Finding foolish social media threads is as difficult as finding foolish pronouncements from the political (lack of) class. You don’t even have to hunt them for them to find you. The Twitterpater who launched one Tuesday involving Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game is a perfect example.
“Imagine,” he begins, “telling Don Larsen he’s done after 6 innings because the analytics department won’t allow him to face the top of the order for a third time.” Imagine, too, telling such a gentleman that, on that fine afternoon in Yankee Stadium, Larsen was as outlier as an outlier can become.
In the World Series era (1903-present), Larsen’s is the only one of 21 perfect games to have been pitched in a World Series, of course. He could have disappeared entirely into oblivion from there, or he could have done what he actually did posting a journeyman pitcher’s fourteen-season career, and nobody can ever take that from him.
“The unperfect man pitched a perfect game,” led Joe Trimble of the New York Daily News. “The million-to-one shot came in,” led Shirley Povich of the Washington Post. They would not have led thus if someone such as Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, or Warren Spahn had done first what Larsen did first. Those were Hall of Fame pitchers you might have expected reasonably to do it.
Larsen himself knew it. Until the day he died at 90 over two and a half years ago, those who found Larsen’s telephone number and rang it hoping to talk a little baseball would be greeted, almost invariably, with, “You want to talk about my year with the Orioles, right?”
Nothing in Larsen’s performances before and after Game Five of the ’56 World Series indicated he might have such a jewel in him. One thread respondent replied with evidence that batters facing Larsen usually hit above .250 facing him the third time around in a game. Oops.
The thread launcher snarked back, “Larsen’s perfect game—the most iconic pitching performance in postseason history—couldn’t have happened today. The game has a heartbeat, and [Yankee manager Casey] Stengel knew it. Today’s clinical, data-as-gospel approach totally discounts that.”
Where to begin? With the counterpoint that the approach itself discounts nothing of the sort but the manner in which it’s deployed might? With the point that Stengel himself was as much about advance knowledge and matchups as he was anything else as a manager, ages before anyone put a name to that knowledge?
“Baseball is percentage, plus execution,” Stengel loved to say to anyone who would listen. In that order. He knew in his mind as well as his gut that without the one, the other goes in with an arm missing. (Even as late as 1963, managing the hapless embryonic Mets, Stengel lectured reporters about on-base percentage, decades before it became a sabermetrics/analytics linch pin.)
Should we then begin with the point that all the heartbeat on earth won’t always ensure a result commensurate to it? With the point that if all you needed was heart this year’s Phillies might have pushed this year’s World Series to a seventh game they might have won with it or lost in spite of it? With the point that men of the stoutest heart can and do fail as often as they succeed, if not often enough more so?
Larsen’s World Series perfecto ended in a 2-0 Yankee win. The game’s key moment has long been recognised as Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle’s running catch of now-fellow Hall of Famer Gil Hodges’s sinking fly to deep left center. If you’re looking for prior indicators that Larsen had it in him, be reminded that he started Game Two but got hooked after an inning and a third despite surrendering a single hit.
Double oops: Handed an extremely early 6-0 lead to work with, Larsen also walked four batters in that inning-and-a-third, including two in the bottom of the second, before surrendering a sacrifice fly to Hall of Famer Roy Campanella. Small wonder Stengel hooked him that soon. He wasn’t going to risk Larsen walking the Dodgers right back into the game if he could help it.
The manager had no advance knowledge, of course, that the man he brought in after a foul pop out and a bases-reloading walk, sinkerball pitcher Johnny Kucks, would surrender a two-run single (Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese), right before his relief, Tommy Byrne, surrendered a three-run homer (Hall of Famer Duke Snider).
Larsen threw 97 pitches in the perfecto, averaging 10.7 pitches per inning. Stengel was known both for his pitching management and his willingness to go to his bullpen the moment trouble arose enough. In fact, the Ol’ Perfesser’s Game Five plan was to start Larsen . . . but have his eventual ’58 Series MVP Bob Turley ready to go at the earliest sign of serious trouble.
(In due course, Stengel would execute that plan precisely: Larsen started Game Seven of the ’58 Series, but ran into trouble with an early one-run lead, prompting Stengel to bring Turley in. Turley went the rest of the way as the Yankees won.)
