October 8, 1956. Fifty years ago.
During a break from our studies at Detroit’s Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, a couple of my ninth-grade classmates raced with me to a nearby gas station where we knew the radio would be on and the volume turned high.
It was the fifth game of the World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. Each team had won two games. Don Larsen, 27, who hadn’t lasted through the second inning of Game Two, was pitching for the Yankees.
Sal Maglie, a 39-year-old veteran, was going for the Dodgers. The odds favored the latter, who posted a 13-6 record during the 1956 season along with a nifty 2.89 ERA. It was the seventh straight winning season for Maglie, who up to that point had compiled 108 career regular season victories against only 49 losses. Larsen’s career record was a less-than-mediocre 30-40.
We were back in our yeshiva classroom as Maglie and Larsen were hooked up in a scoreless duel in the fourth inning. I was the lone yeshiva representative at the gas station at the next break. The attendants were huddled around the radio. It looked like something important happened. I soon learned that nothing of importance had happened for the Dodgers.
It was the top of the ninth inning and not one single Brooklyn batter had reached first base. A few minutes later, Larsen struck out the last Dodger he faced. He’d pitched a perfect gamein the World Series! It had never been done before (nor has it been done since). The Yankees had two runs on five hits, the Dodgers all zeroes. Neither team had committed an error.
I ran back to the yeshiva and headed to the classroom. I encountered my rebbe in the hallway with barely a minute to spare. I paused to let him enter the classroom first. He stopped in his tracks and asked, “Who won the game?”
“The Yankees,” I responded. “Larsen pitched a perfect game.”
He responded by slapping me across the face. (Teachers in most Jewish schools in those days could do that if they thought a student was being disrespectful.)
“Don’t lie,” the rebbe said, wagging his finger at me.
I sat quietly in my seat for the rest of the afternoon, having decided not to take a chance sharing the historic news with my friends.
Years later, when I reminded my former rebbe of the events of that day and his reaction, he chuckled and said, “Would you believe me if I told you Larsen pitched a perfect game?”
From that point on, whenever we found ourselves together and in the company of someone who liked sports, my old rebbe would say to me, “Tell him the Larsen story.”
A couple of decades later, while I was working in the field of major league baseball, I found out more about the Larsen story.
I was schmoozing with United Press International baseball writer Milt Richman prior to an Old Timer’s Game at Yankee Stadium in the late 1970’s. Richman, a native of the Bronx, took a liking to the old lowly St. Louis Browns team as a teen in the 1930’s. (The Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles.)
Milt and his brother, Art, often hung around the visiting team’s clubhouse waiting for autographs. At times, the brothers even greeted the Browns when the team arrived at the train station before checking into their New York hotel.
As a writer in the 1950’s, Richman forged a friendship with Don Larsen when the latter began his career with the Browns. Richman would invite the pitcher to his parents’ home on Tremont Avenue, about a mile from Yankee Stadium. Larsen enjoyed Momma Richman’s Jewish cuisine, the homey atmosphere and the pleasant company.
While with the Yankees in 1956, Larsen lived at the Grand Concourse Hotel, which loomed above and beyond the right-centerfield bleachers of Yankee Stadium, and was a frequent dinner guest at the Richman home.
The night before Larsen made history, he shared a cab from Manhattan to the Bronx with Milt Richman and told the writer to expect a no-hitter. Larsen punctuated his prediction by pulling out a dollar and instructing Richman to give it to his mother, with the instruction that she was to donate it to her synagogue.