By now, you have likely heard the news of the passing of former big-league pitcher Don Larsen:
Don Larsen, an otherwise ordinary pitcher who achieved the extraordinary when he threw the only perfect game in World Series history, died on Wednesday in Hayden Lake, Idaho. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by Andrew Levy, his agent.
Larsen was the last living participant from that perfect game. Yogi Berra, who passed away in September 2015, was next-to-last.
The description of Larsen in that first sentence from the article linked above is accurate. Apart from his perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, to this day the only no-hitter in World Series play, he was pretty much “ordinary” as a big-league hurler. He posted three seasons above 2 bWAR, otherwise he was pretty much replacement level. In fact, he was traded five times and played for seven major-league teams, including the Chicago Cubs.
And Larsen’s brief time as a Cub is why you are reading this article. In fact, I was pretty amazed when searching for a photo of him to use here that there actually was one available of him in a Cubs uniform. The “background” information on that photo says it was taken of him warming up in the Cubs’ bullpen at Wrigley Field July 1, 1967. He didn’t pitch in that game, which the Cubs won 6-3 over the Reds. (And seriously, he looks a lot older than 37 in that photo.)
But here, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Larsen had been released by the Baltimore Orioles April 11, 1966, a day before that season opened. The Giants signed him and he pitched in 35 games (12 starts) for their Triple-A team, then in Phoenix, in 1966, posting decent numbers: 2.50 ERA, three complete games, one shutout. But the Giants never called him up, and he began 1967 still toiling in the minor leagues. There were a lot of players like this in the late 1960s. It’s one of the reasons MLB expanded in 1969, for the second time in a decade.
The Giants, according to the Chicago Tribune, put Larsen “on the trading block” May 18. He’d pitched in only six games for them that year, and was reported to have had some “elbow trouble.”
Six days later the Cubs were reported to have “signed” Larsen, so the Giants must have released him, though I can’t find any specific newspaper report of that from back then. The Cubs assigned him to their minor league squad in Dallas-Ft. Worth, then a Double-A team. Larsen was recalled July 1 and, per the Tribune, was “put right to work” in the bullpen, thus the photo. The Tribune report on his callup said he was “35 years old,” but Larsen had actually turned 37 in August 1966.
Larsen made three appearances as a Cub, all on the road. He entered in the bottom of the seventh July 3 in Atlanta with the Cubs leading 12-4. He loaded the bases on two singles and a walk, after which he was removed for Cal Koonce. Koonce induced a double play scoring one run. Another single scored a second run, both charged to Larsen.
He came in to pitch the last of the seventh again the next day in the first game of a doubleheader against the Braves, with the Cubs trailing 6-3. The first hitter he faced, Mack Jones, homered. A double by Hank Aaron and two ground outs scored a second run, after which Larsen finished off the inning with a fly ball. He then threw a 1-2-3 eighth.
Larsen’s third and final appearance for the Cubs (in fact, his last big-league game) came three days later in Houston. This time, the Cubs trailed 8-3 going into the bottom of the sixth. Larsen allowed a leadoff single, a sac bunt and a walk before getting out of the inning with a double play. He remained in the game in the seventh and struck out Ron Davis, his only K as a Cub, and retired the next two hitters for a two-inning scoreless outing.
It wasn’t enough for Leo Durocher and the Cubs. Tribune reporter George Langford wrote that Larsen had “been shaky and does not appear to have an effective big-league pitch.” He was right; five days later, one day before the season was about to resume from the All-Star break, Larsen was sent back to Dallas-Ft. Worth, where he remained for the rest of that season... and the next. At age 38, Larsen threw in 15 games in the Cubs system between Double-A and Triple-A in 1968, posting a 5.40 ERA and 1.650 WHIP, before retiring from baseball.
Why did a guy like this keep going in the minor leagues long after he was effective? An AP article that appeared in the Tribune a few days after the Cubs signed Larsen had the answer. Quoting Larsen:
I’ll pitch as long as my arm holds out. I would go on pitching in the minors even if I had all the money in the world. Baseball has been good to me and I’m staying with it as long as I can go.