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Underachieving All-Stars: Dodgers vs. Larsen

MICHAEL: In order to keep You Stink! at around 300 pages Eric and I decided to cut six entire chapters (and dozens of extra stats charts) out of the final manuscript. As a result, these stories will be posted here from time-to-time. Here is the first installment of this “bonus” material: 

In many sports, individuals receive perfect scores from judges when they are believed to have performed a flawless routine. Gymnasts, skaters and divers spend countless hours practicing the same skills over and over, in an attempt to focus their minds and bodies toward accomplishing this rare feat. Many have believed that this is an impossible task, as no athlete can truly be perfect. In baseball, perfection comes to few and far between and can only be measured by the statistics on a scorecard.

On October 8, 1956, during Game 5 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, Don Larsen and his pinstriped teammates took the field against their rival Brooklyn Dodgers. After 97 pitches, the Yankee pitcher had mowed down the Dodgers 27 straight times and tallied a perfect game.

The magic of this moment however, goes way beyond a single game. Don Larsen’s performance on the mound that day illustrates exactly why they play the game of baseball. It is an American tradition, rich in legends, folklore and history; a never-ending story where every game is a new nine-inning chapter and every player has the chance to be the hero. October 8, 1956 was Don Larsen’s shot and he shined with the first perfect game in World Series history.

This story however can be divided into two distinctly different parts. One side exemplifies the rare instance when absolute perfection can be realized. It is a testament to what man can achieve, if and when the gods of the game are smiling down upon him. So is the perspective of the winner. Sports writer Shirley Povich wrote in the Washington Post “He did it (perfect game) with a tremendous assortment of pitches that seemed to have five forward speeds, including a slow one that ought to have been equipped with backup lights.”

However, for every triumph, there is often tragedy and for every victor, there is a defeated foe. The ecstasy of Don Larsen’s perfect game is contrasted by the agony of the Brooklyn Dodger’s dismal performance at the plate. Perhaps no other lineup with such talent has ever underachieved as much as the ‘56 squad. Truly, on this day at least, they earned the nickname of “dem Bums.”

Brooklyn’s batting order consisted of some of the top names in the game, including Jim Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Sandy Amoros, Carl Furillo, Roy Campanella, Sal Maglie and Dale Mitchell. Collectively, this group featured an All-Star roster, which adds to the travesty of their dismal performance against Larsen, who was a solid, but far- from-equal-caliber player. Collectively, this group featured four future Hall of Famers:

Roy Campanella was named the National League’s “Most Valuable Player” three times, including a 1953 selection when he set single-season records for catchers with forty-one homers and a N.L. best one hundred forty-two RBIs. Before signing with the Dodgers, Campanella starred with the Negro National Leagues’ Baltimore Elite Giants for seven seasons. Tragically, his promising Major League career was cut woefully short by an auto accident prior to the 1958 season.

Duke Snider, who was said by owner Branch Rickey to have “two steel springs” for legs, hit more than forty homers five consecutive times and led all batters in home runs and RBIs during the 1950s. Also known as the “Duke of Flatbush,” he hit four homers in two different World Series (1952 and 1955), tallying a total of eleven Fall Classic home runs and twenty-six Series RBIs.

Pee Wee Reese was the scrappy captain of this outfit all throughout the 1950’s. He was an outstanding defensive player who led the National League in putouts four times, double plays twice, and fielding percentage and assists once each. For almost a decade he and teammate Jackie Robinson formed one of the game’s top double-play combinations. Reese led Brooklyn to seven pennants in his sixteen seasons and is considered to be one of the nicest guys ever to don the blue Dodger uniform.

The most significant player of this group would be, of course, Jackie Robinson. After breaking baseball’s infamous color barrier in 1947, Robinson immediately set out to prove all nay-sayers who believed that blacks could not compete with whites wrong. He quickly became one of the league’s most popular players and assembled an impressive resume of accolades and accomplishments. With Robinson, the Dodgers won six pennants in his 10 seasons. He routinely dominated games on the base paths, stealing home nineteen times while riling opposing pitchers with his daring base-running style. Robinson was named the National League’s MVP in 1949, leading the loop in hitting (.342) and steals (thirty-seven), while knocking in one hundred twenty-four runs.

