Don Larsen, RIP: Elevated

2020-01-01 DonLarsen

Don Larsen, captured mid-delivery during his World Series perfect game.

The new year wasn’t a day old, and the million-to-one shot expired. The month of Sundays turned Mondays. The imperfect (unperfect) man who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series lost his battle with esophegeal cancer at 90 on New Year’s Day. And Hall of Famer Yogi Berra got to take a flying leap into Don Larsen’s arms one more time, this time in the Elysian Fields.

From Joe Borden (of the pre-historic National Association) in 1875 through Justin Verlander at the near-last minute of the 2019 season, major league baseball pitchers including 35 Hall of Famers have thrown 303 no-hitters. That’s eleven percent of all no-hitters, including perfect games, thrown by Hall of Famers from John Montgomery Ward through Roy Halladay.

Baseball being a game that enables the modest or the miscast to become the immortal even for one day, Larsen was of a perfect piece on 8 October 1956. As his career shook out he was more and better of a relief pitcher than starting pitcher. He was tall, threw hard enough, but as Joe Posnanski described memorably, “[his] wildness on the mound fairly well represented his wildness off the field.”

“Larsen was the greatest drinker I’ve known,” said Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle once upon a time, Mantle being a man who knew great drinkers when he saw them having been one himself for too long. Larsen lived enough in the wild before he married in 1960 that his teammates nicknamed him Gooney Bird.

But the greatest drinker Mantle ever knew went to a no-windup delivery for Game Five and wound up flying into Series history singularly, remaining there to this day. The nearest anyone’s gotten to Larsen for postseason pitching perfection was Halladay, pitching a no-hitter in his first ever postseason assignment to open a division series in 2011—the same year in which Halladay pitched a regular-season perfect game.

Larsen hadn’t previewed his World Series grandeur quite so grandly: he was lifted from Game Two of the ’56 Series in the second inning, despite still being ahead five runs, and his relief Johnny Kucks surrendered all five tying runs—four unearned—on a bases-loaded single (Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese) and a grand slam. (Hall of Famer Duke Snider.)

He steamed over the early hook regardless. Publicly, he told reporters he had “not a thing” to say after the early hook and the Yankee bullpen surrendering what turned into a 13-8 loss. But he was otherwise recorded as thinking oh, would he never again pitch for Casey Stengel even if the Ol’ Perfesser begged him. He kept that vow right up until the moment he saw the old traditional manner in which a pitcher was informed of his day’s starting assignment, a baseball resting comfortably enough in his shoe.

So the legend went. The reality may have been a little different. For one thing, Larsen himself admitted years later that if he’d been his manager he wouldn’t hand him the ball again any too soon, either. And Stengel told the press the day before Game Five that Larsen would be his man to get the ball rolling. Whether Larsen himself saw it is open to conjecture: he’d gone out on the town and tied on a big one the night before Game Five.

Stengel held no grudge against Larsen for his post-Game Two fuming, obviously, Larsen having two qualities the old man admired: 1) He’d beaten the Yankees twice in a 1954 during which he earned credit for only three pitching wins. 2) Stengel recognised a champion booze hawk when he, too, saw one.

“It was between Larsen and (Bob) Turley,” said the Perfesser. “We decided it would be better to have Turley in the bullpen today and tomorrow.” Turley, of course, ended up having one of the best seats in the house for what was to come. Larsen decided to go back to what he’d abandoned in Game Two, the no-windup delivery Stengel loved to encourage in those among his pitchers who experienced control issues.

As Posnanski puts it, the Dodgers entered Game Five with the same plan they had for Game Two: “Be patient and let Larsen blow himself up the way he had in Game 2. It was a reasonable strategy; indeed, it seemed nearly foolproof. Larsen, over his career, walked about as many batters he struck out. He lost more than he won. He did not let the rigors of baseball interfere much with his thirst for living.”

You know the ancient saying about the best-laid plans, right?

