With the 1956 World Series knotted at two games apiece, the bitter rivalry between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees had paved the way to another thrilling series. Manager Casey Stengel chose Don Larsen to start game five. The decision was not popular in New York because Larson had been battered in Brooklyn just a few days before. Larsen would later say that he did not want to let his manager down and appreciated the opportunity to right the ship after his Brooklyn shellacking.
I had the good fortune to be at the game with my father and two of his friends. I was the only Dodger fan and Larsen’s performance still remains a bittersweet moment for me. It was a beautiful sunny day at Yankee Stadium for the pivotal game in the World Series. On the way to the ballpark, my father bet me the winning team would score more runs in one inning than the losing team would score in the entire game. He won that dollar and more importantly bragging rights that lasted a lifetime.
The Dodgers gave the ball to Sal, “the barber” Maglie. Maglie, a former New York Giant, earned his nickname due to his propensity for pitching batters high and tight. So tight that opposing batters felt they were getting a shave.
The lineups in this key game between bitter rivals featured lineups dotted with future Hall of Famers. Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Billy Martin and Gil McDougall all starred for the Yanks.
For the Dodgers, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and home run slugger Duke Snider were the nucleus of one of baseball’s most unforgettable teams. This game had the feel of a heavyweight boxing match with a lot on the table.
In the first inning, Dodger leadoff hitter and 2nd baseman Junior Gilliam went to a full count against Larsen. He ended up grounding out. However, that was the only batter who reached a 3-ball count during the game.
On the sunny afternoon, Larsen had pinpoint control. Yogi Berra would later say it was the easiest game he ever caught. He simply gave the sign and the target and the ball was always on course.
For the record, Larsen pitched a complete game and struck out seven. He survived two potential base hits. The first was Jackie Robinson’s screaming line drive that third baseman Andy Carey did well to block. Fortunately, the ball careened to shortstop Gil McDougall whose throw to first just nipped Robinson. The second inning play was protested but to no avail.
With two outs, Mickey Mantle hit a long homerun to centerfield in the bottom of the fourth to put the Yankees up 1-0. When Larsen took the mound in the fifth, he had his lead but he had had a big lead in Brooklyn before letting it slip away.
My Dodgers came out swinging in the fifth. First baseman Gil Hodges drove a Larsen offering deep into the left center gap. Unbelievably, The Mick ran hard and deep to snare the ball with a sparking one-handed grab. It was truly a thing of beauty.
Back in the saddle, Larsen now faced left fielder Sandy Amoros. Amoros went after the second pitch and drove it deep into the right field seats. It looked fair to me, but was ruled a foul ball. Umpire Ed Runge who later described the ball as foul by one inch.
At this point, the stadium and Yankee bench could sense that a special moment was happening. Larsen had now retired all fifteen batters and only needed twelve more outs. In the tradition of no hitters, the Yankee players would not speak to Larsen. He sat alone at the far end of the bench, a lonely man on a lonely mission.
Covering the game for television and radio were Mel Allen and Vin Scully, two of the game’s greatest announcers. Neither commentator used the term “no hitter” or “perfect game.” At the start of every Dodger inning, Scully would say that Larsen has put down all fifteen batters he had faced, then eighteen, then 21, then 24.
In the meantime, Sal “the barber” was crafting his own masterpiece. In what had been a high scoring four series games, Maglie only yielded five hits, gave up two walks and struck out five in his eight innings.
The Yankees picked up their second run when Hank Bauer’s clutch hit drove in third baseman Andy Carey. The Dodgers turned two impressive double plays including a Hodges to Campanella to Robinson play at the plate and third base.
At the top of ninth with 24 Dodgers up and 24 Dodgers down, the 64,519 fans rose to their feet. In unison they gasped with every pitch and with every call. Rightfielder Carl Furillo went down first and then the wily Campanella. Larsen was one out away.
The Dodgers sent pinch-hit specialist Dale, Mitchell, a .311 hitter, to the plate. The crowd roared between pitches. Larsen’s control remained steady and he worked the count to 1-2. He fired a high, outside fastball that paralyzed Mitchell and was called “strike three!”
Yankee Stadium rocked. Catcher Yogi Berra never moved so fast. He jumped on Larsen almost before the big right-hander could clear the mound. Berra’s special moment with Larsen is probably the most famous picture in baseball annals.