The improbable story of Baseball's only World Series no-hitter

Drawing upon oral histories, contemporaneous articles, and dozens of interviews with commentators and players (including all of the surviving players for the Dodgers and Yankees), Lew Paper brings that extraordinary event to life with a pitch-by-pitch narrative that incorporates profiles of the 19 players who were on the field that day, including Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Roy Campanella.  You will understand their backgrounds, their hopes, and their heartaches – and, most important, share the incredible tension they experienced on that unforgettable day in Yankee Stadium.

More than just a story about a single game, Perfect is a window into baseball’s glorious past.

Praise for PERFECT

October 2010 USA TODAY
USA Today


December 2009
December 2009

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The day everything went right

By Dave Sheinin
October 25, 2009

On the afternoon of Oct. 8, 1956, in the fifth game of the World Series, New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen faced 27 Brooklyn Dodgers hitters and retired them all, a perfect game. Fifty-three years later, it remains the greatest individual performance in baseball history. In fact, it would be hard to come up with another that even comes close, considering the championship stakes and Larsen's flawlessness that day.

Though familiar to all baseball fans -- in the sepia-toned way our brains file away significant events of yesteryear -- Larsen's perfect game, still the only no-hitter in playoff history, was almost criminally underappreciated, as well as untapped for literary exploration. Part of that, undoubtedly, was due to Larsen's sheer and astounding ordinariness -- past, present and future: Two years before the perfect game, he had lost a league-leading 21 games. Just three days before taking the mound, he was pounded in a 13-8 loss in Game 2. And he spent the rest of his career as a journeyman, changing teams six times and retiring in 1967 with a losing career record of 81-91. But it is precisely that ordinariness that makes the story of Larsen and his perfect game so fascinating: He, and it, embody the fleeting mystery of baseball -- how even the greatest sluggers look helpless far more often than they deliver greatness, and how the gift of excellence can visit even the most humble of players at any given moment.

The story of Larsen and his legendary afternoon was hanging out there, like a juicy curve ball, for somebody to smash out of the park, and Lew Paper, a Washington lawyer and author, has done exactly that with "Perfect." Just because you know of Larsen's perfect game doesn't mean you know it, as Paper demonstrates. Did you realize, for example, that no fewer than seven future Hall of Famers, including Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle, played in that game -- and that it was called on television by a Hall of Fame broadcaster, Vin Scully?

As there is only so much one can write about a game that lasted just two hours, six minutes, Paper's book is more about the individual players than about the game itself, and in both endeavors he was aided by the fact that six of the 19 men who played in the game are still alive, including both Larsen and his famous catcher, Yogi Berra. "An appreciation of Larsen's performance," Paper writes, "requires an understanding of the other players who were on the field that day: their backgrounds, their skills, their hopes and fears."

At first, this premise seems questionable, and the literary device Paper uses -- alternating detailed descriptions of the action on the field with mini-bios of each player, roughly one per chapter -- seems distracting, even annoying. You yearn to flip past the life and times of, say, Dodgers right fielder Carl Furillo to get back to the inning-by-inning drama of the game itself. (Incidentally, and quite curiously, the chapter on Larsen is among the shortest in the book.) But, eventually, the rhythm of the story takes hold, and the alternation of mini-bio and game retelling becomes an asset. For example, a story about Billy Martin, the Yankees' second baseman, fielding hundreds of grounders during a tryout 10 years earlier adds texture to the game detail that follows, as Martin handles a pair of grounders flawlessly in the top of the fourth inning.

The game story contains countless moments of discovery and awe, nuggets that only dozens of viewings of a tape of the game could have unearthed. "Now, with the right side of the field encased in shadows created by the towering façade of Yankee Stadium . . ." Paper writes, and anyone who follows baseball immediately recognizes the added dimension of difficulty the hitter faces in such situations.

