960-61), Chicago White Sox (1961), San Francisco Giants (1962-64), Houston Colt .45s/Astros (1964-65) and Chicago Cubs (1967).

“The imperfect man pitched a perfect game yesterday,” is maybe one of the most famous opening lines in any newspaper article about baseball. It was written by Joe Trimble of the Daily News on October 9, 1956, a day after Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series history against the Brooklyn Dodgers. (An early edition used the phrase “unperfect man.”) It’s a great line, and a completely appropriate one. Don Larsen was far from a saint back in those days. He loved to party. No less an of authority than Mickey Mantle marveled at his drinking abilities. He had a wife and child that he kept hidden so that he could lead a bachelor’s life in New York City.

Don Larsen, along with Mel Allen, receives his MVP Award from the 1956 World Series. Source: The Baseball Hall of Fame.

The line fits so well for another reason. Don Larsen was a pretty good pitcher on most days, but a perfect one? A guy who led the AL in losses with 21 in 1954? A guy who, entering the 1956 postseason, was 10 games under .500 for his career? That guy, perfect? He wasn’t even the best pitcher on his own team, much less the best in baseball. But that’s the maddening and wonderful thing about the sport. On any given day, any player, regardless of natural talent, can change baseball history. Think of all the great pitchers who have been in the World Series — or even the postseason in general. Think about Koufax, Maddux, Ford, Clemens, Carlton, Seaver, Gibson, Scherzer — none of them did what Don Larsen did on October 8, 1956.

Don James Larsen was born in Michigan City, Ind., on August 7, 1929. He grew up in California and went to school at Point Loma High School in San Diego. He was a good pitcher and a good hitter in high school and was signed by the St. Louis Browns in 1947. “We signed him for a few hundred dollars,” said Bill DeWitt of the Browns. “And we didn’t know whether we had a pitcher or an outfielder.”

For a while, the Browns had both. His first couple of seasons were as a pitcher, as the teenager played for the Aberdeen Pheasants of the Northern League in 1948 and ’48. He was a 17-game winner in 1948 and moved up the ranks in the Browns organization. Around 1949, he came down with a sore arm, and while the team waited for it to heal, he moved into the outfield. He hit 6 homers and won 6 games in 1949, while playing for teams in Springfield, Ill., and Globe, Ariz. Larsen split 1950 between Wichita and Wichita Falls, winning a total of 9 games. He then missed the next two seasons after he was drafted into the Army. According to his SABR bio, he served in non-combat roles and played on an Army baseball team. In 1952, he led the Armed Forces League in both home runs hit and ERA.

Don Larsen was one of the last St. Louis Browns and the Opening Day pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles’ first game. Source: The Baltimore Sun, September 30, 1953.

Larsen was discharged in 1953 and reported to the Browns spring training camp. Though the 23-year-old had been out of pro ball for two years, he made excellent progress in camp and joined the Browns pitching staff. The Browns had veterans like Harry Brecheen, Virgil Trucks and Satchel Paige on the staff, but Larsen ended up leading the team in innings pitched. He appeared in 38 games, 22 of which were starts, and finished with a 7-12 record and 4.16 ERA. He threw 7 complete games and two shutouts, and he also picked up 2 saves along the way. He also batted .284 with 3 homers and was used occasionally as a pinch-hitter or outfielder.

The Browns lost 100 games in their final season before moving to Baltimore, so Larsen’s losing record was more of a matter of bad luck than poor pitching. He helped his cause as best as he could; he not only outpitched the Philadelphia A’s on May 12 in relief of starter Bobo Holloman, but he also hit an RBI triple in the 7-3 win. In a short time, he had earned the respect of many rival managers.

“Where have the Browns been keeping that kid, Larsen?” asked Yankees skipper Casey Stengel. “He’s the best I’ve seen around this league in a long time.”

“Great pitchers don’t come along very often these days, but Larsen certainly has all the earmarks of one,” added A’s chief Jimmy Dykes.

Already called the biggest comic book reader in the league, Larsen was also on his way to earning the nickname “Gooney Bird.”

The move to Baltimore didn’t result in a better team, as the Orioles had an identical 54-100 record as the ’53 Browns. Larsen frustrated his new manager Dykes in spring training with some unimpressive efforts and ended up being a hard-luck pitcher again. He was the Opening Day starter for the Orioles, making him their first ever pitcher, and lost a 3-0 heartbreaker to the Tigers. He won just 3 games that year while leading the AL in losses with 21.

At the start of the ’54 season, Baltimore said that its two young pitchers, Larsen and Bob Turley, were untradeable. On November 17, the Yankees got them both, plus a couple other players, in what ultimately was a massive 18-player deal.

One of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s artifacts is this commemorative plate, issued in honor of Larsen’s perfect game.

Larsen was at his best in his five seasons with the Yankees, with a cumulative 45-24 record and 3.50 ERA. It took a while to stick though. After a couple of poor outings in May 1955, manager Stengel had the pitcher shipped to the minors. He landed in Denver, and once he got there, Larsen became focused on getting the Bears into the Little World Series. In fact, once he was brought back to the majors at the end of July, some of his Yankees teammates were concerned that his head was still in Denver.

“Look, forget about that Little World Series. They brought you back here to get us in the big one, remember?” one of the Yankees allegedly told him.

The Yankees did make it to the big World Series that year, and Larsen did his part with a 9-2 record in the regular season, including 5 straight wins after returning from his Denver exile. One of those wins was a 13-inning complete game against the Red Sox on August 10. If the Yankees were concerned that the easy-going pitcher was too lackadaisical, that effort should have ended it.

