Tag Archives: Don Larsen

Last At Bat

Archrivals in a World Series game; two outs in the 9th inning. The score is close. Tensions very high. Emotions bare.

A wily veteran strides confidently to the plate. His steely eyes are focused. All of his life and long professional All Star career have prepared him for this moment, which is most certainly destined — one way or another — to go down in shining unforgettable sports history.

He is seemingly unaware of much of the situation, which includes a screaming over-capacity crowd in the major leagues’ most famous stadium: often called “The House that Ruth built.” Most of the 64,519 attendees want him to fail, screaming their desire.

He steps into the left-handed batters box to go up against a pitcher who is otherwise little-known. A pitcher who seems destined to not be long remembered. A pitcher who is at the end of a moderately successful year, yet in the midst of a mediocre career. A pitcher whose last appearance on a baseball mound, just a few days ago in this same World Series, was an unmitigated disaster, rather than as pitcher for baseball’s proudest team in one of their most important games.


First Pitch:

The right-handed pitcher, a career starter, does not even use a windup. He gets his sign, nods, takes a single long stride and throws his cut fastball, falling awkwardly toward first base after delivery.

It fades outside.  The veteran holds his swing.  BALL ONE.


The Batter

This moment, this kind of circumstance, was exactly the situation for which Dale Mitchell was now standing at home plate.  He’d been acquired by the Brooklyn Dodgers on July 31 — just over two months ago — to add experienced hitting savvy to their pennant run, and to their possible World Series roster.

Mitchell’s professional career was outstanding, if not also a bit unlikely. Except for these last 10 weeks, he’d spent all his Major League career with the Cleveland Indians.

If any statistic stands out over his career, it is the near impossibility of striking him out.  In 4,358 plate appearances over 11 years Mitchell struck out only 119 times, and astounding 2.7% rate, and placing him in 7th place all time in most unlikely to strike out.  Ranked against all batters with over career 100 plate appearances, Mitchell was approximately in the 99.9th percentile for least likely to strike out.

But Mitchell’s career was far better than simply not striking out.

He broke in with the Indians in September 1946 – after three years’ service in the Army in WW2 in Europe – and put up a .432 average in the season’s final 11 games.  For the next 7 years, as a full-time player, he batted over .300 … and was a 3-time American League All Star.

A few stats that should get any baseball fan’s attention.

  1. For the years 1946-1960 only two players had better career batting averages than Mitchell: Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Ted Williams.
  2. In 1949 Mitchell put up more than twice as many triples (23) as strikeouts (11) … that’s a scant 11 K’s in 685 plate appearances!!

World Series experience?

Dale Mitchell, career .312 hitter.

In 1948 Mitchell was among several stars – including Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau – who led the Indians to a Series victory over Boston (Braves) … after defeating the other Boston team (Red Sox) in a one game playoff to break the AL pennant tie.

In 1954 the Indians won an astounding 111 games (out of only 154 games in a season back then) for a winning percentage that might be the best forever – a prodigious .721! They lost the series to the New York Giants.

However, at the start of that 1954 season Mitchell was moved to the bench as part of an Indian youth movement; he got mostly only pinch appearances.  Still, he hit .283 and struck out only one time in 69 plate appearances; half his already extremely low strike out rate.

Loren Dale Mitchell was born in the west central plains of Oklahoma to tenant farmers in 1921. With farms spread far and wide, he had no one to play baseball with – except occasional toss with his dad, who bought a used lefthanded first baseman’s glove for his son to practice with.

At age 10 he survived being struck by a car while walking home from school on a country road, breaking his collar bone and suffering deep gashes on his face – and a severe concussion.

Through these years his family endured the Great Depression and the worst of the Dust Bowl.  They were among the toughest Okies; they stayed.

Besides his dad and 15-year older brother, Dale had few others to learn and play sports with. This changed when he went to Cloud Chief High School, where a mere 160 students came from a huge agricultural Dust Bowl-swept school district.  Here his athletic prowess stood out. He earned 12 letters in three sports over four years: in baseball, basketball, track. Not just a local star, Mitchell set the state record in the 100-yard dash at a state meet, a fleet footed 9.8 seconds, a record that stood for many years.

