NEW YORK -- Don Larsen, the journeyman pitcher who reached the heights of baseball glory when he pitched the only perfect game in World Series history in 1956 with the New York Yankees, died Wednesday, his representative, Andrew Levy, tweeted Wednesday night. He was 90.
Levy said the former pitcher died of esophageal cancer in hospice care in Hayden, Idaho. Levy said Larsen's son, Scott, confirmed the death.
Larsen was the unlikeliest of characters to attain what so many Hall of Famers couldn't pull off in the Fall Classic. He was 81-91 for his career, never won more than 11 games in a season and finished an unsightly 3-21 with Baltimore in 1954, the year before he was dealt to the Yankees as part of a 17-player trade.
In the 1956 World Series, won in seven games by the Yankees, he was knocked out in the second inning of Game 2 by the Brooklyn Dodgers and didn't think he would have another opportunity to pitch. But when he reached Yankee Stadium on the morning of Oct. 8, he found a baseball in his shoe, the signal from manager Casey 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."
The Dodgers and Yankees had split the first four games, and Stengel liked the deception of Larsen's no-windup delivery. The manager's instincts proved historically correct. The lanky right-hander struck out seven, needed just 97 pitches to tame the Dodgers and only once went to three balls on a batter -- against Pee Wee Reese in the first inning.
In winning 2-0, the Yankees themselves managed only five hits against the Dodgers' Sal Maglie but scored on Mickey Mantle's home run and an RBI single by Hank Bauer.
Larsen, selected MVP of the 1956 Series, had two close calls. In the second inning, Jackie Robinson hit a hard grounder that was deflected by third baseman Andy Carey to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw out Robinson. In the fifth, Mantle ran down a long drive to left-center field by Gil Hodges. With two outs in the ninth, pinch hitter Dale Mitchell took a third strike, completing the perfect game and sending catcher Yogi Berra dashing out from behind the plate to leap into Larsen's arms.
"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."
Their celebration remains one of baseball's most joyous images.
"Don's perfect game is a defining moment for our franchise, encapsulating a storied era of Yankees success and ranking among the greatest single-game performances in Major League Baseball history," the Yankees, who also tweeted about Larsen's death, said in a statement. "The unmitigated joy reflected in his embrace with Yogi Berra after the game's final out will forever hold a secure place in Yankees lore. It was the pinnacle of baseball success and a reminder of the incredible, unforgettable things that can take place on a baseball field."