Don Larsen, former Yankees pitcher who threw only World Series perfect game, dead at age 90

Don Larsen, a journeyman pitcher best remembered for throwing the only perfect game in World Series history as a member of the New York Yankees, has died, a spokesman announced late Wednesday. He was 90 years old.

"The world is less 'perfect' today," tweeted Larsen rep Andrew Levy. "Don Larsen, the only man to pitch a perfect game in World Series history, is gone. Goodbye, my friend. We will miss you!" Levy told the Associated Press that Larsen had died of esophageal cancer in Hayden, Idaho.

Larsen pitched for seven different teams during a 14-year career in the big leagues, compiling a record of 81 wins and 91 losses. In 1954, he went 3-21 while making 28 starts for the Baltimore Orioles, who had just moved east from St. Louis and been rechristened from the Browns.

But on Oct. 8, 1956, Larsen ensured his place in baseball immortality. Taking the mound for the Yankees in crucial Game 5 of the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Larsen outdueled Brooklyn starter Sal Maglie by retiring all 27 batters he faced. Larsen struck out seven Dodgers in the 2-0 Yankees win, throwing just 97 pitches and only going to three balls on a batter once.

The image of catcher Yogi Berra leaping into Larsen's arms after the final out is one of the most iconic in the sport's history.

Don Larsen embraces Yogi Berra after the final out of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. (Getty Images)

Don Larsen embraces Yogi Berra after the final out of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. (Getty Images)

"When Yogi Berra jumped on me and grabbed with the bear hug, my mind went completely blank," Larsen wrote in his autobiography. "I was under friendly attack ... I was swept into the dugout."

"We are devastated to hear of the loss of Don Larsen," the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center tweeted late Wednesday. "Don was an incredible teammate, friend, and man. In our eyes, he was perfect."

The Yankees won the 1956 World Series in seven games while Larsen, who had started Game 2 of the series but had been chased in the second inning in an eventual Yankees loss, was named MVP of the Fall Classic. He won a second title with New York in 1958. The following year, Larsen was traded to the Kansas City Athletics as part of a seven-player deal that netted the Yankees slugger Roger Maris.

Larsen also pitched for the Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants, Houston Colt .45s (now Astros) and Chicago Cubs before retiring following the 1967 season. He later worked as a liquor salesman and paper company executive.

More than four decades after his World Series perfect game, Larsen threw one more pitch to Berra from the Yankee Stadium mound. This time, Larsen threw a ceremonial first pitch to mark Yogi Berra Day on July 18, 1999. Yankees starter David Cone then took the mound and proceeded to throw a perfect game against the Montreal Expos.

Born Aug. 7, 1929, in Michigan City, Ind., Larsen moved with his family to San Diego, where he went to Point Loma High School, the alma mater of another perfect game pitcher, David Wells. Larsen played basketball and baseball and was signed by the St. Louis Browns for a $500 bonus and $150 a month.

Don Larsen tips his cap to the crowd at Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium in 2011.

Don Larsen tips his cap to the crowd at Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium in 2011. (Reuters)

After two minor league seasons, Larsen hurt his arm and then spent two years in the Army. He was promoted to the Browns in 1953 and moved with the team to Baltimore the following year. He struggled through his 3-21 season but two of the wins were against the Yankees, who insisted on Larsen's inclusion in the 18-player trade that also brought pitching star Bob Turley to New York.

Larsen started 1955 with the Yankees farm team in Denver, where he went 9-1 and developed the no-windup delivery. Promoted to the Yankees midway through the season, he finished 9-2 for New York. Larsen went 11-5 the next season and enjoyed the party atmosphere of the Yankees, often running with Mantle, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford in their late-night rounds of the city. On the night before his perfect game, he had been out on the town, believing he was not in manager Casey Stengel's plans for the next day.

But when he reached Yankee Stadium on the morning of Oct. 8, he found a baseball in his shoe, the signal from Stengel that he would start Game 5.

"I must admit I was shocked," Larsen wrote in his autobiography. "I knew I had to do better than the last time, keep the game close and somehow give our team a chance to win. Casey was betting on me, and I was determined not to let him down this time."

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Larsen pitched in three other World Series. He won Game 2 of the 1957 series against Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves but lost the decisive Game 7. He shut out the Braves 4-0 on six hits in Game 3 of the 1958 series, when New York beat Milwaukee 4-3, and was back in the 1962 matchup with the Giants. Pitching against the Yankees on Oct. 8, the sixth anniversary of his perfect game, he won in relief at Yankee Stadium.

No other pitcher has thrown a perfect game in the postseason, but in 2010 the Phillies’ Roy Halladay pitched a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds during the National League Division Series. “They can never break my record,” Larsen would say of his game. “The best they can do is tie it. October 8, 1956, was a mystical trip through fantasyland. Sometimes I still wonder whether it really all happened.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.