With absolutely no reason to think it was entirely possible, Larsen prior to Game Five had told a friend, who turned out to have been sportswriter Arthur Richman, that he had “one of those crazy feelings that I’m gonna pitch a no-hitter tomorrow.” Richman suggested a four-hitter would be plenty enough. “Nope,” Larsen’s said to have replied. “It’s gonna be a no-hitter, and I’m gonna use my ghoul ball to do it.”

Don’t ask. Larsen never explained it. Any more than anyone could explain how Game Five began in Yankee Stadium, with both Junior Gilliam and Reese looking at called strike threes to open before Snider lined out for the side. Or, how Larsen, always prone to the walk (his walks per nine lifetime: 4.2; his strikeouts per nine lifetime: 4.9; his strikeout-to-walk ratio lifetime: 1.17), surrendered not a one while striking out seven on the day, with only Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson plus outfielders Sandy Amoros and Carl Furillo avoiding the strikeout.

Larsen would have been the first to credit a couple of fielding jewels that kept the perfecto alive. Including but not limited to Robinson slashing a line drive off third baseman Andy Carey’s glove that deflected to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out by a fragment at first in the second inning. Or Mantle running Gil Hodges’s long fly down to the rear latitudes of left center field for a catch he later admitted to thinking he had an easier play on it than he turned out to have.

The Hodges fly, on a hanging slider, was “his one bad pitch” of the afternoon, Berra would remember. And Larsen had one more bullet to dodge immediately afterward. More like a rocket. Amoros hit one into the right field seats that sailed foul by anywhere from two to four to six inches, depending upon who told you the story. Otherwise, Larsen was so in command that he ran a three-ball count to only one hitter (Reese) all afternoon.

He was also calmly aware of what he’d done, more sanguine about it as the years went passing by. If you found his home phone number and wanted to talk a little baseball, he’d likely needle you the way he once needled New York Post writer Mike Vaccaro: “You want to talk about my year with the Orioles, right?”

Larsen’s career began with the Orioles, when they were still the St. Louis Browns. He became a Yankee in one of the strangest trades in baseball history—a seventeen-player swap in November 1954, that made Yankees out of Larsen, Turley, and future major league manager Darrell Johnson, among others. And, that made Orioles out of reliable platoon outfielder Gene Woodling and infielder Don Leppert, among others. He became an ex-Yankee in the 1959 trade with the Kansas City Athletics that made a Yankee out of Roger Maris and ex-Yankees out of Larsen, Hank Bauer, Norm Siebern, and the future Marvelous Marv Throneberry.

New York Daily News baseball writer Joe Trimble, Vaccaro records, was paralysed after Dodger pinch hitter Dale Mitchell struck out to send Yankee Stadium berserk and Berra leaping famously into Larsen’s arms in front of the mound when the perfecto was finished. Trimble couldn’t think of a single line to open his story. His eventual Spink Award-winning colleague Dick Young, himself bristling to finish a pair of stores related to the game, did it for him: “The unperfect man pitched a perfect game.”

“Mortal men get crushed by immortal deeds,” Thomas Boswell wrote about Roger Maris, who suffered unconscionable abuse for daring to break ruthsrecord in 1961, upon Maris’s death in 1985. Larsen was a mortal man who felt elevated by his immortal deed. “Sometimes, a week might go by when I don’t think about that game,” he once said. “But I don’t remember when it happened last.”

After his long enough pitching career ended, Larsen tried major league front office work and then liquor selling, neither of which agreed with him in the end, before going to work for a California paper company successfully. He even carried a little mojo from the game at assorted old-timers’ gatherings one of which turned rather explosive in its own right.

After Yogi Berra ended his longtime rift with George Steinbrenner, the Yankees gave him Yogi Berra Day in 1999—forty years after he’d gotten one as a player. Larsen and Berra remained lifelong friends, and on the second Yogi Day Larsen was invited to throw a ceremonial first pitch to his old battery mate. Then the interleague game against the Montreal Expos began. And David Cone, the former Met, beat the Expos with . . . a perfect game.

Larsen said later it was the only perfect game for which he’d been present from beginning to end since the one he threw in the ’56 World Series.