Statistically speaking, the Dodgers’ were in the midst of their most glorious run of all pennants in 1952-53-55-56. The 1953 team was most impressive, with Snider (.336, 42 HR, 126 RBI), Campanella (.312, 41 HR, 142 RBI), Furillo (.344, 21 HR, 92 RBI) and Hodges (.302, 31 HR, 122 RBI) in peak form, but the ‘56 line-up looked to be in near-equal shape. Brooklyn was also defending their title after beating the Yankees in seven games for the franchise’s only World Championship in Brooklyn during the previous season. It took them seven games, but they did it and set off a wild celebration in the New York Borough, matched only by the V-E Day celebration that had occurred following the end of World War II, a decade earlier.

Of course their cross-town rivals, the Yankees were no slouches either and this Series looked to be a rematch of epic proportions. Once again, the eyes of the baseball world were on the bright lights of New York City (for the fourth time in five years) as the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees met on familiar ground for the coveted World Series Championship. The “Bronx Bombers” had bested “the Bums” in three of the four meetings, but it was the Dodgers who had the last laugh by winning their first title off a dominant Game 7 in ‘55.

Things seemed to pick up right where they had left off for Games 1 and 2 as eleven different members of the Yankees pitching staff were crushed by Brooklyn’s bats. The result was a devastating 6-3 opener and an equally crippling 13-8 loss that put the defending champions up two games to none. However, as sports often shows us, adversity and pride can turn a sinking ship around. Amazingly the Yankees aces rebounded for five consecutive complete-game performances from five pitchers who combined to allow the Dodgers six runs and twenty-one hits in 45 2/3 innings. In Game 3, a three-run homer by late-August acquisition Enos Slaughter and eight-hit pitching by “The Chairman” Whitey Ford had rallied the Yankees to their first victory, while Tom Sturdivant’s six-hitter and homers by both Hank Bauer and Mickey Mantle highlighted the American Leaguers’ triumph in Game 4. Despite their back-to-back comebacks, Game 5 is the most notable Yankees performance of the ‘56 Series (and perhaps one of the most notable in all of baseball).

The 64,000+ fans in attendance that day could never have predicted that they were about to witness the birth of a record that would stand into the next millennium or that their ticket stubs would mature into $2000 pieces of sports memorabilia. The Dodgers couldn’t have predicted the beating they were about to take either. During the first inning, Larsen went to his first and only “ball three” count on Pee Wee Reese.

From then on, the modest pitcher and his pinstriped teammates worked together on both sides of the plate to deliver an instant classic. In the second inning, Jackie Robinson smashed a line drive that was deflected by Yankees third baseman Andy Carey to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw out Robinson at first. In the fourth inning, Mickey Mantle hit a low line drive into the right field seats, just inside the foul pole. Mantle’s homer gave New York a 1-0 lead. In retrospect, home field advantage and a little luck sometimes pays off. If the game had been at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, The Mick’s hit would have likely been off the right field screen for a double.

In the top of the fifth inning, Gil Hodges, a 32-homer man during the regular season, drove a pitch deep into left-center field and right into the outstretched glove of a sprinting Mickey Mantle. Larsen later said, “Mantle made such a beautiful catch. That ball probably would have been a home run in most parks, but Yankee Stadium at that time was pretty big in left-center. Mantle could run like a deer, caught that ball and I had another sigh of relief.” The next batter, Sandy Amoros, hit a line drive toward the right field corner but it curved foul and just missed being a home run.

As the game progressed, so did the anticipation of the crowd and the superstition of the players. Most of the Yankees avoided Larsen completely in the dugout. “Nobody would talk to me, nobody would sit by me, like I had the plague.” Larsen recalled, “I don’t believe in that superstition stuff. You just do your best. Some of the guys didn’t want to say anything, afraid they’d put a jinx on it.” Even Yankee skipper Casey Stengel got involved in attempting to preserve Larsen’s marvelous momentum. “I had more managers around me on the bench than any pilot ever had before.” he said, “The boys were helping me place the outfielders.”

When the ninth inning came to a close, Larsen got a called third strike on pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell to end the game and set off a wild celebration that began with Yankee catcher Yogi Berra leaping into Larsen’s arms. The moment would be replayed over and over for decade after decade in countless highlight films. The perfect game also set the record for most consecutive hitless innings in a World Series as the Brooklyn Dodgers had failed to record a hit in 11 consecutive innings.

Even more impressive than Don Larsen’s performance was the class that he showed after the Yankees left the field. In the locker room he said, “When it was over, I was so happy, I felt like crying. I wanted to win this one for Casey (Stengel). After what I did in Brooklyn, he could have forgotten about me and who would blame him? But he gave me another chance and I’m grateful.” Stengel himself was quoted as saying that it was the greatest game he had ever seen thrown by a pitcher. Larsen responded in turn by stating that it was the greatest game ever called by a catcher (referring to his teammate Yogi Berra).

