ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"That Day that Larsen Pitched that Perfect Game: Shapes of Philosophical History", part of a memoir by Daniel J. Sundahl

Mr. Jackels passed away late spring in 1956 leaving behind his wife and one child, a son, Curtis, who would turn ten that summer. Curtis had been born by some kind of miracle, or matrimonial miscalculation, since Mr. and Mrs. Jackels were on the far edge of that age when only people with no sense had more children. But there he was, that Curtis, dropped in as if from some place out of this world, and never felt any shortage of love, except that twisted wrong of losing his father when not quite ten.

Mr. Jackels’ farm was on the north side of town, just outside the city limits. He had been a good farmer with everything tended nicely, especially the outbuildings on the home place. Mr. Jackels had a good barn, but when he died Mrs. Jackels rented the land to other farmers and so the haymow to that good barn was empty save for a few straw bales.

Mrs. Jackels was sensitive to her son and so allowed a corner of that haymow to become a clubhouse for a bunch of those small town boys. She was a wise woman, merciful, and still quite beautiful, and would live a good life even though she must have known the time and distance she had left would be lived alone, and often hard, Sunday mornings especially when it was the usual habit for that small family to dress, have a large breakfast, and then go to town to church. And it’s likely mornings that spring, summer, and fall of 1956 she would rise alone from her bed, go to the kitchen, and look through the sheer curtains out into the farm yard where Sunday morning light would cantilever down through those American Elm leaves and she would wonder about all of those “what ifs,” mourning the life they had planned for each other, mornings….

Those boys had found a couple of abandoned couches, some over-stuffed chairs, a pedestal table, and a Philco radio. They rigged an antenna to a cross-beam in the haymow and pulled in some good stations, especially WCCO in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Likely it was impossible to imagine a better kind of world or why any fool would ever want any kind of better world, even if these days it’s now like some kind of dream that might return to me out of some long tongue-broken night of sleep, some clear voice out of memory.

On this day, though, that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game, eleven boys were in that haymow; the barn door had been slid off to the side and they were sitting in that open space in bright sunshine, legs dangling over the edge, looking south out and over the Minnesota prairie vista. None were old or wise but were capable of belief. None had yet grown empty-eyed or had learned yet to wave a match at cigarette and then inhale and then exhale, or show off smoke wafting in and out of the nostrils. On this day, though, that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game, the Philco radio droned in the background, WCCO...

There was Gary, same age as Curtis, son of the rural mail-carrier, a man by the name of Glen. And Howie, whose father owned the local granary, owned those big, whitéd sepulchers that mark the prairie lands and from which a few years later some other boys would climb one night to the top and creeping to the edge would lie there and then drop old Don Sorenson’s cat over the edge, a good 150 feet straight down just to see if that cat would land on its feet, and it did and ever after that cat carried in its old yellow eyes the illusion of great distances, some mystical place where small planes and sunbursts collide.

There was Harold Junior, son of that small town’s veterinarian. There was Stanley, “Old Swede,” not because he was old but looked old; the son of a lamed and dirt poor farmer some two miles east of town and who walked to school five days a week on the train tracks that ran east and west, past the farm and into town, dicey only on that tall railroad trestle spanning Red Rock Creek. There were two other boys, Don and Dean, identical twins, sons to the town’s only journalist, Sirwell Devier, the myopic owner and publisher of the town’s weekly newspaper and famous for his mis-printed, mis-spelled headlines. There was Jon, son to a farmer south of town, and Nick, son of another farmer south of town, their bicycles lying on their sides on that sweet smelling red clover by the front of that barn.

There may have been others but memory deceives.

No, there were two other boys, Anders and Steven, sons to a Lutheran pastor west of town, Old Westbrook Lutheran Church, and so more reason for two more bicycles. And, well, I was there, too, and so one more bicycle, my own Schwinn Racer.

October 8, then, 1956, game five of the World Series, which the Yankees won, 4 games to 3, and the Philco radio tuned to WCCO...

Don Larsen, you need to understand, had come to the Yankees a couple of years earlier; Casey Stengel was the manager. Yogi Berra was catching that day and Mickey Mantle was camped in center field. Gil McDougal was at short stop.

Sal Maglie was pitching for the Dodgers, still in Brooklyn, by the way, where they belong; Pee Wee Reese got a three-ball count in the first inning. Jackie Robinson hit a line drive that caromed off third baseman Andy Carey's glove, but McDougal fielded the ball and threw out Robinson in a close play. Sandy Amoros hit a long drive to right field that went just foul. Umpire Ed Runge held up his thumb and index finger an inch apart signaling “Just that much.”

Why mention that?

Well, in game two, Larsen had been given a six-run lead by the Yankee batters. He lasted less than two innings allowing four runs on four walks, squandering that lead, and so the boys in that haymow club in the Jackels’ barn were sort of half-way listening, deep into two bags of potato chips, hard salami sandwiches, Orange Crush and Grape Nehi...