The wild Yankee settled himself in due course, of course. He and his wife, Corinne, were married six decades when he died; he found a pleasant life in Hayden Lake, Idaho; he never lost his zest for life despite the emptiness he experienced now and then after realising he was the last man standing from both the starting lineups of his perfect game and his last pre-Baltimore team of Browns.

“That carries a little weight by itself, but I’m just not sure how much,” he told an Idaho reporter two years ago. “The last one to go was Yogi in 2015. It’s lonesome when you get to the top.”

We may presume that once Yogi took that welcome-home flying leap into his arms on New Year’s Day, Larsen in the Elysian Fields won’t be entirely lonesome at the top anymore. But our island earth may be a little more lonesome for missing the million to one shot, the nice guy who lived fast enough, settled well enough, and for once in his otherwise ordinary baseball life did what couldn’t be done. And hasn’t been done since.

Rickey don’t lose those numbers

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Hiring Allan Roth (right) as MLB’s first full-time (and then some) team statistician in 1947 may remain Branch Rickey’s least appreciated baseball innovation.

The good news: I looked forward to appearing on a Sunday podcast for which the subject was to be Branch Rickey. The bad news: I didn’t get a chance to discuss the one thing about Rickey that nobody, seemingly, thinks about whenever his name arises in most baseball discourse. The mere mention of it inspires a sub-topic change faster than you’d try to elude a visible virus; the nostalgist wishes merely to hasten back to reminiscence, the troglodyte contingent wishes you quartered without drawing first.

Understood: Say “Branch Rickey” and the usual first response is “Jackie Robinson,” and that’s exactly the way it should be. After decades of hoping to do so, but lacking the opportunity so long as Kenesaw Mountain Landis dictated baseball, Rickey ended a wrong with an irrevocable right and chose the absolute right player to do it. If “Jackie Robinson” isn’t your first response to “Branch Rickey,” the lacking is yours, not theirs.

Understood further: If “the farm system” isn’t your second response to “Branch Rickey,” take a remedial crash course in elementary baseball history. Even the most free agency-conscious teams in baseball today still believe in their farm systems, even if not all of them operate them as acutely or with foresight as they should. Both the rich talent pool mined since Robinson plus the farm system’s continued if oft-compromised operation are Rickey legacies not to be dismissed.

If “sabermetrics” or “analytics” isn’t your third response . . . Aw, jeez, not that you-know-what again! I hear you shuddering. Hear me out.

Like it or not, however shallow or deep anyone looks, statistics are the life blood of baseball. Long before anyone spoke of sabermetrics, baseball fans obsessed over baseball numbers as much as over Hall of Fame prospects. Simple (and often misleading or short on vision) though they were, baseball cards did not live by handsome face pictures alone.

For better or worse, Rickey was as obsessed with numbers and their meanings as with anything else about the game he loved and changed. And, like almost anything upon which he cast his bushy-browed eyes, Rickey dove right into the deep end of the pool, when a Canadian-born, thirty-year-old number cruncher with a passion for tabulating sports statistics, baseball in particular, convinced the Mahatma (only one of Rickey’s nicknames) to hire him.

The hire was Allan Roth, who’d grown up loving baseball, hockey, and figuring out stats for both, before he was forced to forget his college plans when family issues compelled him to hire as a salesman. After trying but failing to get then-Dodgers president Larry MacPhail to hire him, Roth met then-National Hockey League president Frank Calder and got a job with that league. Enter World War II and a stint in Canada’s Army to interrupt Roth’s statistical career.

The Canadian Army leaned on his statistical analyses before discharging him in 1944, upon his diagnosis of epilepsy. Roth cast his eye upon the Dodgers again, with MacPhail long gone and Rickey running the Bums since. When a first meeting between the two went like “a disaster,” according to Tom Cronin of  Statliners, Roth managed to tell Rickey he wanted “only ten minutes of your undivided attention.”

