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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

The Perfect Day
By Pete Cava

Home free! It was Monday, October 8, the day of the fifth game of the 1956 World Series, and for once I'd convinced my mother I was too sick for school.

For years, my self-diagnoses had ended in dismal failure. During the previous year's Series I had to trudge off to school with black lung disease. When the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians squared off in 1954, Mom was unfazed by the revelation that I was a bubonic plague victim. And since the only non-human resident in our house was a cocker spaniel, my 1953 choice of parrot fever turned out to be a fiasco.

Ultimately it was the humblest ploy that proved effective, like those lowly bacteria in War of the Worlds that thwarted the Martian invaders.

"I don't feel so hot," I'd told my mother that morning. Technically, this was true. It was a typical early autumn day on Staten Island—cool and breezy, with a chill in the air that foretold winter's approach.

And just like that, it worked. "Maybe you should stay home," said Mom, reaching for my forehead. At that moment it was as if Lady Luck herself had touched me—just as she would lay hands on an obscure baseball player later in the day.

Quarantined in my room, I kept warm under the bed covers. I thought about the hated Dodgers and their fans, which included a considerable segment of Mrs. Bender's fifth grade

class at Public School 38.

It wasn't just chilly temperatures that made Brooklyn fans shiver this morning. The Series had opened with a pair of Dodger wins at Ebbets Field, but at Yankee Stadium the Bronx Bombers had stormed back with two straight victories.

Today the Dodgers starting pitcher would be penitentiary-faced Sal Maglie, whose dark scowl and sharp curve had doomed the Yanks in Game 1. New York would counter with Don Larsen, a six-foot-four, 220-pound right-hander. Brooklyn had kayoed Larsen early in Game 2, but the tide had since turned. The Series is even, I mused. It's like a fresh start. Anything could happen!

Those words would be prophetic.

Maglie versus Larsen. Pondering the matchup, I wondered about the pitching choice by Yankee manager Casey Stengel. Just two years earlier with the Baltimore Orioles, Larsen had lost twenty-one of twenty-four decisions. It was one of the most dismal records in baseball history, but the 1954 Orioles had been worse than cod liver oil. Larsen joined the Yanks in 1955 and, after developing a no-windup delivery late in the following season, had turned into a reliable starter.

Larsen had compiled eleven wins against five losses in 1956, and on the eve of the World Series he'd earned an unlikely endorsement from Ted Williams, the Red Sox slugger and fierce Yankee rival. Larsen, maintained Williams, was New York's most impressive pitcher. "I know he gave me all kinds of trouble," said Williams, who prophesied that against the Dodgers, Larsen's pitching "will make the difference."

It was an odd appraisal. The Yankee ace was future Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, a nineteen-game winner. Johnny Kucks had won eighteen games that summer while Tom Sturdivant had notched sixteen. Williams' estimation of Larsen seemed like a proclamation from Field Marshal Rommel that the biggest threat to the Afrika Korps wasn't Britain or the U.S., but Denmark.

Three days earlier in Game 2, Larsen hadn't lasted beyond the second inning. After the defeat, Stengel defended his hurler, telling reporters: "He wasn't throwing over there in Brooklyn. He was just pushing the ball. He can pitch a lot better than that. You'll see."

By now it was noon, and after the usual sickbed meal of chicken soup and saltine crackers I had recovered sufficiently to move to the living room couch. "Uh, would it be okay to watch TV?" I asked tentatively, requesting the channel that aired the Series telecast.

Soon it was time. Lineups were introduced, the national anthem played, and the game was underway. In the first inning Larsen set down the Dodgers in order. In the second, Jackie Robinson sent a scorching line drive to the left of Yankee third baseman Andy Carey. The ball deflected off Carey's glove and miraculously bounced toward shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw to first in time for the out.

"Oh, yeah!" I blurted, just as my mother strolled into the living room. The look on her face at that moment would come to mind years later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I stood eye-to-eye with the Mona Lisa. I smiled wanly, hoping Mom would be impressed by a show of courageous cheerfulness despite my shattered health.

"That chicken soup tastes so good, Mom. Could I have some more?" I hated chicken soup even more than I loathed the Dodgers, Mrs. Bender's fifth-grade arithmetic lessons, and cleaning blackboards. But if I was ever going to see another World Series contest, I had to cover my tracks.

Like Larsen, Maglie appeared infallible for Brooklyn and retired the first eleven Yankee hitters. Then Mickey Mantle registered the game's first hit with a fourth inning home run just inside the right field foul pole that gave the Yanks a 10 lead.

The Yanks made it 20 in the sixth when Carey scored from second on Hank Bauer's single. Meanwhile, Larsen was still in command. He retired the Dodgers in order in the seventh and eighth innings, and started the ninth by setting down Carl Furillo and Roy Campanella.

