Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 5, 2020

The Making Of A Legend, On An October Afternoon

What turns an athlete into a legend? What are the elements that will elevate a player beyond the exalted role of hero to a higher plane, one to which many aspire but precious few achieve? The obvious answer is a career filled with greatness, a highlight reel spanning many seasons of outstanding achievement that fans recall with an excited “I was there for that!” or “I was watching on TV when that happened!”

In the Bronx, on a team that is seldom short of heroes, that is the surest path to the pantheon of legends. It is the road followed by Derek Jeter, soon to be announced as a first ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame. From the first time he went snared a grounder deep in the hole between short and third and then unleashed a long jump throw to first to beat the batter to the bag, through the flip play to nab Jeremy Giambi at home in the 2001 playoffs, to diving into the stands to make a catch in foul ground, and on and on. His feats in the field were more than matched by big moments at the plate, from the leadoff home run to begin Game 4 of the 2000 World Series at Shea Stadium, to the homer into the left field bleachers at the new Stadium for hit number 3,000, to the walkoff single to right that won Jeter’s final home game.

His longtime teammate Mariano Rivera, the first player ever to be unanimously voted into the Hall, took a similar trail. Through a record 652 regular season saves, plus 42 more in the postseason, in game after game Rivera compiled a record of greatness that led Yankee fans to rise as one in salute every time the bullpen door swung open and the slight figure in pinstripes stepped onto the warning track. For the Yankees, with their overstuffed Monument Park beyond the center field wall and plethora of retired numbers, Jeter and Rivera are but the most recent names on a list that begins with the Babe, who wrenched the Great Game out of the 19th century and remade it in his own image over the course of a career that like the man remains larger than life all these decades later.

But there is another path to legendary status, a road traveled far less often. It involves not a career but a single moment so scintillating, so memorable, that time cannot dim the luster of a player’s accomplishment. That might seem easier than the daily grind of building a long career but considering how enormous the achievement must be in order to gain such status, it’s little wonder that few athletes become legends on the strength of a single event.

Yet that is exactly what happened to the tall right-hander who took the mound for the Yankees on the afternoon of October 8, 1956. It was Game 5 of the World Series, the seventh Subway Series pitting the Bronx Bombers against either the Giants or Dodgers in ten years. One season earlier the Brooklyn nine had finally ended years of torment by beating the Yankees in seven games. The ’56 Series was knotted at two wins apiece, a largely forgotten fact that may well have contributed to New York manager Casey Stengel choosing the starter he did over Bob Turley or Johnny Kucks. Had it been a must-win contest for the Yankees, Stengel probably would have wanted a more dependable hurler than the pitcher who had lost a game to the Dodgers in the ’55 Series, and who had been wild and ineffective in Game 2, squandering a 6-0 lead with four walks in the 2nd inning of an eventual 13-8 Brooklyn victory. Not to mention that just two years earlier, while wearing an Orioles uniform, he had led the league in losses, posting an unsightly record of 3-21.

There was, in short, nothing in Don Larsen’s career to that point that hinted at what was about to happen. Nor would there be anything close to a reprise over the next decade, as Larsen drifted to six other teams, never again winning as many games as the eleven victories he had notched for New York that season. No one in the packed house of 64,519 at the old Stadium came expecting to see pitching history made, and when Larsen set the Dodgers down in order in the 1st, using fifteen pitches to strike out Jim Gillian and Pee Wee Reese before getting Duke Snider to hit a soft liner to right, most were just relieved that the Yankee starter wasn’t as wild as he’d been three days earlier. What those fans could not even imagine at that hour was that the full count that preceded Reese’s strikeout was the only time that day Larsen would go to three balls on a batter.

Jackie Robinson hit a sharp liner to third to open the 2nd inning, and when the ball caromed off Andy Carey’s glove it looked like Brooklyn had its first hit. But the horsehide went right to shortstop Gil McDougald, who scooped it up and fired to first, beating Robinson by a step. Three frames later, Gil Hodges sent a fly deep into the gap in left-center, at a time when “deep” had real meaning at Yankee Stadium. But after a long run Mickey Mantle chased the ball down for second out of that inning. By that time Mantle had also staked Larsen to a lead, with a home run that hugged the right field foul line off Sal Maglie in the home half of the 4th. In the 6th Hank Bauer doubled New York’s lead, plating Carey from second base with a one-out single.

By that time fans were starting to realize the possibility of something extraordinary happening in front of them, and over the final three innings the excitement and the anxiety grew in tandem. Larsen needed only eight pitches to set the Dodgers down in order in the 7th, and ten more to retire Robinson, Hodges, and Sandy Amoros in the 8th.

Carl Furillo led off the 9th with a flyout to right, and the noise in the stands began to build. Roy Campanella was next, and he sent Larsen’s second pitch on the ground to the right side of the infield, where Billy Martin had an easy play for the second out. Now it was truly standing room only, from the box seats to the bleachers, as fans strained to see a moment that had never come before. Brooklyn manager Walter Alston sent Dale Mitchell up to bat for Maglie, and the late season acquisition, a career .312 hitter, fell behind 1-2. Larsen’s 97th pitch of the afternoon was a fastball, and Mitchell tried to check his swing. But umpire Babe Pinelli raised his right arm high, and Larsen had thrown a perfect game.

The list of numbers retired by the Yankees does not include Larsen’s 18, which most recently was worn by shortstop Didi Gregorius. There is no plaque commemorating that October day in Monument Park, and Larsen never came remotely close to joining the Great Game’s immortals in the Hall of Fame. But long after many of those players are forgotten, Larsen, who died on New Year’s Day at the age of 90, will be remembered, and deservedly so. For on one October afternoon, he earned his place in the history of the Great Game by doing what no pitcher had done in a World Series before, and none have done since. Just after 3:00 p.m., when Yogi jumped into his arms as the fans roared, Don Larsen became a legend.

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