The Moment of Truth
he tall right-hander peers down at the catcher from his perch on the pitcher’s mound under the fading afternoon sun in the cavernous environs of Yankee Stadium. It is the ﬁfth game of the 1956 World Series, and the soaring facades of the stadium cast a giant shadow over much of the ﬁeld while a slight breeze blows against the ﬂags in the outﬁeld. It is a relatively warm day with only a hint of autumn in the air, and a thunderous noise is sweeping through the 64,519 fans in attendance, almost all of whom are now standing in anticipation of witnessing a miracle in baseball history.
Yogi Berra, the Yankees’ perennial All-Star catcher, looks up at Don Larsen from his crouch. Larsen’s ears protrude from his cap and explain the nickname that has followed him everywhere: “Gooney Bird.” It seems to ﬁt Larsen perfectly: an almost pear-shaped body draped on a six-foot-four-inch frame with long, dangling arms.
None of that is on Berra’s mind now. His heart is pounding and his eardrums are throbbing with the roar of the crowd as he focuses on the next pitch. He cannot lose his concentration. He has called each pitch that Larsen has already thrown against the Brooklyn Dodgers that day. All ninety-six of them. And no one can have any reason to second-guess the burly catcher. Twenty-six Dodger batters have come to the plate, and twenty-six Dodgers have made an out.
Over the course of thousands of major-league baseball games that have been played in the twentieth century up to this point, there have been only four perfect games in which no batter reached base. The last one was pitched by Charlie Robertson for the Chicago White Sox thirty- four years ago in 1922. To be sure, there have been more than one hundred no-hitters marred by a walk, a ﬁelding error, or some other circumstance that allowed a batter to reach base. But there has never been a no-hitter in a World Series. And never before has a pitcher come so close to pitching a perfect game in a World Series. Only one more out separates Larsen—an otherwise mediocre pitcher—from an immortality that has eluded baseball’s most illustrious pitchers.
This is a new experience for Larsen. But not for Berra. In October 1947, Bill Bevens, another second-rate Yankee pitcher, stood on the same threshold of baseball immortality in the fourth game of the World Series against the Dodgers in Ebbets Field. Like Larsen, he took a no-hit game into the ninth inning and then got the ﬁrst two men out. But that was not a perfect game. Far from it. Bevens had given up ten walks—a World Series record. One run had scored, and the Yankees had a 2–1 lead. Two men were on base—the result of walks. Still, the Yankee pitcher had only to get one more out to do what no other pitcher had done in World Series play—pitch a no-hitter. But Cookie Lavagetto, the Dodgers’ aging third baseman, slammed a Bevens pitch against the right-ﬁeld wall for a double and two runs, turning a near-miraculous pitching performance into a 3–2 Yankee defeat.
The memory of that loss looms large in Berra’s mind because the Yankees are winning by a score of only 2–0. “Anything can happen,” he remembers thinking. Yankee manager Casey Stengel understands the risk as well, and he has Yankee ace Whitey Ford warming up in the bullpen if Larsen should falter. Still, Berra has hopes that Larsen can do what Bevens could not. Not only for Larsen’s sake but for the team’s as well. “I wanted to win the game,” Berra later said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
For all his contribution in calling the speciﬁc pitches, Berra knows that much of the credit has to go to Larsen. The twenty-seven-year-old pitcher from Michigan City, Indiana, has demonstrated pinpoint control with a no-windup delivery that has bafﬂed the Dodger batters. They are used to the big deliveries that virtually all pitchers of the day use and that give the batter time to adjust for the tiny ball that comes hurtling toward them at speeds up to ninety-eight miles an hour. As Berra would later say of Larsen’s contrasting approach, “The ball just kinda came out of nowhere.”
Larsen had ﬁrst experimented with the no-windup delivery toward the end of the 1956 season. It was not an idle experiment. In a game against the Boston Red Sox, Larsen became convinced that Del Baker, the Red Sox third-base coach, was able to identify the kind of pitch Larsen was about to throw by watching his delivery. Larsen assumed that other team coaches were also stealing his signs and thwarting his success, and he was determined to do something about it. He asked Yankee pitching coach Jim Turner if he could use a no-windup delivery in his next outing. Turner chuckled at the proposal but said he didn’t mind.
The impact was immediate—and favorable. Larsen pitched the Yankees to four victories in the ﬁnal pennant drive in September, boosting his won-lost record from a pedestrian 7–5 to an impressive 11–5. The Red Sox’s Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter of Larsen’s generation, was among those who noticed the difference in Larsen’s performance. “The guy that kills me,” Williams would later admit, “is Larsen. I can’t hit that son of a bitch. He’s standing there like a statue. Hardly any motion. And then the ball’s on you.”
