Thursday, October 8, 2009

Happy Don Larsen Day!

October 8, 1956. Yankee Stadium. Game 5 of the World Series. The Series is tied, 2-2, between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yankee manager Casey Stengel looks at his pitching choices, and sends out Don Larsen. Although 11-5 that season, Larsen was sub-.500 for his career and would remain so. And he had been hit hard in Game 2. But, like Joe Torre would later do as Yankee manager, Casey sometimes played hunches, and they usually worked.

Torre, then 16 and skipping school – it was a Monday – was there, in the upper deck in left field. He saw the greatest game ever pitched.

Think about the Dodger lineup: Duke Snider, who hit 407 home runs. Roy Campanella, a 3-time MVP who then held the record for home runs in a season by a catcher. Gil Hodges, who hit 370 home runs. Jackie Robinson, aging but still a .311 lifetime hitter. Carl Furillo, a former batting champion. Pee Wee Reese and Jim Gilliam, very good at slap hits, beating out grounders, and drawing walks. Sandy Amoros had 16 homers and 58 RBIs that year. Until you got to the pitcher, there was no weak link.

The opposing pitcher was Sal Maglie, the big tall SOB who'd been the ace of the New York Giants. Nasty curveball. Tendency to throw at batters, even at their faces, earning him the nickname "the Barber."

My Grandma, a Dodger fan, hated him above all other Giants – except, of course, for the ex-Dodger shortstop and manager turned Giant manager and thus traitor, Leo Durocher. But now, after the Giants had traded him to the Cleveland Indians, the Dodgers had picked Maglie up for the stretch run, and he pitched a no-hitter. For the Brooklyn Dodgers. The photo of the Dodgers, including a smiling Roy Campanella, carrying the once-hated Sal Maglie to the locker room afterward is a classic.

You think Green Bay Packer fans can't believe that Brett Favre is a Minnesota Viking? Screw that. Durocher as a Giant and Maglie as a Dodger were much more shocking in their time.

In this World Series Game 5, Maglie didn't allow a baserunner, either, until the bottom of the 4th, when Mickey Mantle, concluding a Triple Crown and MVP season, hit one out. The Yankees got another run in the 6th, and terrific defensive plays from Mantle (robbing Gil Hodges of at least a triple with a one-handed, backhanded catch that is certainly comparable to Willie Mays' catch of 2 years earlier) and Gil McDougald (playing shortstop, seeing Robinson's liner carom off 3rd baseman Andy Carey, he threw Jackie out by a fraction of a second).

But catcher Yogi Berra was still nervous, recalling years later, "I think I woulda thought about it more if we had a 9-0 lead. I woulda thought, 'Oh, he's got a no-hitter goin'.' But with a 2-0 lead, I was just worried about winning the game." No kidding. With that lineup, you couldn't be too careful. As John Sterling would say, a two-run deficit can be wiped out with "a bloop and a blast." Or a walk and a wallop.

Larsen got the first 26 outs. A crowd of 64,519 – that’s what the official box score says, but Bob Wolff said on his broadcast it was 64,517 – saw Dodger manager Walter Alston send Dale Mitchell up to pinch-hit for Maglie. Mitchell had come over in the same trade with Maglie, and had been a big reason why the Indians beat the Yankees for the 1954 American League Pennant.

Ball 1. Called strike 1. Swing and a miss, strike 2. Larsen's 97th pitch was the last, and, to this, day, Yankee Haters say it was outside. But if they had any sense, they wouldn't be Yankee Haters, would they? It was on the outside corner, strike 3.

Ballgame over. Yankees 2, Dodgers 0. Yankees 2 runs, 5 hits, no errors. Dodgers no runs, no hits, no errors, no baserunners at all. It was 27 up, 27 down.

Herb Pennock had come close in 1927, but lost the no-hitter in the 8th, eventually allowing a run on 3 hits. Bill Bevens had come close in 1947, needed only 1 more out, but 10 walks and a game-winning double caused him to lose the no-hitter, the shutout, and the game. Since then, one-hitters have been thrown in the World Series by Jim "Mudcat" Grant in 1965, Jim Lonborg in 1967, and Tom Glavine (with an inning of relief by Mark Wohlers) in 1995. Roger Clemens threw a one-hitter with 16 strikeouts in 2000, missing a perfect game when Tino Martinez missed making a great catch of a line drive by about 2 inches. And Mike Mussina took a perfect game into the 7th in Game 1 of the 2004 ALCS before the Red Sox got a few hits and runs.

