A couple days ago, we got the sad news that former Yankees’ pitcher Don Larsen passed away. In any article about him in the days since, or ever really, the first thing inevitably mentioned is the perfect game he threw in Game Five of the 1956 World Series.
It’s a pretty good thing to have as your most notable achievement. He did as well as you can possibly do your job, on the biggest stage on which to do it. Larsen is still the only pitcher to have accomplished the feat.
If you want to read about that game, there are undoubtedly hundreds of pieces that have come out over the years about it. This is not one of those pieces. Even though the perfect game understandably dominates any discussion around Larsen, he did have a long career besides that.
Larsen pitched 14 seasons, making appearances for six other teams besides the Yankees. He played in five World Series, winning two rings in 1956 and 1958. Four of those appearances came with the Yankees, and the fifth came against them while he was on the Giants. Looking at Larsen’s stats, no one will confuse his career with a Hall of Fame one, but you don’t play as long as he did by accident.
Don Larsen did plenty else in his career besides throw a perfect game. Let’s take a look at one of those outings.
Coming up with the St. Louis Browns, Larsen made his debut in 1953. He stayed with the team when they moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles the next season. In 1954, he led the league in a stat category for the first and only time in his career. Unfortunately for him, that category was losses, as he went 3-21 for a woeful Orioles team.
Better times were ahead for him, as that November, he was part of a 17-player trade that brought him to the Yankees. Early that next season, he was used mainly as a reliever or spot starter, also spending some time in the minors. On July 31st, in his first major-league game since that May, Larsen threw a two-run complete game. From that point on, he would remain a part of the rotation for the rest of the season through the World Series. That included one particularly impressive outing 10 days later.
The Yankees went into their August 10th game against the Red Sox one game behind the White Sox in the AL standings. Meanwhile, Boston themselves were just 0.5 games behind the Yankees, with Cleveland in second in between the White Sox and Yankees. It was a tight four-team race. Every game mattered as it was, but a head-to-head game between two of those clubs was especially important.
Larsen got the start that day, having allowing two runs in 18 innings since his return on July 31st. He kicked off his third game with a 1-2-3 inning, but soon ran into some trouble in the next inning.
The first four hitters Larsen faced in the top of the second all reached base in a variety of ways. The Red Sox went single, walk, hit by pitch, single, pushing across two runs to take the lead. Larsen did bounce back to get the next three outs to keep it from getting worse.
The Yankees tied the game a couple innings later. Meanwhile, Larsen got down to work. He rebounded from his second inning by throwing a scoreless third. And fourth. And fifth. And sixth. And seventh.
The Yankees couldn’t push across another run in the regulation nine innings, but it didn’t cost them. After the single that scored the two runs he allowed, Larsen retired 23 of the next 28 batters he faced. He still allowed the occasional baserunner to reach, but he got better as the game went along. He picked up nine straight outs from the seventh through ninth innings.
The Yankees still weren’t having much success at the plate, but Larsen just picked up where he left off, throwing perfect innings in the 10th, 11th, and 12th. He worked into a jam for the first time in a while to start the 13th. After a lead-off walk, a sac bunt moved a Red Sox runner into scoring position for the first time since the seventh inning. Larsen responded by getting two outs either side of a Ted Williams intentional walk to stand the runners.
The Yankees then finally pushed across a winning run in the bottom of the 13th.
Larsen’s final line reads as such: 13.0 innings, two runs on five hits and five walks with seven strikeouts. From the third inning on, he allowed just three hits, all of which were singles. The last of those hits came in the first at-bat of the seventh inning.
A little more than a year later, Larsen wrote his name in the history books with the World Series perfect game. As good as that game is, it’s far from the only thing Don Larsen did during his long major-league career.