Larsen: 'I miss all my people'

World Series perfect game hurler guest speaker at Hayden chamber banquet

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Former New York Yankee pitcher Don Larsen, who has lived in a home on Hayden Lake for the past 18 years, talks about the perfect game he threw during the 1956 World Series.

HAYDEN LAKE - Don Larsen is one of the last American icons.

And the former New York Yankee pitcher - famous for the perfect game he hurled in the 1956 World Series against the fiercely rivaled Brooklyn Dodgers - knows that.

Gone is baseball's golden age of the 1950s, when American was thriving after World War II and the sport was the nation's pastime.

Gone with it are most of his teammates - names like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Hank Bauer. Opponents too, like famous Dodgers Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson have passed away.

Names etched in history.

"I miss all my people," Larsen said Saturday at the Hayden Chamber of Commerce awards banquet. "I miss that part of it very much because I respected my players. I worked hard for them and they worked hard for me, and the opponents were outstanding."

But the old right hander, 81 now, is content.

He just needs the spring to heat up so he can get back out on Hayden Lake and do what he loves to do, and that's fish.

"We need a break in some of this weather pretty soon," he said, making a casting motion with his big right hand. "So I can get out there."

The banquet at the Hayden Lake Country Club honored Hayden's outstanding performers for 2011, from business to art, human rights, education and community service. And Larsen reminded the crowd that though time passes and things change, the pride that comes from hard work and ethics endures.

"Do your best," he said. "And you'll come out on top."

Even when the road gets bumpy.

Larsen - for all his glory from the perfecto in Game 5 on Oct. 8, 1956 - was roughed up in Game 2 of the '56 series just days before. A perfect game is 27 batters up, and 27 batters down. No runs, no walks, no errors; nothing but outs.

But before taking the mound for that game - a game he said he wasn't sure he was going to start after his previous performance - he had to take a long look in the mirror.

In Game 2, he blew a 6-0 lead, and the boys in pinstripes ended up taking a 13- 6 drubbing.

Larsen thought he was bound for the bullpen after that - a purgatory of sorts for starting pitchers - but was given the nod to take the hill for the fifth game.

"I took a big gulp and said, 'Don't screw this one up,'" he said.

He didn't. And the lasting image is Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, a shrimp compared to Larsen's over 6-foot frame, jumping into Larsen's arms and clutching Larsen around the neck as the pitcher tries to walk off the mound, hugging him, the catcher's legs - like a child's - wrapped around the hurler's waist.

"I've got to get a picture with him," said Lee Smith, a longtime Hayden resident who played one year of minor league ball in the Arizona/Texas League against Larsen in 1949. "To prove I met him."

People snapped pictures with Larsen after the dinner, Smith included.

Smith even won an autograph of Larsen on a picture from the lasting game that his daughter had won in a raffle that night.

Does Smith, a catcher, remember facing Larsen back then? Oh yeah, he said. Did he get a hit off him?

That's not for him to say, he said, not now.

"I'm sure he has enough guys coming up to him saying they got a base hit off him," Smith said, without revealing the outcomes of the face-offs.

One year after the series the Dodgers, a hated but respected rival, moved west to Los Angeles.

And Larsen, who was traded from the Yankees to the Kansas City Athletics in 1959, ended up with 81 wins and 91 losses in his professional career.

Still, for one day he was the best. The perfect game has never been matched in World Series play. There was a no-hitter in the postseason last year by Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay, but nothing on the grand, grand stage.

"And he lives right here," said Kory Wilson, vice president of the Hayden chamber and who introduced Larsen, on the Indiana native's home.

As for the game today, Larsen worries, he said. Larsen gave his speech at a time when baseball home run king Barry Bonds is standing trial in San Francisco for perjury charges stemming from whether the former left fielder took steroids during his playing career.

Players were clean back then, and they looked out for each other because they were a family, said Larsen, who said the most money he ever made in a season was $20,000.

It was hard work, respect for the game, and devotion to teammates he credits for his achievement. And even though most all of his teammates - and opponents - are gone, there's the satisfaction he did everything the right way, to the best of his ability.

One day, above all others.

Now the only thing the old right-hander needs is the North Idaho weather to break.

A baseball signed by Don Larsen and Yogi Berra was won by Nancy Lowery.

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