One wishes Paper had done more to put the game in the context of its turbulent times. The well-worn story of Robinson's breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947, for example, is rehashed here, but there is little discussion of the state of race relations in the game a decade later. Similarly, the final chapter, with its tally of players getting released or traded in the ensuing years, reminds us of the heartless way athletes used to be treated, but we learn next to nothing of the similarly cold circumstances that caused the Dodgers to leave Brooklyn for Los Angeles just one year later.

Instead, Paper stays true to the book's title, producing a fitting testament both to a singular performance and its cast of characters. He was half-right: An "understanding" of the other men on the field that day isn't a requirement for appreciating Larsen's gem, but it makes for a heck of a story.

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The Boys of Autumn

World Series heroics in the days before steroids and the long postseason

October 17, 2009

Almost 32 years ago to the day—on Oct. 18, 1977—I stood in the runway behind home plate at Yankee Stadium, reporter's notebook in hand, when Reggie Jackson hit his third home run in the sixth game of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was the game that won the championship for the Yankees, but my assignment was not to chronicle what turned out to be a memorable night of baseball. Instead, my job was to report on the celebration outside the Bronx ballpark in case it got out of hand (it did).

Baseball writing back then was already turning into a search for news beyond the ballfields and locker rooms, when just a few years earlier it had been focused almost exclusively on the game and the inspiration it could offer. The trend only accelerated with the arrival of the steroid era. As the latest World Series nears, fans might welcome. . . baseball books that step back to the days when—for better or worse—we did think of these guys as heroes, and of the game as American as, well, apple pie.

There have been more World Series since 1912 that deserve the "classic" label, but only one postseason game can be called perfect: Yankee pitcher Don Larsen's no hits, no walks, no errors jewel on Oct. 8, 1956, against the Brooklyn Dodgers. In "Perfect," Lew Paper recounts the game through the eyes of the 19 players who saw action that afternoon at Yankee Stadium, basing his story on interviews with surviving players, sportswriters and family members. Mr. Larsen's feat was not just the first (and still the only) World Series no-hitter; it was also baseball's first perfect game since the Roaring '20s. It had been such a long time since anyone had thrown a perfect game that Mr. Larsen didn't even know there was such a term for retiring all 27 opposing batters in a row.

Mr. Paper is not a sportswriter— and it shows. He repeatedly mentions the Dodgers blowing a "sixteen-and-a-halfgame lead" to the Giants in 1951, forcing a one-game playoff for the National League pennant. As someone who (cleverly, I thought) gave 3-1 odds when the Dodgers had their maximum lead of 13½ games, I know the 13½ figure as surely as I know it was 3:50 p.m. when the Giants' Bobby Thomson ended my boyish dreams with his "shot heard round the world," the ninth-inning playoff homer that beat the Dodgers.

Yet the author has succeeded in getting under the skin of the players, juxtaposing their stories with key moments—as when Brooklyn's Gil Hodges comes to the plate in the eighth inning and we get a dozen pages of his biography, presenting a vivid portrait of a decent man and a sterling ballplayer, before we finally see him lining out to third base.

Somehow, it all works. Mr. Paper is especially good at capturing poignant storylines, which often came from interviews with surviving spouses and children about the family's baseball life. Particularly affecting are the sections describing the Dodgers' Dale Mitchell (who made the perfecto's last out) and his drinking problems, and Mickey Mantle's later battle with cancer. Seven of the players that day wound up in the Hall of Fame, but not Mr. Larsen, who—despite his World Series heroics—had a career losing record. The day after the game, the New York Daily News summed it up neatly: "The imperfect man pitched a perfect game." Mr. Paper says that Mr. Larsen has been glad, during the intervening years, to recount the game for fans he meets in airports and at memorabilia shows. "It makes me happy," Mr. Larsen tells the author. "I only wish I had a buck for everyone who tells me they were at the game."