In the 106-year history of postseason play in Major League Baseball – or even if you want to consider the 1884 contests between the National League Champion Providence Grays and the American Association Champion New York Metropolitans, a.k.a. the original New York Mets, as "postseason play," making it a 125-year history – Don Larsen still has the only no-hitter. And it’s a perfect game. (UPDATE: Roy Halladay pitched one the next season.)

Considering who did it (not a great pitcher, except for this day), and against whom it was done (the mighty Dodgers), and where it was done (he had Death Valley in left and center but that short porch in right was a tempting target for Snider, who remains the leading World Series home-run hitter among NL players), this has to be the greatest pitching performance ever.

And every time I went to the original Yankee Stadium, that clip would be shown. And I could imagine myself in that same Stadium, back then, trying to peer around a support pole, looking up at the façade around the roof, and seeing the Monuments to Ruth, Gehrig and Huggins on the field and the Plaques for Ruppert and Barrow on the center-field wall, in front of the flagpole on the field, and looking around… there's Mickey in center, flanked by Elston Howard and Hank Bauer, the infield of Carey, McDougald, Billy Martin and Bill "Moose" Skowron, and Larsen pitching to Yogi, while all those "Boys of Summer" tried to hit him, in vain.

The history of the new Yankee Stadium has begun, and the Yankees are off to an excellent start. But no matter what you do, you'll always know that Don Larsen's perfect game, and all the other great moments from 1923 to 2008, did not happen there.

Oh well, you can still go to Fenway Park – assuming you can scrounge a ticket – and see where Bucky Dent’s home run landed.


Postcript: On October 8, 1962, exactly 6 years later, the San Francisco Giants beat the Yankees in Game 4 of the World Series, also at Yankee Stadium. The winning pitcher? Don Larsen. The Giants had gotten him from the Kansas City Athletics, to whom the Yankees had traded Larsen after the 1959 season, as part of the trade that brought in Roger Maris. The World Series Perfect Game and the Single Season Home Run Record – shut up, Mark, Sammy and Barry, you cheated – are linked by more than just the fact that both were done for the same team.

The 2nd Yankee to pitch a perfect game was David Wells on May 17, 1998. He and Larsen are both graduates of Point Loma High School in San Diego.

The 3rd Yankee to pitch a perfect game was David Cone on July 18, 1999. It was Yogi Berra Day, and as part of the honors for Yogi, they had Larsen on hand to throw out the ceremonial first ball to Yogi. And Yogi and Larsen watched Coney's perfecto. At the end of the game, some wiseguy put Yogi's old line, “It’s déjà vu all over again” on the scoreboard. It might have been the greatest day in Yankee history – surely, the greatest regular-season day, or at least the greatest day without a title of any kind on the line. Some people might say Lou Gehrig Day in 1939 was greater, but that was a sad day. No sadness on the day of Coney's perfecto.

Joe Torre, now managing the Yankees, was thus on hand for all 3 – but Larsen (his own and Cone's), Yogi (Larsen's and Cone's), Cone (his own and Wells') were only there for 2, and Wells, traded after the 1998 season, had only been there for his own.

On September 21, 2008, the original Yankee Stadium was closed, and all 3 perfect game pitchers were on hand, Larsen, Wells and Cone. Of course, by that point, Torre was gone, managing… the Dodgers, out in Los Angeles.

One more note: Two years later, NBC would send Bob Wolff back to Yankee Stadium, to broadcast the NFL Championship Game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. The one where Johnny Unitas led the Colts to tie it at the end of regulation, and again in overtime, the 1st overtime game in NFL history, with Alan Ameche’s winning touchdown.

Wolff, 1956: "Two strikes, ball one, here comes the pitch, strike three! A no-hitter! A perfect game for Don Larsen!"

Wolff, 1958: "Unitas gives to Ameche, the Colts are the World Champions! Ameche scores!

Lucky guy, and he made the most of it.


October 8, 1871: The Great Chicago Fire breaks out. Two-thirds of the city is burned to the ground. An estimated 300 people are killed, while another 90,000 are left homeless.

The destroyed buildings include the Union Base-Ball Grounds, on the lakefront (at roughly the site of the current Millennium Park), the home ground of the Chicago White Stockings, who are in 1st place in the National Association, the 1st professional baseball league, in its first season.

The team, including members of the famed 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings, has 3 games left. They are unable to hang on, and the Philadelphia Athletics win the 1st professional Pennant. These teams, however, are not to be confused with the later AL teams with the same names: The original Athletics did not make it into the NL in 1876, and while the White Stockings did, they became the Cubs in 1901.

