Larsen keeps rolling along with good times

July 27, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

When the telephone rings and the voice says, "Let the good times roll, baby doll," it's the distinctive calling card of Don Larsen, an uncomplicated, gentle man who has never made the mistake of being impressed with himself or the notoriety he achieved.

The first and only perfect game in the history of the World Series, truly an epic baseball achievement, is the sole property of this refreshingly, honest-to-a-fault individual who never let a team curfew stand in the way of a good time.

Larsen is visiting in Baltimore with one of his best friends, Frank Ferrari, a man he got to know when he was pitching for the Baltimore Orioles after the city re-joined the American League in 1954.

Actually, they met, as Larsen, an inveterate pinball player, rang up the machine in an establishment, no longer in existence, known as the Bandbox.

Two years later, Larsen authored his impeccable performance for the New York Yankees when he put away 27 straight Brooklyn Dodgers, striking out Dale Mitchell for the final out. Umpire Babe Pinelli made the call as Mitchell tried to check his swing and 64,519 witnesses in Yankee Stadium couldn't believe the reality of the scene that had unfolded in front of them.

On his return to Baltimore, Larsen, Ferrari and another compadre, Joe Wells, once a quality pitching prospect from Georgetown who signed with the Detroit Tigers, unlimbered their elbows and reveled in an round of story-telling at a leisurely spot called Woody's Inn.

In 1956, the Yankees were paying Larsen a salary of $12,000 as he helped pitch them to the pennant by delivering three straight four-hitters and a three-hitter. He was strong, athletic, a fast runner and respected batter who frequently would get the call to pinch-hit.

While an Oriole, with a record of 3-21 for a team that lost 100 games, he twice beat the Yankees, which is why they were receptive to trading for him in a deal involving a record 15 players. Larsen habitually stayed out late and the Orioles, for what is believed to be the only time in the 40 years of the franchise, assigned a detective to trail a player. But the report was rather innocuous.

General manager Arthur Ehlers learned Don's routine was to visit a piano bar, listen to the music, refresh himself and then battle the nearest pinball machine.

"I could have saved the Orioles' money," said Larsen. "They only had to ask. I'd have told them what I was doing. I couldn't sit in a room. I had to be out in the city with the bright lights."

You know, "Let the good times roll, baby doll."

The night before his World Series masterpiece, he went to dinner in New York at Billy Taylor's restaurant with sports writer Art Richman, now a Yankee official, and was in bed before midnight. He also gave Richman, while sharing a taxi, a donation for his synagogue.

Larsen, in facing the Dodgers, utilized an unconventional no-windup delivery he had first used in a late-season game against the Boston Red Sox.

"I remember Yogi Berra was hardly in a crouch before the ball was there," Larsen recalled. "It even surprised the umpire. The only one who knew about it was coach Jim Turner. He told me to do what made me comfortable."

The World Series performance created such excitement that Larsen was in demand for public appearances. His top payday was $7,500 for being in a skit on the Bob Hope Show. Larsen, though, quickly tired of the demands on his time and went home to San Diego.

He now lives amid what is generally agreed to be one of the most scenic panoramas in all of America, the town of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "We moved there because my wife liked the name," he jokes. "Our place overlooks Hayden Lake. If you like natural beauty, this is it."

Returning to baseball conversation, the game's tradition dictates that after a no-hitter the club awards the pitcher a $1,000 bonus.

"The Yankees said they'd 'take care of me later' but never did," he recalls. "I guess they felt the World Series share was enough. The 1957 contract they sent had a $1,500 raise but I finally got them to up the salary to $16,000."

Larsen decided he wanted to do something to mark the "perfect occasion" and, with Richman preparing a fitting inscription, went to the personal expense of having silver-plated plaques made for teammates, manager, coaches, trainers, equipment handlers, front office officials, umpires, league presidents and the commissioner to commemorate the deed.

As for occasionally coming home when the "birds were singing," he says experience taught him the second day, rather than the day after, is when the result of overindulgence may exact a toll.

While in Baltimore, Larsen asked about such ex-teammates with the Orioles and St. Louis Browns such as Billy Hunter, Dick Hall, Lou Sleater, Pete Taylor and general manager Hank Peters.

There was never anything petty or malicious to Don Larsen, which made him easy to like and admire. For right now, it's a glass of buttermilk for the road and, of course, "Let the good times roll, baby doll."

Larsen doesn't put it into words but realizes Dame Fortune inexplicably put her fickle arms around him for an embrace that translated into illustrious immortality.

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