The day everything went right
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen
By Lew Paper
New American Library.
421 pp. $24.95
On the afternoon of Oct. 8, 1956, in the fifth game of the World Series, New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen faced 27 Brooklyn Dodgers hitters and retired them all, a perfect game. Fifty-three years later, it remains the greatest individual performance in baseball history. In fact, it would be hard to come up with another that even comes close, considering the championship stakes and Larsen's flawlessness that day.
Though familiar to all baseball fans -- in the sepia-toned way our brains file away significant events of yesteryear -- Larsen's perfect game, still the only no-hitter in playoff history, was almost criminally underappreciated, as well as untapped for literary exploration. Part of that, undoubtedly, was due to Larsen's sheer and astounding ordinariness -- past, present and future: Two years before the perfect game, he had lost a league-leading 21 games. Just three days before taking the mound, he was pounded in a 13-8 loss in Game 2. And he spent the rest of his career as a journeyman, changing teams six times and retiring in 1967 with a losing career record of 81-91. But it is precisely that ordinariness that makes the story of Larsen and his perfect game so fascinating: He, and it, embody the fleeting mystery of baseball -- how even the greatest sluggers look helpless far more often than they deliver greatness, and how the gift of excellence can visit even the most humble of players at any given moment.
The story of Larsen and his legendary afternoon was hanging out there, like a juicy curve ball, for somebody to smash out of the park, and Lew Paper, a Washington lawyer and author, has done exactly that with "Perfect." Just because you know of Larsen's perfect game doesn't mean you know it, as Paper demonstrates. Did you realize, for example, that no fewer than seven future Hall of Famers, including Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle, played in that game -- and that it was called on television by a Hall of Fame broadcaster, Vin Scully?
As there is only so much one can write about a game that lasted just two hours, six minutes, Paper's book is more about the individual players than about the game itself, and in both endeavors he was aided by the fact that six of the 19 men who played in the game are still alive, including both Larsen and his famous catcher, Yogi Berra. "An appreciation of Larsen's performance," Paper writes, "requires an understanding of the other players who were on the field that day: their backgrounds, their skills, their hopes and fears."
At first, this premise seems questionable, and the literary device Paper uses -- alternating detailed descriptions of the action on the field with mini-bios of each player, roughly one per chapter -- seems distracting, even annoying. You yearn to flip past the life and times of, say, Dodgers right fielder Carl Furillo to get back to the inning-by-inning drama of the game itself. (Incidentally, and quite curiously, the chapter on Larsen is among the shortest in the book.) But, eventually, the rhythm of the story takes hold, and the alternation of mini-bio and game retelling becomes an asset. For example, a story about Billy Martin, the Yankees' second baseman, fielding hundreds of grounders during a tryout 10 years earlier adds texture to the game detail that follows, as Martin handles a pair of grounders flawlessly in the top of the fourth inning.
The game story contains countless moments of discovery and awe, nuggets that only dozens of viewings of a tape of the game could have unearthed. "Now, with the right side of the field encased in shadows created by the towering façade of Yankee Stadium . . .," Paper writes, and anyone who follows baseball immediately recognizes the added dimension of difficulty the hitter faces in such situations.
One wishes Paper had done more to put the game in the context of its turbulent times. The well-worn story of Robinson's breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947, for example, is rehashed here, but there is little discussion of the state of race relations in the game a decade later. Similarly, the final chapter, with its tally of players getting released or traded in the ensuing years, reminds us of the heartless way athletes used to be treated, but we learn next to nothing of the similarly cold circumstances that caused the Dodgers to leave Brooklyn for Los Angeles just one year later.
Instead, Paper stays true to the book's title, producing a fitting testament both to a singular performance and its cast of characters. He was half-right: An "understanding" of the other men on the field that day isn't a requirement for appreciating Larsen's gem, but it makes for a heck of a story.
Dave Sheinin writes for the sports section of The Washington Post.