October 8, 1908: The New York Giants and Chicago Cubs are tied for the NL Pennant, and must replay the Fred Merkle Game of September 23, in what is, in effect, the 1st Playoff game in baseball history. According to published reports‚ nearly 250‚000 fans show up at the Polo Grounds to watch the disputed replay, even though the park held only about 35,000 at the time. The gates were closed at 1:30 for the 3:00 game‚ but still fans tried to storm the gates. Firemen with high pressure hoses knocked down fans that tried to scale the walls. Nearly 40‚000 fans watched from Coogan's Bluff‚ telephone poles and other vantage points. Two fans are killed when they fall from a pillar on the elevated subway platform.

Giant manager John McGraw, naturally, started his ace, future Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson. Cub manager/1st baseman Frank Chance, however, did not start his ace, future HOFer Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, whose farm-accident disfigurement had left him with a way to grip a ball that gave him a devastating curve. Instead, he started Jack Pfiester, whose success against New York gave him a nickname reminiscent of a fairy tale, "Jack the Giant Killer."

Neither starter had anything. Brownie had to relieve Pfeister in the 1st, and the Giants led 1-0. But Mathewson, by his own later admission, didn't have his good stuff, either – and, with his array of pitches, including the first screwball in the major leagues (he called it a "fadeaway") to be successful at the big-league level, may have had the best stuff ever. Not on this day. Joe Tinker, the Cubs' shortstop and, while a good fielder, easily the most dubious HOFer among the "Tinker to Evers to Chance" double play combo, got the key hit, and the Cubs won, 4-2.

The Cubs ran for their lives. Literally: Chance was stabbed in the shoulder by an angry Giant fan who felt the Cubs, the umpires, and the NL office had conspired to steal the Pennant from the Giants. Chance wasn't seriously hurt. The Cubs went on to beat the Detroit Tigers for their 2nd straight World Series.

It’s been 101 years, and they have never won another. Forget the Billy Goat, this might be the Curse of Fred Merkle.

The Giants played to a record 910‚000 fans that year‚ a figure that will be unmatched until 1920, when the 1st million-fan gate in baseball history would be achieved at the Polo Grounds. Not by the Giants, but by the Yankees, thanks to a guy named Ruth.

October 8, 1917: Danny Murtaugh is born in Chester, Pennsylvania, about halfway between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. After a career as a good-field, no-hit 2nd baseman with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he managed them to win the World Series in 1960 and 1971. Following his death in 1976, the Pirates retired his Number 40. However he has not been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

October 8, 1927: The World Series is a sweep for the Yankees over the Pittsburgh Pirates, although Game 4 does go to the bottom of the 9th. The game was tied 3-3, and Pirate pitcher Johnny Miljus opens with a walk to Earle Combs, the 1st Yankee center fielder to make it to the Hall of Fame. Shortstop Mark Koenig then drops a bunt down the third base line for a single. With Babe Ruth batting, Miljus suddenly lets loose a wild pitch, advancing Combs to 3rd and Koenig to 2nd. Pirate manager Donie Bush orders Miljus to walk Ruth. Smooth move, genius: That brings Lou Gehrig to the plate with the bases loaded. But it works: Miljus strikes the Iron Horse out. Then he strikes out left fielder Bob Meusel. He's almost out of the jam.

But HOF second baseman Tony Lazzeri comes up, and hits a long drive deep to left field, barely foul. That unnerves Miljus, and he throws another wild pitch, scoring Combs. It is the only World Series that has ever ended in the home half of an inning without a run batted in.

The Pirates had their share of good players, including the HOF brothers Paul and Lloyd Waner, the superb 3rd baseman and good hitter Harold "Pie" Traynor, and slugger Hazen "Kiki" Cuyler. But manager Bush had suspended Cuyler for disciplinary reasons. Most likely, Cuyler wouldn’t have helped much: Game 1 was also a 1-run game, but the other 2 were not close, and these were the "Murderers' Row" Yankees.

The Yankees won their 2nd World Series, and the 1st of 9 World Championships they would clinch at the old Yankee Stadium. (Amazingly 6 were clinched there by opponents: The '42 Cardinals, the '55 and '81 Dodgers, the '57 Braves, the '76 Reds and the '03 Marlins.) The Pirates would not get back to the World Series, despite a near-miss in 1938, for 33 years. But when they did, they would get a measure of revenge on the Yankees with Bill Mazeroski’s home run.

October 8, 1929, 80 years ago today: With Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw ready to go, Philadelphia Athletics owner-manager Connie Mack fools everyone by starting Howard Ehmke. Ehmke had won 20 games and pitched a no-hitter against the A's for the 1923 Red Sox, but was now 35 and appeared to be washed up. In fact, Mack hadn't pitched him in weeks.

