"Perfect: Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen" (New American Library, 432 pages, $24.95), by Lew Paper
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. 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," 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.