Although teammate Bob Turley also began using it at about the same time to gain more control and reduce walks, Larsen said he could never remember where he got the idea for the no-windup delivery. When a sportswriter asked him for the source of his new delivery, Larsen—an avid reader of comic books—responded that “the comic book ghoulies sent me the message to try it.”
Larsen’s late-season success with the no-windup delivery earned him the opportunity to start the second game of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field. However, the experience fell far short of his expectations. Although he thought he had “excellent stuff” that day, Larsen’s control was anything but pinpoint. Before the second inning was over, he had walked four men and given up a hit. The Yankees appeared to be in danger of losing a 6–1 lead, and Casey Stengel, the sixty-six-year-old Yankee manager with a bowlegged walk, had waddled out to the mound to replace the Indiana native.
Larsen was angry at Stengel for taking him out of the game. After all, he had given up only one hit and the Yankees still had a comfortable lead. He stormed off the mound and made no secret of his feelings when he reached the dugout. “I don’t give a damn if I ever pitch a game for the Yankees or Stengel again,” he told his teammates. Later he was more philosophical about it. “Casey Stengel,” he observed, “always said that when a pitcher doesn’t have control, he’s pitching to the hitter’s strengths.” But after that second game, Larsen knew—or at least thought he knew—that his pitching chores in the 1956 World Series were over. Stengel, Larsen assumed, was not about to take another chance on a pitcher who had shown the wildness that Larsen had displayed in those two innings. The World Series was too important.
Making assumptions about Stengel’s strategy, however, was always risky business. The man was unpredictable. And, in time, nowhere would that unpredictability be more evident than in Stengel’s selection of a pitcher for the pivotal ﬁfth game of the series at Yankee Stadium on Monday, October 8. Each team had won two games, and Stengel’s choice for the Yankee starting pitcher had to be someone who could inspire conﬁdence among his teammates. Don Larsen hardly seemed to be the right candidate.
Larsen certainly continued to think so, and he spent his evenings enjoying himself, assuming that he would not be called upon to pitch again. Rumors would later circulate that Larsen spent the evening before the ﬁfth game engaged in heavy drinking until the early-morning hours and that he arrived at the stadium the next day with a bad hangover. The truth is otherwise. He had nursed a few beers with his friend, Arthur Richman, a sportswriter for the New York Daily Mirror, at Bill Taylor’s Restaurant on West Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan, a favorite hangout for baseball players. Teammates Mickey Mantle and Rip Coleman stopped by for part of the time, and Larsen left the restaurant sometime before midnight. In the cab ride back to his apartment at the Concourse Plaza Hotel in the Bronx—only a couple of blocks from Yankee Stadium—Larsen predicted good things for himself at the game the next day. “I’m gonna beat those guys tomorrow,” he told Richman, “and I’m just liable to pitch a no-hitter doing so, too.”
It was nothing but playful bluster. Larsen did not expect to do anything more than sit on the bench. Still, other omens seemed to be at work. Across town in Times Square, the father of Yankee third baseman Andy Carey passed by a novelty shop that created fake newspaper headlines. Carey’s father had become friends with Larsen over the years through a mutual acquaintance, and he had two newspaper headlines printed. The ﬁrst read, “Larsen Pitches No-Hitter.” The second said, “Gooney Birds Pick Larsen to Win Fifth Game.” When he returned to the Concourse Plaza Hotel, where he too was staying, the elder Carey pasted one of the headlines—the one that mentioned the no-hitter—on Larsen’s door so that he could see it when he returned. But then he had second thoughts—the headline might prove to be a jinx. So he returned to Larsen’s door, where the paper remained untouched, took it back, and ﬂushed it down the toilet after shredding it. The second headline he kept for himself (which his son later had framed as a permanent memento).
Although he did not frequent novelty shops in making pitching assignments, Stengel’s rationale in crafting strategy often appeared to be inscrutable, and many observers sometimes wondered whether he consulted some kind of crystal ball. In many, if not most, situations, the Yankee starting pitcher would not learn of his assignment until he walked into the clubhouse the day of the game. Frank Crosetti, the wiry third-base coach, would arrive early in the morning and place a baseball in the selected pitcher’s shoe. It was a Yankee tradition known to all the players.
The ﬁrst players to spot the ball in Larsen’s shoe that day were right ﬁelder Hank Bauer and ﬁrst baseman Moose Skowron. Even before they saw it, however, Bauer had asked Crosetti who was pitching, and when Crosetti told him, Bauer had a short response: “Oh, shit.” Bob Turley came into the clubhouse shortly afterward and walked over to his locker, which adjoined Larsen’s. He looked down and saw the ball in Larsen’s shoe. He too was “ﬂabbergasted,” and, like Bauer, said, “Oh, shit. Somebody’s joking. He ain’t going to pitch.” But the ball was still there when Larsen sauntered into the clubhouse, still assuming that he would be sitting on the bench. Larsen stared at the ball in disbelief without saying a word and gulped.
