Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Review - Perfect

Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series is one of the most iconic moments in the storied history of our national pastime. It is a feat that had never before been done and has not been done since. In Lew Paper’s wonderful book Perfect, we are transported back to that fateful October day in Yankee Stadium and dive deeply into the people and personalities at play during a game that would become immortal.

While reading Perfect, I kept thinking about the TV show LOST because so much of the book unfolds in flashback - to small towns in Oklahoma, hard scrabble homes in the midwest, and cramped apartments in big cities. These were men who came of age as children of the Depression, and who, through sheer will and determination, made it through that awful time to achieve great success. They were also soldiers, war heroes, husbands, fathers, and sons who Paper shows us in three dimensions. Jackie Robinson is of course a singular figure, and Paper tidily goes through his ascension to the major leagues as the first African-American player but I found the juxtaposition between Robinson and his teammate Roy Campanella even more compelling - the former was a social justice warrior who exhibited superhuman restraint against racists who taunted him, while the latter was more equanimous, having played in the Negro Leagues for many years and with a more convivial nature that allowed him to shrug off the slurs and epithets. 

And this context is important, be it to understand the uniqueness of Pee Wee Reese, a child of the South embracing Robinson when he came up to the majors, or the complicated experience of Mickey Mantle, a young man of prodigious talent who was seduced by fast living in New York. There are also lesser known players and stories, like Enos Slaughter, a lifelong Cardinal traded to the Yankees late in his career grousing decades later over the portrayal of an incident when he spiked Robinson that carried the whiff of racism and Dale Mitchell, who made the final out in the game and although he was a career .312 hitter who had played on a World Series champion in 1948, was forever defined by the called strike three (that most players acknowledged was a ball) that ended the game. 

And speaking of the game, it at times feels secondary to the narrative and that may be because the Yankees scratched out just five hits and two runs, one of which was a Mantle home run. Unlike the modern game, with its endless substitutions, shifts, pitching changes, and slow pace, Game Five took just over two hours, and both Larsen and his opposite number, Sal Maglie, pitched the entire game, and the only pinch hitter was Mitchell, who came to bat with two outs in the top of the ninth. To be sure, there were a couple of close calls, Robinson smacked a grounder into the hole between short and third in the top of the second that clipped the glove of Yankees third baseman Andy Carey before shortstop Gil McDougald corralled the ball and made a throw that beat Robinson by a half step, Duke Snider crushed a ball in the top of the fourth that would have been a home run had it not leaked foul by six inches and Gil Hodges smashed a ball to left center in the top of the fifth that Mantle caught just before it hit the ground, later describing the catch as the best of his career. 

The game is notable for other reasons too, like the fact that no less than seven future Hall of Famers played in the game (for the Yankees - Mantle, Berra, and Slaughter, for the Dodgers - Reese, Robinson, Snider, and Campanella, along with both team’s managers), but what Paper does so well is tease out connections to what still stands as a singular athletic achievement. There is the near-miss World Series no-hitter from 1947 - another Yankees vs. Dodgers match up - when journeyman Bill Bevens no-hit the Dodgers for 8 and 2/3 innings (he did allow a whopping ten walks) before his no-no was broken up by Cookie Lavagetto (the Dodgers ultimately won the game) and the presence of Sandy Amoros, whose catch in the sixth inning of Game Seven of the 1955 World Series helped secure Da Bums’ one and only world championship while they played in Brooklyn.

The 1956 World Series would also serve as a coda to both the players and the teams. Players like Berra, Reese, Robinson, and Campanella (who was paralyzed in a car accident a little over a year later) were reaching the end of their careers. New York’s place as the center of the baseball universe was coming to a close too. After battling each other seven times in the World Series between 1941 and 1956, the two teams would not again square off in the fall classic until 1977. The Dodgers were denied a third straight National League pennant in 1957 and moved to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. They were joined on the West Coast by the New York Giants, who went from the Bronx to San Francisco during that same off season. The Yankees would continue to dominate through the mid 1960s, winning the World Series in 1958, 1961, and 1962 and the AL pennant in 1960, 1963, and 1964, but even though New York added a second team in 1962 (the Mets), never again would three teams share one city or compete so aggressively for fans and titles. In that way, Larsen’s gem is a fitting exclamation point to this era of baseball and Paper’s book Perfect captures the moment beautifully.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

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