It was all part of a plan: Mack sent Ehmke on the road to scout the likely National League Champions, the Chicago Cubs. By gametime, he knew every weakness the Cubs had, and, with his submarine delivery, drove Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Hartnett, Hack Wilson and the rest crazy. He struck out 13 batters, which would stand as a World Series record for 24 years. The A's won, 3-1, and would go on to win the Series.

October 8, 1939, 70 years ago today: The Yankees score 3 runs in the top of the 10th, and beat the Cincinnati Reds, 7-4 at Crosley Field, completing a sweep for their 8th World Championship. The 10th inning is highlighted by a Joe DiMaggio drive, which drove home first one run, then another, as Charlie Keller crashed into Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi.

A great hitter and normally a great fielder, the future HOFer got the ball from the outfield, but Keller didn't slide, and apparently kneed Lombardi in the groin. As a result, he rolled around on the ground in pain. (Inspiration for a future Cincinnati star, Pete Rose, perhaps?) Behind Lombardi, the on-deck hitter, Bill Dickey, gets the attention of DiMaggio at 3rd base, and tells him to run home. Lombardi finally recovers from the pain enough to get up, and grabs the ball, but DiMaggio executes one of the best slides ever, throwing his body away from the plate, and brushing the plate with his outstretched right foot.

The press of 1939, not wanting to make a reference to Lombardi’s "man region," said that he "snoozed" on the play. Already known as much for the size of his nose as for his usually-terrific play, Lombardi lived another 38 years with people thinking he should be known for 2 things: His "schnozz" and his "snooze," as one writer put it. Had the same collision happened in a 2009 game, Keller might have been fined.

This game was also the last appearance in a Yankee uniform for the dying Captain, Lou Gehrig.

Also on this day, Paul Hogan is born in Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia. As far as I know, he has nothing to do with sports (no participation in soccer, rugby, "Aussie Rules" football, cricket or any other sport popular in that country, including baseball which is gaining in popularity there). I mention him because of 2 things.

First, his line in Crocodile Dundee, when he and co-star Linda Kozlowski (soon to be his real-life wife, and they're still married) are faced down by a pair of New York muggers, and she says, "He’s got a knife!" And he pulls out the knife he uses to kill crocodiles, much larger than the mugger's switchblade, and says one of the greatest lines in movie history: "That's not a knoife… That's a knoife!"

And, second, when my mother and grandmother went to London in 1990, they went to the original Madame Tussaud's wax museum, which allows you to take a picture next to one of the wax statues, but you don’t get the choice. This might be troublesome for a non-U.K. citizen, but the one chosen for Mom and Grandma was Paul Hogan, and they both loved Crocodile Dundee and his commercials for Australian tourism and Foster’s beer.

October 8, 1948: John William Cummings is born in Forest Hills, Queens. Under the name Johnny Ramone, he was the lead guitarist for the Ramones, kings of punk rock, and if the surviving members of the Sex Pistols and their fans have a problem with me saying that, they can kiss my Yank ass.

While he didn't have much to do with sports, and the Ramones didn't exactly have "hit songs" – "Rockaway Beach" was their highest-charting single, reaching Number 46 in 1977 – several of their songs were chosen as the only contemporary music to be featured in The Bronx Is Burning, the ESPN film version of Jonathan Mahler's book about life in New York in 1977.


October 8, 1950: Robert Bell is born in Youngstown, Ohio. Growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey, "Kool" Bell went on to become the lead singer and bass guitarist for Kool & the Gang, whose 1980 song "Celebration" is a sports-victory staple.

October 8, 1956: On the day of Larsen's perfect game, Jeff Lahti is born in Oregon City, Oregon. Unlike Dave Winfield, who was born on the day of Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World, or Willie Aikens, born on the day Willie Mays made The Catch, Lahti didn't use being born on a tremendous day in baseball history to become an All-Star player himself. But he did become a key member of the bullpen that helped the Cardinals into the 1982 and 1985 World Series.

October 8, 1959, 50 years ago today: The Los Angeles Dodgers defeat the Chicago White Sox, 9-3 at Comiskey Park, and take Game 6 and the World Series. As this was the 1st World Series played west of St. Louis, let alone on the Pacific Coast, the Dodgers thus become the 1st team west of St. Louis to win the World Series, although the Los Angeles Rams had won the NFL Championship in 1951 and the University of Southern California had already won some college football National Championships.

This would be the last World Series game played in Chicago for 46 years, as the White Sox took until 2005 to win another Pennant, and the Cubs still haven't won one since 1945.

