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Perfect Memories 

by Howie Stalwick


He's retired now, living the good life at his custom-built home on Hayden Lake with wife Corrine and memories that will last forever -- not just for him, but for generations of American sports fans. Yet Don Larsen was a rather ordinary pitcher during most of his 14 years in the major leagues. He lost more games than he won, bounced around from team to team and league to league, finishing his career in the minors in 1968.


But for one glorious October afternoon in 1956, Larsen mastered the game like no one before or since.


Pitching for the New York Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers in a World Series matching two of the most storied teams in baseball history, Larsen pitched the only perfect game in major league postseason history. (No one else has pitched even so much as a no-hitter in the postseason)


Twenty-seven up, 27 down. No hits, runs, walks, balks, hit batters, catcher's interference, nothin'.


Perfect.


"Sometimes," says Larsen, a smile lighting a battle-worn face that turns 73 on Aug. 7, "I wonder why it happened to me -- or if it happened.


"A lot of people say it was one of the greatest games [ever pitched]. Well, I wouldn't dispute that, but I would have to see it myself as a player or fan to give you an opinion on that, because I never saw it."


Actually, Larsen had the best seat in the house. Just three days earlier, on Oct. 5, he had taken a seat in the clubhouse after being yanked in the second inning of Game 2, unable to hold on to a 6-0 lead.


"I did a #!% & amp;@! job," mutters Larsen, still more than a little bit steamed about it.


Larsen's problem in Game 2, and throughout much of his career, was poor control. In Game 5, however, the baseball was a magnet in Larsen's hand, and Yogi Berra's catcher's mitt was a steel trap.


"I had as good of stuff many times and didn't last the first inning," Larsen insists. "I just had better control. I'd never had such good control. I threw the ball most times pretty close to where Yogi wanted it."


Larsen says he had no inkling that history was in the making when he made the short walk from the Bronx hotel where he lived to Yankee Stadium on the morning of Game 5. In fact, it was only after arriving at the ballpark that manager Casey Stengel told Larsen he was starting.


Even when he was warming up -- in front of the dugout, sans mound, as was the custom in those days -- Larsen sensed nothing special.


"You never know until the battle starts," Larsen says. "You never know. Not 'til it counts."


There were 10,000 empty seats that Monday afternoon when Larsen took the mound opposite Brooklyn star Sal "The Barber" Maglie. Still, more than 64,000 spectators and millions of television viewers saw a sensational pitching duel in which Maglie lost, 2-0, on a five-hitter.


Larsen needed nothing more than Mickey Mantle's fourth-inning home run -- not to mention his running backhand catch of a long Gil Hodges drive to left-center in the fifth.


"It would have been a home run in most other parks," says Larsen, who also recalls a near home run by Sandy Amoros that barely sailed foul down the right field line in the fifth. "Mickey wasn't the greatest fielder, but he had the speed to outrun most of the balls that hung up in the air."


A 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-hander, Larsen relied on his usual mix of fastballs and sliders, with an occasional slow curve. He struck out seven and said he never felt nervous -- except in the dugout in the later innings, when teammates observed the time-honored tradition of not speaking to a pitcher throwing a no-hitter.


"I said, 'Lookit, Mickey, look at the scoreboard. Wouldn't it be something? Two more innings to go.'


"Everyone clammed up. It was like a morgue. That wasn't a comfortable feeling."





Larsen generally discusses the perfect game in modest terms ("Everyone's entitled to a good day before they die"). However, he takes obvious pride in the fact that his superb performance came against one of the great teams in baseball history.


Interestingly, Larsen does not recall throwing any other no-hitters or perfect games, even as a youth in Michigan City, Ind., and San Diego. The World Series perfecto -- one of just 15 perfect games recorded in hundreds of thousands of major league games since 1876 -- came shortly after Larsen adopted the no-windup delivery that became his trademark.


"It was a little confusing for hitters, because they hadn't seen that kind of delivery," Larsen says.


Larsen, who won a career-high 11 games (against five losses) during the 1956 regular season, spent three more years in New York before going to the Kansas City Athletics in the infamous Roger Maris trade.


Four decades later, Larsen still receives autograph requests almost daily, and he remains a popular man at card and autograph shows. The Larsens moved into their home on Hayden Lake in 1994, one year after moving to nearby Coeur d'Alene after Larsen retired from his sales job with a paper supplies company in Northern California.


Larsen returned to the national limelight last month when he announced that he is auctioning off the last ball he threw in the perfect game (along with the cleats and glove he used, plus a cap he wore prior to the game). Larsen hopes to raise at least $300,000, which he says will be placed in a trust fund for the college education of his two grandchildren.


"Might as well do it now," Larsen deadpans, "before I'm dead."





The Internet auction (at www.MastroNet.com) is scheduled to run August 5-23.

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