Would anyone really believe that Stengel—hooking Larsen early in Game Two when his control went AWOL, now with a World Series tied at two games each—wouldn’t have hooked Larsen even sixty-plus pitches in, if the Dodgers really began hitting him hard enough during the middle innings, even if those balls were hit for hard or long outs?
(Mantle’s catch was one of two very narrow escapes Larsen had in the same inning. The next Dodger batter, Sandy Amoros, running-catch hero of Game Seven the year before, securing their only World Series win as Brooklyn Dodgers, drove one into the upper deck that missed being a home run by inches past the foul pole.)
Looking at pitching wins and perfect games over a year ago, I drew a table to show just how much the perfecto pitchers were responsible for the outcomes by themselves. (My handicap: full game logs available for only nineteen of the perfect games.) Let me now isolate Larsen’s World Series perfecto according to that table of strikeouts, ground outs, fly outs, the win factor (WF) assigned to the pitcher—based on strikeouts divided by the sum of ground and fly outs—and the pitcher’s fielding-independent pitching rate on that season:
|Don Larsen (1956 WS Gm Five)||2-0||7||6||14||.350||4.27|
Larsen’s win factor of .350 is tied for fourteenth place among perfect game pitchers, with Tom Browning (Reds, 1988). Larsen was the beneficiary of fourteen fly outs including Mantle’s staggering catch. Among the ground outs was a second-inning smash to third by Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson that caromed off third baseman Andy Carey’s glove—and, in a marvelous stroke of fortune, right to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out by about the width of a hair.
What of that 4.27 FIP in 1956? Larsen is sixth from the bottom among the perfecto pitchers for the seasons in which they achieved those perfectos. Only one perfect game pitcher ever had a sub-2.00 FIP in the season during which he did it. In his case, too, having pitched a no-hitter in each of his three previous seasons, it really was a case of practise makes perfect:
|Sandy Koufax (1965)||1-0||14||3||10||1.077||1.93|
One of the thread respondents made note of Larsen’s lifetime performance against batters facing him the first, second, and third times in his starts: .228 the first time, .253 the second time, .278 the third time. A second made note of the OPS against Larsen in the same scenarios: .647 the first time, .711 the second, .788 the third. From there, I elected to look at how batters fared against Larsen in low, medium, and high-leverage situations:
|Batters vs. Larsen, Career||BA||OBP||SLG||OPS||OPS+|
The higher the leverage, the better batters generally did against Larsen, even if the distinction between his medium- and high-leverage pitching was as slim as you see. His strikeout-to-walk ratio also worsened the more batters saw him during a game over his career: 1.27 the first time around the order; 1.05 the second time; 0.79 the third time. Lifetime, too, Larsen struck out about five batters per nine innings’ work but walked 4.2 per nine.
All the heart in him couldn’t make Don Larsen a great pitcher. (Did all the heart on earth keep the Dodgers from succumbing?) It took nine Yankee hearts including his (Stengel didn’t pinch hit for anyone during the game) to do what he did in Game Five, 1956.
He had an equal zest for living; in fact, he was known as a champion drinker who reported hung over to Yankee Stadium on the fateful day. Not until he remarried happily in 1960 did he abandon the wild-enough ways that once prompted teammates to nickname him Gooney Bird.
Larsen was a power pitcher with inconsistent control who was just good enough to pitch fourteen major league seasons including on five pennant winners and two world champion teams. He never again achieved anything within a light year or five of what he did that 1956 afternoon. He never pretended otherwise. He had no less heart lacking success than having success.
He also lived longer from that day forward than any other player, coach, or manager involved in his immortal afternoon. (He was also the last living St. Louis Brown before his death.) “The last one to go was Yogi in 2015,” he told a reporter in 2018. “It’s lonesome when you get to the top.”
Larsen more than anyone else knew that what he did in the ’56 Series made him and keeps him the all-time World Series outlier, whose record in depth before and after indicated no such performance—with or without his teammates’ aid and comfort—was even imaginable, never mind possible.
The unperfect man who threw the World Series’ only perfect game ever also did his eventual grandchildren a phenomenal favour. In 2012, Larsen auctioned his Yankee uniform from the game to pay for their college educations. Enough of social media might forget to remember that that’s stronger evidence of heart equaling result than any outing he ever had as a major league pitcher.