The right-hander slowly undressed in silence, put on his game underwear, walked into the training room, and lay down for a short nap. He then arose, put on his uniform, discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the Dodger hitters with Berra, and walked out onto the ﬁeld shortly before the starting time of one o’clock to warm up with Charlie Silvera, the Yankees’ bullpen catcher. He had been given a second chance, and he would make the most of it.
And now, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Larsen needs to get only one more out to walk off the mound in glory.
As Berra considers Larsen’s next pitch, Dale Mitchell—a left-handed batter who is pinch-hitting for Dodger pitcher Sal Maglie—settles into his batting stance. Larsen and Berra had not discussed Mitchell because they did not expect him to play. The omission is not a critical one. Mitchell is well-known to both Berra and Larsen. Before joining the Dodgers in the middle of the 1956 season, Mitchell had spent more than ten seasons with the Cleveland Indians. In that span, the thirty-ﬁve-year-old outﬁelder had amassed a .312 lifetime batting average. Larsen had pitched against him as a Yankee and in his earlier struggles as a pitcher with the St. Louis Browns and then the newly franchised Baltimore Orioles. Both Larsen and Berra know from that experience that Mitchell will not be an easy out. “I knew he was a pretty good hitter,” Berra later said. “He punches the ball. The kind of guy you’ve got to watch.” For his part, Mitchell is conﬁdent that he can do what no other Dodger has been able to do that afternoon. “I had hit off Larsen a lot,” he would recall, “and I really felt I could’ve gotten on base.”
There are at least two fans in Yankee Stadium who share Dale Mitchell’s optimism. When he walked to the plate in the late-afternoon sun, Mitchell’s name was announced over the public-address system, the words echoing throughout the stadium. In a box seat behind the Yankee dugout, Dale’s wife, Margaret, placed her arm around their seven-year-old son, whose nickname was Bo, leaned over, and whispered a stern warning. “Son,” she said, “keep your mouth shut if your dad gets a base hit right now. Otherwise, these Yankee fans might kill us.” Bo understood at once that his mother was not joking. “This was serious,” he later remembered.
Although he cannot guarantee a hit to break the game open, Mitchell is conﬁdent that he will at least make contact with the ball. Because Dale Mitchell rarely strikes out. In 3,984 ofﬁcial plate appearances over more than eleven years of regular-season play, the Oklahoma native has struck out only 119 times. In one season with the Indians he had had 640 at bats with only eleven strikeouts, and in another year he had had 511 at bats with only nine strikeouts. And in thirty previous plate appearances in three World Series, he has never struck out. So Larsen and Berra know that there is little hope of getting Mitchell to strike out. They will have to count on the ﬁ elding.
The other seven Yankees in the ﬁeld no doubt know that as well, and they share the tension—and fear—of the moment. Like Berra, however, they are thinking of more than Larsen’s possible place in baseball history. “We were thinking about winning the damn game,” remembered Andy Carey. From his vantage point in center ﬁeld, Mickey Mantle alternates between dread and hope as to whether Mitchell might hit the ball to him. “The crowd was on its feet and I was so nervous I could feel my knees shaking,” Mantle later recalled. “I played in more than 2,400 games in the major leagues, but I never was as nervous as I was in the ninth inning of that game, afraid I would do something to mess up Larsen’s perfect game.”
Over in right ﬁeld, Hank Bauer is hoping that Mitchell does not hit one of his trademark line drives that will require him to dive for the ball and risk getting his cleats caught in the drainpipe—not only because of the chance of losing the ball but also because he knows that the drainpipe in right ﬁeld had been the cause of Mickey Mantle’s ﬁrst major knee injury in the 1951 World Series. But no player is more nervous than Larsen. “I was so weak in the knees out there in the ninth inning,” he later said, “I thought I was going to faint,” and when Mitchell came to bat, “I was so nervous I almost fell down. My legs were rubbery and my ﬁngers didn’t feel like they were on my hand.”