Told to give Rickey’s assistant a detailed paper, Roth obeyed. As Roth’s Society for American Baseball Research biographer Andy McCue wrote, “Some of these were standard, but others, such as where the ball was hit and the count it was hit on, hadn’t been compiled regularly.”

Roth also proposed to break the statistics down into various categories that would reveal tendencies which the front office and the manager could use to win ballgames. Breakdowns such as performance against left-handers and right-handers, in day games versus night games, in the various ballparks, in situations with runners in scoring position, are all mundane to us now. But in Roth’s time, they were rarely compiled or used, and never part of the public discussion. The letter was intriguing enough to get a meeting with a still-skeptical Rickey.

It got Roth a second direct shot with the Mahatma: “The second meeting was the opposite of the first. Roth later stated that Rickey was intrigued with some of his ideas during the meeting, especially on how RBI’s are overrated.” This time, Rickey was more than intrigued. Once Roth solved his visa problems, and on the same day Jackie Robinson premiered with the Dodgers, Rickey finally hired Roth to be the Dodgers’ statistician, the first full-time such man in major league baseball.

Roth would do the job for eighteen years, recording every pitch the Dodgers threw, every swing they took, every base they reached or advanced, every ball they fielded. He was once somewhat renowned (and often mocked) for tabulating those on copious sheets of graph paper, apparently his favourite charting device.

Taking as long as five hours after each game to break down the game and the players, Roth also spent copious off-season time digging deeper into what we know long since as matchups, best- and worst-count performances, at home and on the road. He also developed a fine sense of humor about it; The Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn once credited Roth with inventing the game Silly Records. Except that some of those silly records weren’t as silly or meaningless as they probably sounded then.

Until he was pressured into selling his percentage of the Dodgers to Walter O’Malley in 1950, Rickey paid close enough attention to Roth’s charts and graphs to draw plenty of conclusions of his own in addition to what Roth himself enunciated. And in 1954, as if hiring Roth at all hadn’t been heresy enough, Rickey wrote and Life published “Goodbye to Some Old Baseball Ideas,” much of which was mulcted from Roth’s work. Including:

Batting average is only a partial means of determining a man’s effectiveness on offense.

The ability to get on base, or On-Base Average, is both vital and measurable.

The correlation shows that OBA went hand in glove with runs scored.

The next measurable quantity is Extra base power . . . My own formula computing power . . . is called isolated power, is the number of extra bases over and above singles in relation to total number of hits.

Runs batted in? A misleading statistic.

Fielding averages? Useless as a yard stick.

As Brian Kenny wrote, in Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution, Rickey “didn’t just say, ‘Hey, ever wonder why the Dodgers have been kicking your ass for the last eight years? Would you like to know the best way of quantifying talent and production? Oh, shoot, here ya go!'” Today’s sabermetricians were children when Rickey (and Roth) wrote the Life piece; baseball’s lords and princelings were all too ready to take it with a pillar of salt when not laughing hysterically over the Mahatma’s impudence.

The Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass for most of the rest of their Brooklyn life (the Boys of Summer were, after all, Rickey teams), and the Pirates finished in 1960 what Rickey began from 1951-55. (The nucleus of that world champion was Rickey’s nucleus: Vernon Law, Elroy Face, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, and a talented minor leaguer he drafted from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 minor league draft: Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.)

Which was rather splendid for a number cruncher who didn’t consider himself a pure numbers man. Roth “didn’t do his own taxes. He couldn’t remember his phone number,” McCue wrote. “What he would do is record the numbers in myriad detail and then use his true talent, recognizing what the numbers meant, to provide value to his employers. He summed up his philosophy: ‘Baseball is a game of percentages—I try to find the actual percentage, which is constantly shifting, and apply it to the situation where it will do the most good’.”

(Was Casey Stengel eavesdropping a little on Rickey and Roth near the beginning? Baseball, the Ol’ Perfesser told anyone within earshot, is percentage plus execution. You thought the Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass? Stengel’s Yankees only had ten pennants and seven World Series rings in twelve seasons to show for his willingness to put old thinking, even old “traditional” Yankee thinking aside.)