Just one more out, I thought, as Dale Mitchell, a dangerous hitter, came up to bat for Maglie. Larsen stepped off the pitching mound and turned his back to the plate. He removed his cap and mopped his forehead. For an instant, he appeared to glance toward the heavens. Later, Larsen would tell reporters he'd offered this prayer: "Please, somebody help me out!"

I was off the couch now, hunkering on the living room floor just a few feet from the black-and-white Philco. Larsen's first pitch was a ball, outside. Larsen delivered again, this time a called strike. Mitchell swung and missed at the next pitch. "Yes!" I hollered, coughing quickly to let anyone in hearing range know how much the effort had taxed my diminished strength. Larsen got the sign from Yogi Berra behind the plate. Mitchell swung and fouled off the pitch. The count remained at one ball, two strikes. The tension was excruciating.

"Listen to this crowd," the announcer raved. "I'll guarantee that nobody—but nobody—has left this ballpark. And if somebody did manage to leave early—man, he's missing the greatest!"

Larsen threw. Mitchell stood, immobile. Home plate umpire Babe Pinelli called strike three. The game was over.

"Yanks win! Yanks win" I bellowed, discarding all restraint and bounding around the living room like a deranged ping-pong ball. The TV announcer, by now a raving lunatic, kept yammering about a perfect game, the first one since 1922, and the first ever in the World Series.

A perfect game? I wondered. Was it perfect because the Yankees had won and now had a lead in the Series?

"You sound like you're feeling better," I heard my mother say. The look on her face told me I'd be back in school for the rest of the Series, even if I managed to come down with leprosy.

They'd done it! I gloated. One more win and the Yanks take the Series!

I was back on the sofa when my father came home from work. "Did you see that game?" he asked, his eyes wide. Dad's voice was pitched high in amazement. "Didja see that game?"

"Sure did," I answered. "Yanks won, 2–0."

"Larsen threw a perfect game! A perfect game!" Dad ranted. "He pitched a perfect game!"

"Yeah," I responded, unsuccessfully trying to match Dad's unbridled joy, "a perfect game!" That guy on TV was babbling something about a perfect game, I thought. He'd sounded as dippy as my old man did right now.

"Uh, Dad? What exactly does that mean, a perfect game?"

"You don't know? Larsen! He pitched a no-hitter! More than a no-hitter!" Dad's voice seemed to rise with each syllable. "Twenty-seven batters and he retired all of 'em! Nobody's ever done it before in the Series! No one! No walks, no errors, no nothin'! Larsen was perfect! It hasn't happened since . . . uh, since . . ."

"Nineteen-twenty-two," I said blankly, stunned by the realization that I'd been privy to a miracle. Like a missed opportunity, Larsen's masterpiece had flashed right past my eyes and I hadn't even noticed. Oh, I'd watched the game, all right, but I had no idea what I'd seen. I had beheld the Holy Grail and decided it was a nifty coffee mug.

At dinner that night Dad explained that baseball decorum decreed that you never discussed a no-hitter—let alone a perfect game—while it was in progress. "Otherwise you could jinx it," he explained.

So that was why the announcer hadn't said anything until the final out!

That game was the zenith of Don Larsen's career. He remained in New York for three more seasons before he shuttled off to the Kansas City Athletics, and from there to the Chicago White Sox and later to San Francisco. In 1962, Larsen made a final Series appearance with the Giants at Yankee Stadium, coming out of the bullpen in Game 4 to beat his old team.

Larsen bounced from the Giants to Houston and wound up his career in 1967 with the Chicago Cubs. As his skills began to fade, it was painful to see him move from one also-ran club to another. The man who'd authored the greatest pitching performance of the century was now being shifted and shunted about like a piece of old furniture.

But on October 8, 1956, at Yankee Stadium, Don Larsen stood like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Half a century later, I still marvel that I witnessed the one and only perfect game in World Series history—even if I didn't know it at the time.

The next day I returned to school, carrying the obligatory note about my absence from my mother to Mrs. Bender. All my classmates, even the Brooklyn rooters, were still buzzing about Larsen's performance. I took smug satisfaction as the lone eyewitness.

Mrs. Bender called class to order. "Before we start today," she said, "we'll need someone to clean the blackboards. Cava, you look refreshed after yesterday's sabbatical. Find a damp cloth and get started. And when you finish, you can start writing the times tables on the blackboard. One through twelve."

Mrs. Bender's words were still airborne as I started for the janitor's closet, remembering my mother's curious smile and wondering if all perfection had its price.

—EFQ

PETE CAVA, a native Staten Islander who lives in Indianapolis, spent twenty-five years as a media information officer for Olympic sports organizations. He writes about baseball and track and field, and has authored two books as well as numerous magazine and newspaper articles. He served as Team Italy’s media liaison at the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

© 2006 Pete Cava

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