Mitchell’s accomplishments caught the attention of the University of Oklahoma.  So off he went to study and refine his baseball skills, at OU. There Mitchell developed his proficient hitting style – focus on contact and line drives, spraying the ball to all fields. After his sophomore season, when he hit a very impressive .420, he was drafted into the Army Air Force.  The next three years were spent in Europe – where he served as quartermaster, helping the allies free Europe from fascism.

Returning home to Oklahoma – to meet a 2-1/2 year old son he’d never seen – he completed his education and college baseball career in a phenomenal season – he set the University’s single season Batting Average at an astounding .507 … A record that still stands today.

Jobless, in need of money with a wife and young son, Mitchell sought out the AA minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, in Oklahoma City.  They signed him.  Soon, his performance caught the attention of the mothership, and in September 1946 Mitchell was called up to the majors.

L Dale Mitchell: War veteran, survivor of the depression and dust bowl, survivor of getting plowed into by a car as a child pedestrian … and a long major league career of frustrating pitchers with his bat control, great eye and superb eye-hand coordination.

Yes, he was uniquely qualified to be at the plate at this golden moment in baseball history.

Second Pitch:

Working quickly, the pitcher gets a sign for a curve ball.  He nods, steps and slips a nasty pitch at the bottom of the zone.  Again, Mitchell does not swing.  The umpire puts up his right hand. STRIKE ONE.


The Pitcher

Of all the pitchers, in all of major league baseball, over all of time … the man standing on the pitcher’s mound this sunny October afternoon was surely one of the least likely to be in this moment.

His name was Don Larsen.  Today, until now, in Game 5 of the World Series, he had faced 26 batters.  None of them made it to first base. Only Dale Mitchell remained between him and baseball immortality … a Perfect Game.   Not just a Perfect Game – 27 up, 27 down – but a Perfect Game in a World Series game.

Maybe if it were Whitey Ford or Don Newcombe this moment could be at least a little bit believable.  But Don Larsen??!!

Don Larsen. Off balance delivery. First pitch, game 5, 1956 World Series. Copyright Time-Life/Getty Images

Larsen’s career was far from impressive.  It was mediocre, and it was pretty much otherwise unnoticed.  His career stats are nearly feeble.  His lifetime win-loss record was 81-91 (and this included several seasons with the powerhouse Yankees).  Heck, as recently as 1954 he lost 21 games in one single season.

He walked an average of 4.4 batters per game, and struck out only 4.9 per game. [1] Not only are these rates fair to poor for any era of the game, the ratio of 1.1 strikeouts per walk is among the very poorest of any pitcher with a resume of over a few seasons.

And yet … 1956 had been a relatively successful year for Larsen. Bouncing in-and-out of the starting rotation, he managed a 11-5 record … going 4-0 in four starts in September.

The sweet taste of this past September was severely soured by his performance in Game 2 of the series, three days ago, across town in Brooklyn. He didn’t make it out of the 2nd inning, walking four, striking out zero, and giving up 4 runs.

With the series tied at two games apiece this was a critical home game.  One the Yankees could not afford to lose. Now, just three days after pitching horribly, Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengal called on Larsen to pitch game 5. Fans and sports writers were amazed.  What was Stengal thinking?

He had a hunch about Larsen.

Don Larsen. He’d had faint glimpses of success.  But never, ever greatness.

Now he was looking at immortality.


Third Pitch:

Still working quickly – staying in rhythm – the sign is for a fastball.  The one that Larsen’s been getting to fade away all game.  He nods, steps and fires.

The wily veteran Mitchell takes a swing, trying to poke it to left field.  He whiffs!  STRIKE TWO.


The Umpire

“Babe” Pinelli certainly knew baseball.  He knew its ins and outs; he knew every angle; he knew every rule; he knew its history.  He was at the end of a respected 21-year umpiring career.