Though such crustily visceral managers as Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen spurned Roth’s analyses, Walter Alston accepted them. It took Alston one full season to get his sea legs managing the Dodgers after he was hired to succeed Dressen for 1954, and there were a few growing pains as he asserted his authority and learned his players, but in Alston’s second season? Dem Bums finally won the World Series.

Walter O’Malley could challenge you until you and he were the proverbial blue in the face, but the core of the Dodgers who finally made next year this year were still Rickey’s boys: Hall of Famers Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, and Clem Labine. We won’t suggest what we now know as analytics put World Series rings on the 1955 Dodgers’ fingers, but it didn’t hurt them to have the data, either.

Then they almost won the ’56 Series while they were at it. It wasn’t Alston’s fault that the Dodgers began showing their age in their final Brooklyn season. (The average age of the regular lineup: 32.) And even their 1959 pennant winner was still a team transitioning from the further-aging Brooklyn veterans.

During the Dodgers’ first serious pennant race in Los Angeles, facing a critical late-season doubleheader against the Giants, Roth convinced Alston, based on his tabulations, that Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched far better at night than during the day, while another Dodger righthander, Roger Craig, was almost the same pitcher day or night. Alston switched his planned doubleheader rotation, starting Craig in the day game and Drysdale for the night game.

The result? The Dodgers swept the Giants, helping them force the three-game playoff against the Braves that meant the pennant. By then even Dodger players received regularly updated Roth tabulations on their own performances and worked accordingly.

Seriously? You really thought that started in this century? Anyone who knew the Dodgers well in those years knew Allan Roth’s role with the team, and that it wasn’t just rehashing or writing out their baseball cards. They could have told you the Dodgers had a lot more going for them than balls and strikes, runs and hits, and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s latest beyond-belief performance, right up to the day the Dodgers let Roth go in 1964.

And they really had Branch Rickey to thank.

“Rickey and Roth’s fundamental contribution to the advancement of baseball statistics,” wrote John Thorn and Pete Palmer in The Hidden Game of Baseball, “comes from their conceptual revisionism, their willingness to strip the game down to its basic unit, the run, and reconstruct its statistics accordingly.”

A man who evaluated character in hand with performance but wasn’t always the most astute judge of the former when all was said and done, Rickey died a year after the Dodgers lost Roth. He was foresighted and devious, compassionate and penurious, all at once. He was maybe baseball’s deepest thinker and one of its most pompous. “A man of strange complexities,” the New York Times‘s John Drebinger once wrote, “not to mention downright contradictions.”

For every one who canonises Rickey for elevating and supporting Jackie Robinson as a player and a man, appropriately, there’s another who broils him just as appropriately for the shifty penury that prompted his Hall of Fame Pirate Ralph Kiner to credit him with doing the most to seed the Major League Baseball Players’ Association.

“Rickey believes in economy in everything,” the New York Daily Mirror‘s Dan Daniel once wrote, “except his own salary.”

Roth’s Dodger days ended, McCue wrote, after O’Malley discovered his statistician, whose marriage was collapsing, had a romantic relationship with a black woman at a time when too many Americans, O’Malley included, yet quaked over the very idea of such interracial romance, never mind the scandal quotient still attached to it. That romance ended in a shouting match and Roth’s marriage itself ended, but so did his Dodger career.

He returned to free-lance work until ABC, then NBC, hired him to give announcers (including two former players he’d once analysed, Koufax and Pee Wee Reese) the same deeper analyses he’d previously provided the Dodgers and Scully, until his health failed in the 1980s. (He died in 1992.)

“Roth was a firm believer that you do not have to be an expert mathematician to record baseball stats,” Cronin wrote. “You just had to be an innovative thinker and have a passion for the game. He also realized that human element of baseball and numbers could only help aid the game, not run it.”

So did Branch Rickey. Sabermetricians aren’t the only ones who should thank him for his patronage of and further education from Roth, no matter how dearly baseball’s paleozoics would like to spank him for it.