Forum Spin Doctor
LITTLE FALLS, N.J. - More than 50 years after etching his name in baseball's record books, Don Larsen finally got to see himself do it.
Along with a crowd of about 100 people Friday night that included former teammate Yogi Berra, the pitcher who owns the only perfect game in World Series history watched the television broadcast of the Oct. 8, 1956, game, courtesy of Illinois collector Doak Ewing.
Neither Larsen nor Berra had ever watched the original broadcast of the game, which was believed to have been lost until Ewing revealed a little more than a year ago that he had purchased a copy from an Oregon collector in the early 1990s.
"It ended the way I hoped it would," Larsen cracked after the game ended and the audience whooped and hollered as if seeing it for the first time.
The black-and-white telecast originally aired on NBC and featured few camera angles, fewer commercials and little of the production values that are ingrained in modern-day baseball telecasts. Legendary broadcaster Mel Allen called the game along with a young Vin Scully.
"The game was two hours, with the commercials," Berra said, adding, "I wish they did that now."
The 77-year-old Larsen watched himself shut down a Brooklyn Dodgers lineup that included Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and Carl Furillo, then strike out Dale Mitchell on a 1-and-2 count to end the game.
Larsen recalled how his teammates, cleaving to baseball superstition, refused to sit near him or talk to him in the final few innings.
"I didn't believe in superstition," he said. "I was more uncomfortable the last few innings because no one would talk to me or sit next to me. The only time I was happy was when I was on the mound."
Superstitions played a role off the field as well. Bob Wolff, who did the national radio call, said he didn't mention the perfect game for fear of meeting the same fate as announcer Red Barber in 1947, who repeatedly mentioned Floyd Bevens' unfolding no-hitter only to see it broken up in the late innings.
"Gillette was the sponsor and they had received a lot of letters and telegrams from people complaining," Wolff said. "Fear was my motivating factor; I wanted to work another World Series."
Other members of Friday's audience had their own stories. Paul Lioy's father got him out of school that day to go to the game but nearly caused him to miss the ending because he wanted to beat the traffic home.
"In the bottom of the seventh inning he looked at me and said, 'OK, it's time to leave,'" said Lioy, a professor at New Jersey's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "I said, 'But it's a perfect game! It's part of history!' Then two guys who were sitting in the row in front of us turned around and said to him, 'Hey, listen to the kid.' So we stayed."
Lioy's son, Jason, traveled from Pittsburgh to see Friday's broadcast, and neither he nor his father thought once of leaving early.
There were loud cheers when Mickey Mantle homered in the bottom of the fourth inning to give the Yankees the only run they would need, then ran down a liner by Gil Hodges; groans when Snider made a diving catch to rob Berra, and guffaws at Roy Campanella's wooden delivery of a promo for Gillette razors between innings.
Through it all, Larsen and Berra watched intently from different vantage points in the small auditorium.
"Whatever sign I put down, Don got it over," Berra marveled. "He pitched a hell of a game."
Larsen noticed himself on film reaching for the rosin bag more than he remembered in the later innings.
"I was very nervous out there," he said. "I was probably doing that routine to keep myself comfortable."
Roberta Ziemba of nearby Clifton was 16 when her father took her to Yankee Stadium to see Game 5. She brought her ticket stub from the game to show Berra.
"There was a man sitting in front of us, who turned around and said, 'I think you're going to see history today,'" she recalled. "It was so exciting; with every pitch at the end, you didn't want to move."