Before that he had an on-and-off 10 year career in the Major Leagues, up and down on the roster, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds.  For four years (1922-25) he was their regular third basemen, and compiled a very respectable .293 average over those seasons.

Perusing his statistics, it’s easy to surmise that he did – perhaps – think rather too much of his abilities.  He was caught stealing 80 times out of 151 attempts.  During his prime (’22-’25) he was caught 72 times out of 130 attempts.  This is a very, very poor success rate.

Born Rinaldo Angelo Paolinelli, Babe grew up hanging around the wharfs in San Francisco. “Babe” was well respected among players.  He was regarded as fair (he had the gumption to call strikes on the more famous “Babe” – Babe Ruth – when Ruth was at the end of his career and attracting thousands of fans to stadiums wherever he went, and Pinelli was at the beginning of his umpiring career).  And players regarded him as pleasant; was generally considered one of the least likely to throw a player out of a game, regardless of how loudly they protested.

And yet, he was fully aware of the situation, the potential for history, and his place in that history.  This is, of course, hearsay, but Pinelli confided later to players that if he had a chance to make this a Perfect Game, he was going to take it.


The Catcher.

Behind the plate, in front of Pinelli, is the Yankees’ catcher, Larsen’s catcher. He is one of the most well-known and famous names and people of all time – inside or outside of baseball.  He is Lawrence Peter Berra, affectionately known for all time as simply “Yogi.”

Certainly, one of best all-around catchers and athletes of all time, Yogi knew the game.  Yogi knew hitters. Yogi knew pitchers. Yogi knew how to call a game.  If anyone, besides providence or the almighty, oversaw this game, it was Yogi. He knew exactly how to help a pitcher “work” a batter.

Of his countless famous quips, Yogi said: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  This game was not over, yet. Yogi studied the batter, Mitchell, closely.  He knew Mitchell well from his 10 years with the Indians in the American League. He knew how to “work” Mitchell.  Now, … if only Larsen could deliver.

Fourth Pitch:

With the count one ball and two strikes, Larsen suddenly breaks his routine for the first time all afternoon, finally showing some stress.  He removes his hat.  He wipes his brow.  He paces around the mound, pausing to gaze at the outfielders, and the fans beyond. Yogi shouts some encouragement.

Larsen stops pacing, and climbs the mound. Deep breath. Toeing the rubber, he looks in to Yogi.  Switching speed again.  Another curve.  A nasty one.  But Mitchell is tough, and he fouls it off. Still ONE BALL and TWO STRIKES.


The Batters Eye.

Have you ever been to, or watched, a baseball game and wondered why there are no seats in straight-away centerfield?  Or, if there are seats, they are covered with a dark tarpaulin?

It’s been a well-accepted fact since the 1890s that batters can see a pitched ball better, and sooner, if the background behind the pitcher is a flat, consistent, simple dark color.  Today, post about 1960, all ball parks have the “batters eye.”

But this was not always the case. Nor was it so in Yankees Stadium on this day, October 8, 1956.

Game 5, 1956 World Series. No Batters Eye in Center Field. Lots of white shirts. Copyright Frank Hurley.

I’ve reviewed old pictures, and it appears that it was customary to remove the batters eye when there were large crowds, and uncover the centerfield seats.

It’s well known that enough fans in the batters eye would don white shirts when the visitors were batting, and dark shirts when the home team was batting, to give the latter an unfair advantage.

Photos show that, across town, in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Dodgers used the same tactic during the Series.  One wonders why there weren’t more no hitters – and Perfect Games – in those days.

Fifth Pitch (the Final Pitch):

As Larsen waited for a new ball (the previous pitch was fouled off), the outfielders moved a few steps to their right, toward left field. A pretty good indication a fast ball is coming.

Mitchell is wise, catches the small shift, and suspects the fade fastball — the one that runs away from him is coming.  He is correct.  It is the fade fastball.

At this point history diverges.  There are many different assessments as to what truly happened.

According to Mitchell – and several of Larsen’s Yankee teammates in the field – the pitch was higher and probably more outside than any other pitch called a strike that day.

Video shows that Mitchell started to swing, but checked up, stopping short of committing.