The other nervous participant is perhaps the most important—Babe Pinelli, the umpire who is calling balls and strikes behind the plate. Just one week shy of his sixty-ﬁrst birthday, he is calling his last game behind home plate. In a span of almost a thousand games over the course of twenty-two years—beginning when Babe Ruth was playing for the Boston Braves in 1935—Pinelli has never ofﬁciated a perfect game behind the plate. This will be his last chance. His retirement has already been planned, and there will be no more World Series for the much-respected National League umpire. And so Pinelli too is a captive of the drama. He later remembered it as the “most agonizing” game he ever umpired. Now, in the ninth inning, with Mitchell at the plate, Pinelli is crouched over Berra with sweat soaking through his uniform and feeling so short of breath that he almost feels faint. The eyes of the baseball world are upon him, and he cannot afford to make an obvious mistake.
The tension is palpable in the stands as well, where cheers and shouts have ﬁlled the stadium with every pitch in the ninth inning. It is hard not to take notice, and radio announcer Bob Wolff proclaims with conﬁdence, “I’ll guarantee that nobody, but nobody, has left this ballpark.”
The excitement of the moment has even permeated the Dodger camp. When Mitchell stepped into the batter’s box, Clem Labine was warming up in the Dodger bullpen beyond left ﬁeld so that he could replace Dodger pitcher Sal Maglie if the Dodgers should somehow manage to tie the game or even pull ahead. But he realized that he could be about to witness a unique moment in baseball history. So he stopped throwing and moved up to the railing, where fellow Dodger pitcher Roger Craig was also watching.
Labine looks over to Craig. “Roger, what do you think? If he does it, this is probably something we’ll never, ever see again in our lives.”
Craig thinks for a second. “I hope he does it.”
“I have to tell the truth,” Labine says. “I hope he does too.”
In other circumstances, Berra would talk to batters about something other than the game. Where they were going to dinner that night. How their golf game was faring. And sometimes a personal matter that would create confusion or even anger. Anything, Berra explained, “to distract them from the ball on the way.” (When longtime Detroit Tiger All-Star outﬁelder Al Kaline came to the plate on one occasion, Berra casually remarked, “I hear you’re being traded to Chicago. Think you’ll like Chicago?”) Many players caught on to Berra’s ploy and would let him know that his overtures were not welcome. One time he asked Ted Williams, an avid angler, where he was going ﬁshing after the game, and Williams—one of the most focused hitters of all time—had a quick response: “Shut up!” Berra was not deterred and would persist in his friendly dialogue with Williams and other players.
But there is no dialogue with Dale Mitchell. The Yankee catcher does not want to be diverted from the task at hand.
It did not take long for Larsen to reach a commanding count of one ball and two strikes on the Dodger pinch hitter. Mitchell took a strike, swung mightily at yet another pitch, took a ball, and then fouled off a pitch that appeared destined for the strike zone.
Mitchell is surely nervous as Larsen gets ready for the next pitch, but the Yankee pitcher hardly appears to be a portrait of equanimity. Larsen steps off the mound to the right, takes off his cap for the umpteenth time and wipes his sweaty brow with his forearm. He trudges back to the mound, picks up the dirt-stained resin bag, and dusts the white contents onto his pitching hand. As thousands of fans in the stadium observe and millions more watch or listen on television and radio, Larsen glances around to Mickey Mantle in center ﬁeld, turns back, steps on the pitcher’s rubber, and glares down at Berra. The catcher’s ﬁngers are shaking, but Larsen can read the sign.
With the pitcher ahead on the count, Berra would normally call for a slider or even a curve. Something with a little movement and perhaps a hope that the batter will ﬂail away at a bad pitch. But not now. Not today. Larsen has the magic touch, and so Berra calls for a fastball. Larsen’s fastball has worked so well all afternoon. There is no reason to lose faith in it now. (“His sliders were good, so were his curves,” Berra later explained, “but his fastballs were faster than I’d ever seen.”) Larsen has no reason to quarrel with Yogi’s decision. “Every ball that was hit hard” by the Dodgers that afternoon, the Yankee pitcher acknowledged immediately after the game, “came off” his slider. And so the fastball seems like the right choice to him as well.
Larsen gives a slight nod, grips the ball with his two foreﬁngers, and with one quick movement hurls the leather sphere toward the batter.
When Dale Mitchell ﬁrst advanced to the plate, Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully told his television audience that “no man in baseball history has come up in a more dramatic moment,” and The New York Times later called it the “greatest moment” in World Series history. But it is not enough to know that Don Larsen stood on the brink of a success that no other pitcher had enjoyed. An appreciation of Larsen’s performance—and how he came to that enviable position— requires an understanding of the other players who were on the ﬁeld that day: their backgrounds, their skills, their hopes and fears, and, most especially, how and why they found themselves at Yankee Stadium for that ﬁfth game of the 1956 World Series. Because this is not just a story about Don Larsen. This is also a story about eighteen other players who were an integral part of the drama that unfolded on that warm fall day.