Fifty years later, Larsen's life still close to perfect

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The medium rare steak and the Manhattan are on the way, a ballplayer's supper. Don Larsen, his hair whitened by 77 years of living, settles into his chair.

Another World Series has rolled around, hay-making time for a man whose entire reputation was forged one October afternoon. This year, he was in Iowa the day of the first game, going to a signing at his friend Bob Feller's museum in Van Meter. The stories are flying around the chophouse table, when Feller turns to Larsen and slaps him on the back.

"Fifty years ago," he says, "he became famous."

Yes, 50 years and 15 days ago, a journeyman stepped to the mound at Yankee Stadium against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Everyone knows what happened. The Daily News said it succinctly the next morning: "The imperfect man pitched a perfect game."

"That was the best thing that ever happened to me," Larsen says. "I think about it all the time. If I don't, somebody mentions it, especially this time of year. Not a day goes by I don't think about it."

Everything changed that afternoon. He washed away a career of mediocrity. All the days before didn't matter any more, and neither did the ones that came after. For baseball fans, and especially collectors, only one day in all of Larsen's 77 years really matters.

Larsen has two lives now. One is just two hours and six minutes long, and it's always 1956. Then there's his real life, in the present, on a lake in Idaho, fishing with his son and grandsons. It's made up of the 18,777 days since the one that changed his life, many of them good, some of them bad, a few of them approaching perfection.

Later, he sits in the lobby of a suburban Marriott, drinking a cup of coffee. The Texas Tech football team walks past, in town for a game, never looking twice at the white-haired gentleman. A woman asks if he's here for the football game. Then an older guy sees something in the weathered face and hooked nose.

"Don Larsen, right?" he drawls. "How are you? Congratulations on being alive to be remembered for 50 years."

"Thanks," Larsen says.

"I was in junior high school when you did that deal," the man tells him. "Everybody had radios."

Larsen looks up.

"Thanks," he says.

"That should happen to everybody"
He writes that famous date over and over again. His name and "PG 10-8-56" as many times as he can before his hand hurts. Collectors go crazy for them, especially if he and that game's catcher, Yogi Berra, are on something together.

"Yogi won't put the date," Larsen says. "He makes me do that."

The sessions are taxing. Sitting in a hotel suite last week, doing some extra signing before the show at Feller's museum, the weariness shows in his voice.

"Just a few more," says Scott Havick, general manager of Feller's museum.

"I thought you said 50," Larsen grumbles. "You're talking about one hundred and [expletive] 50."

Each item is slid in front of his face. One person mailed in a letterhead from a tractor dealership, wanting him to sign where you'd sign a piece of correspondence. He looks at it and shakes his head.

"What's this for?" he says.

"That was the best thing that ever happened to me. I think about it all the time. If I don't, somebody mentions it, especially this time of year. Not a day goes by I don't think about it."
-- Don Larsen

Then he sighs and writes his name. They paid their money. Next item.

"Just sign it or what?" he asks.

"If you could put your perfect game, that would be great," Havick says.

And on and on. This life began almost as soon as the game ended.

After the last out, he and his best friend hit the town. Larsen liked to party. His teammates called him "Gooney Bird." He was a bit more kind, nicknaming himself "Nightrider."

They hit a string of bars that night, ending up at his favorite joint. His friends had left a sign on his barstool, reserving it for him. He took his seat, king for a day. So, this was what it felt like to be Mickey Mantle?

"That night we got treated pretty good," he says, "but that's the only night."

The next morning, when his game was bigger news in the New York Times than Egypt and the Soviet Union clashing over the Suez Canal, those two hours were already part of baseball legend.

The buzz lasted for most of the offseason. He was on "The Bob Hope Show." He met movie stars. He got a little raise. It was the only offseason in his entire career he didn't work another job. Normally, he had bills to pay. He did everything: farms, lumber yards, post offices. For one glorious winter, he was a superstar.

"That should happen to everybody," he says.

Then, in spring training, he came back down to earth. Whatever had been clicking that magical afternoon, didn't again. Not ever.

"Of course not," he says. "You don't go out and try to do things like that in the first place."

Damn near perfect
It's a strange thing to be defined before you're 30. Larsen doesn't feel like his life stopped that afternoon in Yankee Stadium. It was a great day, not a dividing line. The past 50 years of his life haven't seemed all downhill.

"I did other things beside that," he says.

There have been nearly 20,000 more days, good and bad, dates from his career and from his life that will never be inscribed on a baseball but that mean as much to him.

