Don Larsen was a humble man, even in perfection

Tim Brown
MLB columnist
Don Larsen, the journeyman pitcher who reached the heights of baseball glory in 1956 for the Yankees when he threw the only perfect game in World Series history, died Wednesday. He was 90. (AP)

From the pitcher’s mound, Don Larsen trotted straight toward the dugout that fall afternoon in 1956, the last of 27 Brooklyn Dodgers come and gone, as if he’d hoped nobody’d noticed.

Interrupted by his catcher, the lunging Yogi Berra, Larsen raised his right hand slightly. Perhaps a handshake would do, he seemed to hope. Of course, Larsen was forced to wear Berra as a corset for four or five steps, until the rest of the New York Yankees arrived. They, like Berra, were quite enthusiastic. Eventually he’d have to lug them all to the dugout.

He surely was in color in that moment, all day long probably, but the black and white of the old films seemed to suit him. The perfect inelegance of his delivery. The puff of gray dirt when his right foot scratched across the mound. The lowered chin. The surprise at such a fuss.

He’d win 85 games in the major leagues and lose 93. He’d be a Yankee for five years and something else for nine. He’d retire and grow old and every once in a while field a phone call about that afternoon, the one at Yankee Stadium when 27 Dodgers came and went, sometimes because another Yankee had thrown a perfect game, though not in the World Series. Never in the World Series. Only he did that.

For the rest of his life — he died Wednesday at 90 years old — Larsen seemed not the big ol’ hoss who made history once and forever, but the man who was happy to have had some good days, who seemed amused that an afternoon like the one everybody wanted to talk about had been kind enough to include him, who would have been just fine with a handshake.

“Don’s perfect game is a defining moment for our franchise,” the Yankees said in a statement, “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.”

Don Larsen wraps his arms around catcher Yogi Berra after the final pitch of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Yankee Stadium in New York. Larsen pitched the first perfect game in World Series history as the Yankees defeated the Dodgers, 2-0. (Diamond Images/Getty Images)

Among those things, the humility of a pitcher with — until then — a 30-40 record, pitching two days after Whitey Ford had, throwing the game of his life. Also, the guy who’d come along and stand next to Mickey and Yogi and Elston, who’d manage for two solid hours a lineup of Jackie and Campy and Duke, and discover that this was in him.

Years later, he’d said, “Sometimes a week might go by when I don’t think about that game, but I don’t remember when it happened last.”

He was a regular at Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium, where it could be confirmed he was indeed made in full color. He struck up enduring friendships with David Cone and David Wells, who threw perfect games while in pinstripes themselves. He was charming and inviting and did not tire of the subject that existed for most in black and white, voiced by Vin Scully, living alone among baseball achievements.

Larsen would later admit he was nearly in tears postgame, moved as he was by what had transpired. And decades later he would smile and wave at the crowds who knew his name and what he’d done for the franchise on that long-ago afternoon, and who’d seen the images of Yogi Berra launching himself — a “friendly attack,” Larsen noted in his autobiography — and would hold that up against any snapshot in the history of sports.

And what endures is not simply a World Series perfect game, not simply that sort of will and excellence on that sort of afternoon, but also the appearance of a man who seemed to understand his particular place on such a day. That, when it was over, his place was someplace else. He’d shown up, been so good, in fact at least as good as anybody had been before or since, and then it was if he didn’t want to hang around so long to find out otherwise.

Decades later, Don Larsen was a delightful, dignified and humble being, a fact that would seem to corroborate the bearing of that guy hustling from the mound that afternoon. It was a heck of a day. So wonderful. The sort of day a guy could only dream about. And a handshake probably would have done him just fine.

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