After losing Game 5, the Dodgers were down three games to two and the Series shifted back to Brooklyn. The Dodgers won Game 6, 1-0 in 10 innings when Robinson’s line drive to left field got past Enos Slaughter to score Junior Gilliam. However, the Yankees breezed to a 9-0 win in Game 7. Neither game would compare to Game 5 though and no other pitcher would even come close to Larsen’s numbers.

Larsen pitched another three years for the Yankees before bouncing from team to team over the final seven seasons of a 14-year career. He retired in 1967 with a forgettable career record of 81-91, failing again to approach the heights he achieved on that October afternoon in 1956. Overall, his total stats added up to nothing more than mediocre. He was a good pitcher, but certainly not a great one. Once, when asked about his performance in Game 5 he said, “I think about it every day. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it ever happened. I’m glad it did because everybody thinks about that and forgets all the mistakes I made in my career.”

In retrospect, one still has to wonder how this “David” managed to slay so many “Goliaths” who clearly had the advantage going in to the contest. Why couldn’t they hit? Perhaps the answer lies in the unscientific art form that is known as hitting.

During a November 19th, 1952 interview with The Sporting News, slugger Duke Snider discussed the skill required to make contact with a major league pitch. He said, “In the split second from the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand until it reaches the plate you have to think about your stride, your hip action, your wrist action, determine how much, if any the ball is going to break and then decide whether to swing at it.”

Maybe it was a touch of favoritism on the part of the officials. Snider later added, “I think he [home plate umpire Babe Pinelli] wanted to go out with a no-hitter,” adding, “But there were 26 outs before that and he got them all. You can’t take anything away from him.” [With two outs in the ninth inning, Larsen had faced pinch hitter Dale Mitchell, a .311 career hitter. Throwing fastballs, he got ahead in the count at 1-2. On his 97th pitch, a called strike, Larsen caught Mitchell looking for the 27th and last out. Mitchell complained that the pitch was high and outside to home plate umpire].

Perhaps it was just meant to be. In an October 22nd, 1956 TIME magazine article titled “Decline & Fall,” described the improbability of Larsen’s victory over Brooklyn ace Sal Maglie. It stated, “Maglie was sure and sharp. He gave up only five hits and two runs. But after the first few innings, Sal Maglie was just the second-best pitcher in the game. Towering (6 ft. 4 in., 220 Ibs.) Yankee Larsen was scarcely wasting a pitch. Only once, against Pee Wee Reese in the first inning, did he go to a full count on a batter. His sharp curves found the plate as if they had eyes. He needed no more than 97 pitches (71 of which were in the strike zone) to dispose of the absolute minimum of 27 Dodger hitters, and not a single Dodger got to first base. While the crowd watched tensely, the Dodgers put up their 27th batter, pinch hitter Dale Mitchell. He took a ball, then a called strike, missed a curve for strike two. He fouled another off and settled grimly in the batter’s box. Larsen pitched. Mitchell checked his swing, watched the third strike whiz by. The crowd let out its breath and roared. Yogi Berra leaped into Larsen’s arms.”

Who knows? If history had gone another way, Larsen might have ended up as one of those forgotten players who faded away from memory shortly after hanging up his cleats. Instead he went down in World Series history as the man who pitched the perfect game. The Brooklyn Dodgers, on the other hand, were treated to a hard lesson in humility. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the losing team was also about to lose its homestead and fan base.

Unbeknownst to Brooklyn fans, as they rooted the team on to the 1956 pennant, Walter O’Malley, who was now the team’s owner, was distraught with the poor concessions and ticket profits that were now dropping at Ebbets Field. Even in the best of times, the Dodgers had a tough time selling out the stadium. In ‘57, O’Malley had attempted to influence New York City officials to help him find a new location to build a better ballpark, but to no avail. Without their cooperation, he accepted an invitation from the city administration of Los Angeles, California who had offered the Dodger owner everything and more.

The era of baseball in Brooklyn came to a sad end, as only 6,700 came to see Ebbets Field’s swan song in September of 1957, as the Dodgers defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-0 in a sleeper of a game. Even today the sting of this move, as well as the memory of the devastating performance of their ‘56 lineup in that dreadful Game 5 remains in the hearts and minds of the Brooklyn Dodger faithful.

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