Umpire Babe Pinelli was working his last game ever behind the plate at the end of a 21-year major league career.  What a way to go out – as the umpire who called a perfect game in the World Series.

He was not going to miss this opportunity.

Up went his right hand.  Out came some words that sounded like “Strike Three! YER OUT!!”

Some say Mitchell did not check his swing. Other say it was a poor strike three call. Others, that it was a good call.  The record books say it was a called strike three.

Catcher Berra, who, from the only surviving video, was likely already halfway up out of his crouch to catch the high pitch, jumped up and ran to hug Larsen.

Yogi Berra jumps into Don Larsen’s arms moments after the Perfect Game

Mitchell turned to protest the call, but Pinelli was already gone!

Larsen, Mitchell and Pinelli are all answers to famous baseball trivia questions.  Larsen is the unlikely hero.  Mitchell (and many say Pinelli too) is the goat.

I’ve watched the video a few times and it’s just too grainy.  And the film frame rate is wrong, so it seems to be going too fast.  Also it’s from an unfamiliar angle: from up high and not quite directly behind home plate.

But I’m going with what some Yankees on the field said, as well as Mr “Contact-Hitter-Who-Almost-Never Strikes-Out” Mitchell said himself. That pitch should probably have been called a ball. He should have been able to see at least one more pitch.

From experience I can say that (1) yes, umpires make mistakes; and (2) sometimes they can also get caught up in the moment.

The umpire is always right.  So … on October 8, 1956 Don Larson threw the only No-Hitter – and Perfect Game – in World Series history.

Box Score, Game 5, 1956 World Series — the Perfect Game

Larsen and Mitchell afterward.

Don Larsen enjoyed his life of celebrity … even as his career faded into less than mediocrity.  He’d always been known as sort of a funny and fun-loving guy, willing to tip a glass and break team curfew. He even ended up pitching with the Chicago Cubs in one of their truly horrible years.

Larsen was also a military veteran, giving up two years in the prime of life, to serve in the Army during the Korean War.

Later in life he tried his hand at several careers, from liquor to paper peddling. Evidence and stories suggest he was not very successful.

Of all coincidences, Larsen was in attendance at David Cohn’s Perfect Game for the Yankees, in 1999, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to – of all people – Yogi Berra.

Still among the living, Larsen recently sold his Perfect Game uniform to help pay for his grandchildren’s college educations.


Mitchell invested almost all his playoff and bonus earnings during his professional baseball career into Oklahoma real estate near his home town.  After his ball career he developed these holdings into a successful oil and gas business.

His success drew the attention of Martin-Marietta, and he was recruited to be VP and run their concrete division.  He retired from there in 1985 to live in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The University of Oklahoma opened a new baseball park in 1982, named for Mitchell: the L. Dale Mitchell Baseball Park.

He remains the all-time batting average champion for the University of Oklahoma, and was enshrined in the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.

He maintained his “innocence” on that final pitch until his death.  He refused all interviews and media orchestrated “truce” reunions with Larsen for years afterward. “I ain’t going to talk about a fake strike out.”

Mitchell passed away in January, 1987 – aged only 65 – of a heart attack.

Baseball is America’s Game, and I wish it could bring us together again.

Joe Girard © 2017

[Feel free to comment below or Email Joe.]

[1] actually these strikeouts and walk rates are per nine innings pitched

Other stuff

  • Although this was the last At Bat in Game 5, Mitchell had one more at bat in the deciding Game 7.  He made an out and the Yankees also won that game. Mitchell retired after the 1956 season.
  • Pinelli umpired two more games — games 6 and 7 of the Series — but not behind home plate.  He then retired.
  • October 8 is also the day the Great Chicago Fire started (1871), as well as many other horrific fires across the Midwest.  In Peshtigo, Wisconsin up to 2,500 died.
  • Let’s give Larsen his due respect.  On that Dodgers team was Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Roy Campenella, Jim Gilliam.  A great line up … and all had a good year in 1956.
  • Jackie Robinson also retired after the 1956 season.