Larsen was pounded in his World Series debut in 1955, taking the loss in Game Four after allowing 5 runs in 4 innings. He’d get his revenge the following postseason. But not at first.

Larsen started Game Two of the 1956 World Series. He was yanked before getting out of the second inning, having allowed a hit and 4 walks. Four runs scored, but none of them were earned. Stengel was torn between letting Larsen start again or to give Turley a chance. Pitching coach Jim Turner was the deciding factor, telling the manager that the team would be better off with Turley in the bullpen if he was needed.

Larsen went out to the mound on October 8 and threw one of the most famous games in baseball history. He threw just 97 pitches, struck out 7 Dodgers and ended up with a 2-0 perfect game, the only one of its kind in postseason history. The final image, of Yogi Berra leaping into Larsen’s arms after the final out, is one of the most iconic sports photos ever taken. After all the trials he’d been through, it was thought that Larsen had reached the turning point of his career.

“This could shake him into the realization that he has what it takes to go on to immortality as a pitcher if yesterday’s performance alone doesn’t already entitle him to a spot in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown,” wrote sportswriter Red McQueen. McQueen noted that Larsen was just a big kid at heart.

“He loves to play the night club circuit and hates to go home. But he plays well; always is the perfect gentleman — a swell guy. He drinks a lot but holds it well and confines himself mostly to beer. So there is nothing particularly wrong with Don’s carousing except that he doesn’t time it well. It’s about time he grew up and started conforming to Yankee curfews and not his own,” he added. “Maybe such a marvelous milestone as yesterday’s perfect game may be just that the psychiatrist ordered.”

It wasn’t a smooth ride after that. In fact, on the same day Larsen pitched his way into baseball immortality, his estranged wife, Vivian Larsen, was in a New York City courtroom arguing that the pitcher was $420 behind on his support payments for her and their daughter. It was a marriage that he had kept secret. He stated that they had never lived together as husband and wife and that they had married for the sake of their child. The matter of the $420 was settled out of court.

Larsen made the most of his newfound fame. He appeared on television shows and commanded a $1,000 fee for personal appearances. As far as the pitching goes, he didn’t turn into a Hall of Famer from that point onward, but he remained a pretty effective pitcher. A well-traveled one at that.

The Yankees traded Larsen and three other players to the Kansas City A’s on December 11, 1959, getting back Roger Maris, among others. That’s a typical Yankee move — trading away a past franchise icon to get a future franchise icon. He went 1-10 for the A’s in 1960, which was the last season he was used regularly as a starter. Traded to the White Sox in mid-1961, he won 7 games for them in 25 appearances, just 3 of which were starts.

The Sox traded Larsen to the Giants in November 1961, and he stayed with San Francisco through May 1964. He appeared in 101 games out of the Giants’ bullpen and saved 14 games, including 10 in 1962. Houston bought him from the Giants and used him as a swingman for the rest of the ’64 season. He was 4-8 but with an excellent 2.26 ERA in 30 games, including 10 starts.

New York’s two famous Dons, Larsen and Newcombe. Source: Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Astros traded Larsen back to Baltimore after one ineffective start in 1965. He pitched well for the O’s as a reliever but was released in April 1966. After spending all of that season in the minor leagues, he returned to the majors for 3 games with the Cubs in 1967, allowing 4 runs in 4 innings. He pitched in the minors through the end of the 1968 season, retiring at the age of 38.

Over 14 seasons in the big leagues, Larsen had a 81-91 record, with a 3.78 ERA. He struck out 849 batters and threw 44 complete games and 11 shutouts. He also earned 23 saves. As a hitter, he had a lifetime .242 batting average with 14 home runs. Larsen appeared in 10 World Series games from 1955-58 with the Yankees and 1962 with the Giants. He won two Championships — 1956 and 1958 — and was the ’56 World Series MVP.

“It’s got to come to an end sometime,” said Larson in 1969, after he had retired and taken a sales job at Blake, Moffitt and Towne Paper Co. in San Jose. “Some people hang on. They work as scouts or something. There are a lot of jobs around. But you’ve got to have something with more security.”

Larson, the wild child who once wrapped a Cadillac around a telephone pole in the early hours of a Yankees’ spring training, had settled down. He was married to his wife, Corine, for 62 years and, in his retirement, settled down in Idaho. He regularly attended Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium as well as events celebrating the surviving members of the St. Louis Browns.

He was first diagnosed with cancer in August after attending the annual event sponsored by the St. Louis Browns Historical Society. He entered into hospice care in late December, according to a statement from his son, Scott.

“Dad is continuing to reside in his home of over twenty-five years overlooking Windy Bay on his beloved Hayden Lake, where he has spent many joyful hours fishing, frequently with me and our sons, Justin and Cody,” it read. Scott also expressed his gratitude for the legion of Don Larsen fans who reached out in his father’s final days.

The Yankees issued a statement that read, “Don’s perfect game is a defining moment for our franchise, encapsulating a storied era of Yankees success and ranking among the greatest single-game performances in Major League Baseball history. The unmitigated joy reflected in his embrace with Yogi Berra after the game’s final out will forever hold a secure place in Yankees lore. It was the pinnacle of baseball success and a reminder of the incredible, unforgettable things that can take place on a baseball field.

“The Yankees organization extends its deepest condolences to Don’s family and friends during this difficult time. He will be missed.”

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