Read the review online at Esquire
Atomic Baseball: Book Review

A historian breaks down Don Larsen's nine legendary innings into their smallest elements, then makes them whole again

By Chuck Klosterman
September 29, 2009, 11:30 AM

Most of the time, the process of examining historical events revolves around taking a mammoth, multifaceted issue and reducing it to its simplest, least-complicated thesis. (This, after all, is why we have the Internet.) But the best historians do the opposite: They take something small and make it vast. The process tends to work especially well with national tragedies (most notably Josiah Thompson's JFK-conspiracy investigation Six Seconds in Dallas), metaphorical culture landmarks (like Greil Marcus's recent 304-page analysis of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"), and the inner world of sport (such as Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto's underrated tome Forty-Eight Minutes, a possession-by-possession account of a 1987 Celtics-Cavaliers game). Prepare to place the work of Lew Paper into that third category. Paper's just-released Perfect: Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen (NAL, $25) is as deep as any man can go into a baseball game that lasted only two hours and six minutes.

What has always made Larsen's 1956 World Series perfect game so memorable is that it seems to exist separate from the rest of baseball lore — at first glance, it doesn't appear to have much meaning outside itself. Larsen was an extremely average pitcher, and sometimes less than average. (As a Baltimore Oriole in 1954, he somehow managed to go 3-21 as a starter.) Were it not for this one game, he'd mainly be remembered for how much booze he consumed on Broadway. But Paper's book feels meaningful. The author's interest lies in the game around Larsen — he is, ultimately, a minor character in his own story. Nineteen players touched the field of Yankee Stadium that afternoon; seven ended up in the Hall of Fame. This book is about them as much as it is about the man on the mound.

At times, Perfect is not propulsive reading — Paper spends 13 pages on a single pitch (the game's final toss, a high strike to Dodger pinch hitter Dale Mitchell). But if you love baseball, you're probably not looking for propulsion; you probably like things slow and deliberate and exact. That's what this book is. Almost every chapter feels like its own biography. For example, Paper alludes to Mickey Mantle casually standing in center field in the top of the fifth, moments before making the most important catch of his career. But then he takes the reader back... and I mean all the way back — not just to the 461-foot center-field wall, but to Mantle's formative life in Depression-era Oklahoma, where the Mick was still wetting his bed as a neurotic 16-year-old. His insights on the likes of Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Billy Martin are complete, objective, and — perhaps most important — baseball-centric. What Paper loves is the game itself; if you want a salacious, gossipy examination of baseball's Golden Era, this is not the book to buy. But if you want to live inside the most famous statistical afternoon in baseball history, Perfect is... well, let's just say "ideal."

'Perfect' book to read with baseball playoffs near

More than 600 World Series games have been played in the century-plus history of the Fall Classic. That means better than 1,200 starting pitchers have taken the mound on the sport's biggest stage, including many of the game's all-time greats.

In all those years, though, only one man — a so-so pitcher with a losing record in the major leagues — has been perfect.

Don Larsen of the New York Yankees retired all 27 batters he faced on Oct. 8, 1956, in the greatest single pitching performance in the history of baseball's championship series.

And just in time for the 2009 postseason to begin, Lew Paper, an author, lawyer and unabashed fan of America's pastime, gives us "Perfect," a meticulously researched, pitch-by-pitch account of Larsen's perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers in front of 64,519 fans at Yankee Stadium.

Paper covers everything that happened between the lines that day in great detail, but where "Perfect" differs from competing accounts is the time he spends examining the lives — on and off the field — of Larsen and the other 18 players who had a hand in making baseball history that day.

Relying on interviews with every living player who appeared in the game, family members, fans and commentators, Paper provides 19 mini-biographies and does it in an inventive way.

Each chapter represents a half-inning of the game.

Larsen is the subject of the top of the first, the bottom of the inning belongs to Dodgers pitcher Sal Maglie and so on. By the end, Hall of Famers Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Pee Wee Reese all get their due.

We find out how:

— many of the players served their country during World War II, including Brooklyn right fielder Carl Furillo, who was wounded in a Japanese mortar attack.

— some had to take odd jobs during the offseason to support their families.