There was Dec. 7, 1957. He married Corrine in her Minnesota hometown, and they've been together since. Almost 50 years.

There was Dec. 11, 1959. Not a good day. After two World Series rings, the Yankees were done with him, trading him to Kansas City for a slugger named Roger Maris.

There was Oct. 5, 1962, when his phone rang in a hotel room, telling him he was a father. A healthy baby named Scott was welcomed to the Larsen family. He was pitching in his last World Series that week, as a Giant, against the Yankees. That was a perfect day.

There was Oct. 8, 1966, the 10-year anniversary. He spent that season in the minors, riding buses around with a bunch of kids, hanging on, cashing checks. The next year, he worked his way back up. He lasted just four innings. His career was over, the final bullet coming in 1968 when a Double-A team in Texas let him go.

After 14 seasons, eight teams and one perfect game, Larsen was done. The newspapers carried little stories, and then he slipped from baseball's radar. Not that he minded. He had things to do. He had to find a job.

The family moved to San Jose, Calif., where he began a second career as a salesman for a paper company. He didn't advertise that he was the Don Larsen.

"I never told 'em, either," he says. "I figure if we didn't have a decent product, they wouldn't buy it anyway. But when they did find out, I got a lot of new accounts, and I grew with a lot of them. They started small, but they became pretty lucrative."

When he retired in 1993 after 24 years, the company gave him and Corrine a trip to San Francisco for the weekend. They stayed in a nice hotel, went out to eat at a Japanese restaurant. That trip was special.

It hasn't all been roses. Some days hurt. The car wreck in November 1995 could've killed them both. In August 2002, he sold the ball, cleats and glove from the perfect game. He said before the sale he expected $300,000 and wanted to start a college fund for his two grandsons. But these priceless pieces of himself went for a third of that, and he wishes he'd kept them in his third-floor memorabilia room.

"I probably shouldn't have even done it," he says.

Most days are good, though. It's wonderful anytime the family eats his trademark teriyaki beef. He slices a good cut real thin, makes a marinade from shoyu, sake and sugar. Uses an iron skillet, and if the sauce bubbles too much, he's got a bowl of ice cubes nearby. Just one will cool it down.

Then there was, say, Oct. 15, 2006. That day, like so many others, deserves to be written on a ball. Don, Scott and Justin Larsen went fishing. "We caught two nice trout," Scott says. "I caught 'em both. Dad just usually drives the boat. He just sits in his chair and watches everything."

Grandfather, father and son, together in the pontoon boat out on the lake. And you know what? It was damn near perfect.

"I can remember everything"
Larsen and Feller have done the five-minute tour of Van Meter, seen where Bob played his first baseball game. They pull up to the museum a little before 9 a.m., and people are already lined up.

"These cars are here waiting to see you," Feller says.

Larsen chuckles. Just before he sits down at the card table, Feller slips him an envelope. It's why he does this. Old ballplayers didn't make millions, and journeymen pitchers barely got by. Writing your name is a nice living.

"I'm gonna see you in Vegas," Feller says quietly. "I'm gonna see you in New York. And I hope to see you many times after that. Are we ready to sign stuff?"

It's 1956 again. People ask for confirmation of all those apocryphal details. They ask if Mantle really said "[Expletive] you" when Larsen tried to talk to him during the game. They ask him if he felt special warming up. Of course, he knows every answer. It's all in his mind, like it happened yesterday. He can still see himself walking into the clubhouse and finding a ball in his shoe; that's how he found out he was starting. He knows what time the first pitch was thrown.

"I can remember everything," he says.

Sometimes, though, he doesn't seem to feel like talking about it. Sometimes, when lines stretch to the door and he looks every one of his 77 years, he keeps the details to himself.

"Can you tell me what you remember about that day?" a fan asks as Larsen signs.

"Nope," he says. "My mind's blank."

Larsen looks at his watch. It's been about three hours. Soon, it's time to go. He walks into the freezing rain, bundling up in his windbreaker.

"That was the biggest day we've had in a long time," Havick says as they climb in a minivan.

"I'm tired," Larsen says. "My hands are tired."

Now he can rest, for a few days at least. He's opening a bank in Boise next week, then Florida and New York.

"Can't go fishing," he says.

At the airport, he finds his gate, takes the seat nearest the boarding ramp. A few others sit nearby. None of them turn to look at the old man with his elbows on his knees. None of them know that one afternoon long ago, he was perfect.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.