Also on this day, Mike Morgan is born in Tulare, California. He pitched for 12 different teams from 1978 to 2002, and was an All-Star for the Dodgers in 1990, but didn't reach the postseason until age 40, with the 1999 Texas Rangers. He did, however, get a World Series ring with the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.

On December 9, 1982, the Yankees traded Morgan, then just 23, to the Toronto Blue Jays, along with Dave Collins (a flop in Pinstripes) and a prospect named Fred McGriff, for Dale Murray and Tom Dodd. Murray was a good pitcher, but an injury had prematurely ended his career. Dodd never played for the Yankees.

By contrast, 19 years later, McGriff and Morgan were still in the majors, McGriff having hit 493 home runs, and Morgan winning 141 games (although losing 186) and being on the winning side of a World Series the Yankees lost. Granted, the Yankees had Don Mattingly and then Tino Martinez at first base in the intervening 19 seasons, but Morgan won 51 games for the Dodgers and Cubs from 1990 to '93. Think the Yankees couldn't have used that?

October 8, 1970: Matt Damon is born across the river from Boston, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is, of course, a Red Sox fan, who played a Red Sox fan in Good Will Hunting, with a memorable scene discussing Game 6 of the 1975 World Series with Robin Williams. Damon's co-star and fellow Sox fan Ben Affleck couldn't be reached for comment. Neither could Sarah Silverman or Jimmy Kimmel.

Also born this day is Soon-Yi Previn, not an athlete, but she attends a lot of New York Knicks games with her stepfather… and husband, Woody Allen. It should be noted, though, that Soon-Yi has been with Woody longer than her adoptive mother, Mia Farrow, was. (Not to mention that Mia, who married Frank Sinatra at age 21, was something of a hypocrite. At the time Mia adopted Soon-Yi, she was married to orchestra conductor Andre Previn.)

October 8, 1973: Game 3 of the National League Championship Series at Shea Stadium. The Mets and Cincinnati Reds are tied at 1 game apiece. In the top of the 5th, the score was already 9-2, which would turn out to be the final, thanks in part to two home runs by Rusty Staub and an RBI single by Met pitcher Jerry Koosman.

Looking to break up a double play, Pete Rose slides hard into Met shortstop Bud Harrelson, but it doesn't work. Rose, about 200 pounds, shoves Harrelson, about 150 pounds. Both benches clear. It is one of the longest fights in postseason history.

In the bottom of the 5th, Rose goes out to his position in left field, and Met fans start throwing garbage. This goes on and on, and Reds manager Sparky Anderson pulls his team off the field for their own safety. The garbage-throwing goes on, until 2 of New York's greatest baseball legends, Met manager Yogi Berra and aging center fielder Willie Mays, go out to left field and ask the Met fans to knock it off. They do.

October 8, 1978: Jim "Junior" Gilliam, 1st-base coach for the Dodgers and a player on their World Championship teams of 1955, '59, '63 and '65, every title the franchise has yet won (the 1st in Brooklyn, the others in Los Angeles), dies, having been in a coma from a brain hemorrhage on September 12. He was just short of his 50th birthday.

Gilliam was the 1953 NL Rookie of the Year, and shares a record for 2nd basemen with 12 assists in a game. He drove in key runs in Games 3 and 4 of the '55 World Series, and scored the only run of Game 3 and the winning run of Game 4 in the ’63 Series. Intending to retire as a player, the Dodgers made him one of the 1st black coaches in the major leagues in 1964, but injuries to other players made him a player-coach for the Pennant-winning seasons of '65 and '66 before he finally retired for good.

He was beloved by the current Dodger players, who had just won the Pennant the day before his death. The team retired his Number 19, and dedicated the 1978 World Series to his memory. The Dodgers wore Number 19 patches on their left sleeves during the Series, and in both Dodger Stadium and Yankee Stadium, pregame moments of silence were held for him.

October 8, 1995: The Yankees lose Game 5 of the ALDS to the Seattle Mariners, blowing a 2-games-to-0 lead. This loss really sticks in the craw of a lot of Yankee Fans. Later this month, after the Dodgers are eliminated from the postseason, I'm going to tell you why this loss was the best thing that's happened to the Yankees since a guy named Steinbrenner opened his wallet and bought the team.

October 8, 2000: Bobby Jones pitches a 1-hit shutout, and the Mets beat the San Francisco Giants, 4-0 at Pacific Bell Park (as it was then known). Despite having had Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Al Leiter, Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana, this remains the greatest game any Met has ever pitched.

The Mets take the NLDS, 3 games to 1, and, lucky them, their bete noire, the Atlanta Braves, have lost their NLDS to the St. Louis Cardinals. A Subway Series now looks likely.

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