Kallas Remarks By Steve Kallas
It was a fascinating time this past Thursday at B.B. King’s Restaurant in Times Square in New York City as they screened, for only the second time in 50 years according to the promoters, the sole remaining footage of Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. Not for sale anywhere, this was a rare gem for any baseball fan to watch.
With the first of five reels from the game still missing, the film actually starts in the top of the second with one out and Gil Hodges at the plate. What follows here are some thoughts on watching the greatest-pitched game in baseball history (if you want to dispute that, go ahead – but there has never been a perfect game pitched in a bigger spot than the World Series). Indeed, legendary (and Hall of Famer) broadcaster Bob Wolff, who actually did the game on radio on October 8, 1956, was present at the showing and told Jonathan Lehman of the New York Post that “This is number one. From a standpoint of individual performance, Larsen is the best I’ve ever seen.”
What strikes you first is the simplicity yet completeness of the broadcast. While the only view of the pitcher was from behind home plate, there were never, EVER graphics to clog up the screen during play. It would be great for some of today’s “TV guys” to watch these old games because, while, today, there is a great desire to appeal to the non-baseball fan, to somehow (in the minds of the TV “experts”) make it more interesting by adding bells and whistles and moving things and colorful things and graph after graph after meaningless graph, etc., the game’s the thing (then, and it still should be now).
What you notice early on is that umpire Babe Pinelli, calling his last major league game, called a number of what seemed to be outside strikes against both teams. There are numerous instances of players stepping out of the box to complain to Pinelli, presumably that the pitch just called a strike was outside. This, of course, puts into context the final pitch of the perfect game (a called strike three on pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell) which many still feel was a ball outside. When you watch the game, you won’t be surprised that this final pitch was called a strike (of course, Larsen was pitching a perfect game as well so you’d expect him to get the benefit of the doubt from Pinelli).
But there are a number of other fascinating things that happened during the game. In the fourth inning, for instance, after missing twice outside to the dangerous lefty hitter Duke Snider, Larsen came inside and Snider hit a moon shot into the upper deck in Yankee Stadium that was foul by what seemed to be about five feet or so. In the next inning, Sandy Amoros (who had made the World Series-saving catch the prior year against the Yankees) also hit a foul home run described as missing by “inches” by legendary broadcaster Mel Allen. Either one of those shots could have changed, not just the perfect game, but the complexion of the World Series (they were wrapped around Mickey Mantle’s fourth inning home run off the very tough Sal Maglie which gave the Yankeesa a 1-0 lead).
There were some great defensive plays on both sides. The best, not shown in this film (it happened in the at-bat before Hodges in the second), was a line drive by Jackie Robinson off the glove of third baseman Andy Carey and picked up by shortstop Gil McDougald who threw to first to just get Jackie (I’ve seen this play somewhere else, so film of it does exist). There was the excellent running catch by Mickey Mantle in the fifth off a Gil Hodges rocket to left-center. Hodges would also line out hard to Andy Carey in the eighth. McDougald made a fine play in the hole to throw out Junior Gilliam in the seventh. Frankly, most of these plays have been lost to history until this film was uncovered (bought at a flea market in 1990 and now owned by Rare Sportsfilms).
For the Dodgers, shortstop Pee Wee Reese made a fine running catch of a Yogi Berra bloop down the left field line in the bottom of the second. In center, Duke Snider made an even better catch off a ball hit by Berra in the fifth, charging a ball that looked like it was down (of course, no replays were shown in this game – you saw the play once and that was it). All of this was in support of an excellent game pitched by Sal Maglie, who gave up five hits and two runs (both earned) in a stellar complete-game pitching performance against the tough Yankee lineup. We’ve heard over the years what a nasty curveball Maglie had and there’s ample evidence of that in this game as he struck out five and had the Yankees off balance and sometimes bailing out for most of the game.
Other little tidbits include: Hank Bauer stood so close to home plate while Maglie was warming up for the bottom of the fourth that he (Bauer) had to back away when Maglie threw an inside warm-up pitch (it didn’t look intentional but who knows with Sal “The Barber” Maglie). Later-to-be star catcher Elston Howard actually warmed up Larsen before the top of the fifth. Today, you would never see a hitter that close to home during warm-ups and you would never see an actual player (future MVP or not) warm up a pitcher before an inning.
Also, in the sixth inning with Mantle up, first and third and one out, broadcaster Vin Scully reminded the audience that there’s “always a possibility of a squeeze play” with Mantle up – think how the game has changed when an announcer refers to the reigning Triple Crown winner as a guy who might bunt (yes, Mantle was a great bunter but you can barely get the eight or nine hitter to bunt today). Interestingly, Mantle, who had hit a home run in his prior at bat, pulled the ball down the first-base line where the great Gil Hodges fielded it, stepped on first and started an unusual 3-2-5-2-5 double play (yes, I kept score).
Of course, to get back to today’s TV coverage, you would never see a player before his at-bat to start an inning (like Bauer) or a catcher warming up a pitcher before an inning (like Howard) because the networks would be in commercial In fact, today you hope they don’t miss the first pitch of the actual inning getting back late from another commercial. Indeed, Gillette, the sponsor for the game in 1956, actually had a couple of commercials on the screen where you could still see the pitcher throwing his warm-ups and the infielders taking their practice throws before the inning would begin. What a concept! Maybe someone will copy that idea today (good luck waiting for that).
And let’s not forget those great announcers. Mel Allen, who was the Yankee broadcaster for decades, did the first half of the game. Vin Scully, the Fordham graduate who started with the Brooklyn Dodgers, moved to Los Angeles with them and is still doing Dodger games today (amazing), also was excellent in the second half of the game. The promoters, for the ninth inning, used Bob Wolff’s radio call for the conclusion. Wolff’s call is the famous “a no-hitter, a perfect game” for Don Larsen that you’ve heard for decades. It certainly remains fresh today. What was interesting, as Mr. Wolff discussed this past week, was how no announcer would actually say that Larsen was pitching a no-hitter or a perfect game. Vin Scully would say things like “Larsen has retired 15 men in a row” or “24 consecutive batters,” but that was as close as one would come in the superstitious world of baseball. In the ninth, Bob Wolff, on the radio side, talked about the amazing thing that was happening at Yankee Stadium but never uttered the actual words until after Larsen struck out pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell (the only substitute in the game for either side) to complete the impossible.
In the end, however, it was all about Don Larsen. Pitching with his new “no wind-up” motion (Bob Wolff was funny when he stated you always said, “‘Here’s the wind-up and the pitch,’ but on that day I couldn’t because there was no wind-up.”). This seemed to give Larsen better control and help keep the Dodgers off-balance. Larsen struck out seven in his masterpiece and four of the first five, in the first four innings, were called strike three by umpire Pinelli. His control was awesome and he only threw 97 pitches. His gem was perfectly unbelievable and unbelievably perfect. Go figure.
As they often say in baseball, the beauty of the game is that, when you watch a baseball game, you have a chance to see something that you’ve never seen before. Well, on October 8, 1956, Don Larsen gave the 64,519 (paid attendance) something that had never happened before in the World Series and probably will never happen again. Thankfully, there’s now most of the game for people to see how it really happened in the greatest game ever pitched – by the “imperfect” man, Don Larsen.