— Brooklyn third baseman Jackie Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella and second baseman Jim Gilliam dealt with being among the first (and in Robinson's case THE first) — African-Americans to play in the major leagues.

There's also a compelling look at Dale Mitchell, who pinch-hit for Maglie in the top of the ninth with two outs.

Mitchell, who grew up poor in Depression-era Oklahoma only to rise to the majors, watched a called third strike to end the game.

It was, Paper writes, "a black mark that forever plagued" Mitchell.

Despite hitting an impressive .312 over 11 seasons with the Cleveland Indians and Brooklyn Dodgers, he was best remembered by many at the time of his death in 1987 as the man to make the final out in Larsen's perfect game.

And, of course, an appropriate number of pages are devoted to Larsen, the unfortunately nicknamed "Gooney Bird," who was an "otherwise mediocre" player who achieved "an immortality that has eluded baseball's most illustrious pitchers."

Baseball purists and non-fans alike will find a lot to enjoy in "Perfect," a home run of a look back at Larsen's gem, the golden age of baseball and the men who made the game great.

Mike Householder , Associated Press

Pre-Publication Praise

This gem of a story brilliantly recreates one of the greatest moments in baseball history by interweaving the intense drama of the game with superb portraits of the key players who shared in the historic moment.  Perfect captures our hearts as it carries us back to the golden age of baseball and the more innocent world of the 1950s. Though it was a sad day for me as a Dodger fan, I am now mature enough to read and savor this wonderful account.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Wait Till Next Year

If you think you know all there is to know about Don Larsen’s perfect game, think again. In Perfect, the true story of that historic game and the men who played it is revealed in all its imperfect glory. The Dodgers couldn’t come through against Larsen, but with this charming, meticulously researched book, Lew Paper has connected for a resounding hit.”

Jonathan Eig, author of The Luckiest Man:  The Life and Times of Lou Gehrig, and Opening Day:  The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season

Lew Paper does something more than give you fresh details about Don Larsen’s perfect game.   He uses the game as a backdrop to tell you about the players who were there, and by the end of the book you will know each of them as a friend.  Special game   . . . . Special players. . . . Special book   . . . . I couldn’t put it down, and neither will you.”

Joe Garagiola, former Major League baseball player, Baseball Hall of Fame broadcaster, and author of Baseball is a Funny Game

It’s an extraordinary book with a startling approach.  A fascinating pitch-by-pitch detail of the most famous game in World Series history with individual bios of the nineteen players in the game that give a penetrating picture of what major-league baseball and major-league baseball players were like in the game’s great Golden Age, the glorious middle of the Twentieth Century.” 

Robert W. Creamer, author of Babe:  The Legend Comes to Life and Stengel:  His Life and Times

So you think you know everything about Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series . . . . not until you have read Lew Paper's classic.” 

Tim McCarver, Former Major League Catcher and Fox Sports Broadcaster

Lew Paper masterfully captures the thoughts of ‘Gooney Bird,’ the supporting cast of players, and Don Larsen ‘s World Series masterpiece.  Perfect jumps out from that Fall afternoon in Yankee Stadium to you in your comfy old rocking chair.  It's real life.  Whatta writer!”   

Tony Kubek, former New York Yankee shortstop (1957-65), NBC Broadcaster, and Co-author of Sixty-One

A terrific book.  Don Larsen’s perfect game was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events for those of us lucky enough to witness it.  Lew Paper takes us behind the scenes and allows us to get to know all the participants.”

– Peter Golenbock, author of Dynasty:  The New York Yankees 1949-1964 and Bums:  An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers

A memorable book about baseball's most memorable game and the men who played it.” 

Michael Shapiro, author of Bottom of the Ninth and The Last Good Season

Author Lew Paper

Lew PaperLew Paper is the author of five books: Perfect: Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen, John F. Kennedy: The Promise and the Performance, Brandeis: An Intimate Biography, Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS and Deadly Risks (a novel). His book reviews and articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic. Read more...