We might think about this for just a moment:

I'm not trying to marshal evidence for the purposes of forcing a conclusion concerning shapes of philosophical history, the sub-title to this reflective memoir. There are some, though, who might think of all this as some kind of fatalistic confirmation of everything they always think about existence, as if every day is one more day of just barely bearable despair. But I wonder if there are not certain typologies that rub themselves off on our consciousness, some of which might be called “conscience.” It's likely even a facile bit of academics to assume that those boys half-listening to game five of the 1956 World Series are contestants we might use to examine historical experience even if we did so in the most intimate psychological way. Likely this “story” embedded in this memoir doesn’t even add up to the necessary shovelfuls of facts historians need before they, in social science way, shape those superstitious dregs into what they call a “history,” into something they think is plausible, which is what history must be, plausible. One would, rather, take this little historical moment and place it in a continuing time-line and use that October 8, 1956, that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game, and predict for all those boys glorious futures —or if not that an imminent death for all of them just at that moment when he pitched his 97th pitch on that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game. Likely, though, that would mean imposing romantic myth on history or to think that history is a statistical prediction of things to come or reduces the whole of the past to some kind of theoretical neo-conservative order, destroying history by mere criticism.

It took me a bit but I got that “rub” in, “neo-conservative order...destroying history then by mere criticism” if I'm allowed to quote myself.

Did you know that Howie would grow and grow and become in time an all-state offensive tackle back in Minnesota, saving my quarterback bacon more times than I care to remember. Did you know he would graduate high school and forsake college to work for his father in the grain business and then after a few years become an airline attendant based in San Francisco. Howie died of AIDS in early 1990. He was 44 years old and for the life of me I never once imagined that he had been born a different creation, which is how I've come to think about it.

On October 8, 1956, though, that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game, and then through years of high school and even following, I thought of Howie as my brother and no matter what prophecy later came up and out of the dark that might or could have made us strangers to one another, he’s still my brother regardless of the heaped confusions of historical junk the years have left us. If I could ever get truly straight with God, I’d ask God for a cure for that cancer or if history were a ragged old bum and I had a big old dog I’d sic that dog on history and yell “spirit, begone!”

And did you know that old Stanley, “old Swede,” grew to about 6 feet 7 inches and owned hands the size of platters and was the best top-of-the-key shooter and rebounder I ever saw and was one fine wide-receiver who made my wounded duck football passes look sweet.

And did you know he joined the marines and went to war and came out of that war, that Vietnam war, and lived in a farm house alone, living in 90-proof moonlight, alone, while he tried to exorcise whatever weird blood terror came out of that Khe San darkness to beat in his ear, at least until one night, and driving alone in that 90-proof moonlight, alone, the front end of his car weaving mystically, and, well, hard to stop the head from spinning, and I wonder if “Old Swede” did not at that moment feel himself suddenly free of all the things of this world that history will not let be.

There is, you see, no empirical point here from which to start other than son of a dirt-poor lame farmer, other than to remember how in history a boy sometimes grows into that strange shape of a thing called a “man” and sometimes that “man” doesn't want to look back in time at anything or anyone.

History, you need to understand, is what sometimes hurts. And that, well, that's the truth.

But I’ve gotten away from my thesis in this here reflective memoir...

The story is that Larsen didn’t know he was going to start that fifth game of the 1956 World Series until he arrived at Yankee Stadium and discovered a baseball tucked inside his baseball spikes. Moose Skowron, another teammate, recalled 50 years later Larsen’s look of shock when he saw that ball and knew he was going to start. Backup catcher Charlie Silver, who warmed-up Larsen in the bullpen, noted that it was all very casual but it was also unusual in that Larsen’s control was good. So, when the game began, even in those early innings, it was good. As the game went on, Yogi later said, “His stuff was good, good, good. Anything I put down, he put over.” You can look this up on Wikipedia if you’ve a mind to since I’m paraphrasing history.

And the boys in that club house were listening those early innings when no one for the Dodgers had yet reached first base, a few close calls only: a back-pedaling catch by Billy Martin, a one-handed running catch by Mantle in deep left-center.

Then after a two-run homer by Mantle in the 4th, the middle innings stretched and when they stretched something strange settled down on those boys, and across that small town, and out into the country, and then like sunrise moved west across the plains, into the mountains, all the way west, and south, and north...

That perfect game was underway, and all the way west from Yankee Stadium time held its pace, hearts were quiet, and likely in the small southwestern Minnesota town, old John Liljenquist’s barber shop was quiet, and old John, a die-hard Yankees’ fan, was praying for something his life would not be worth a prayer without, and in praying it was as if he knew at last what it was he should pray for that stretch of October afternoon in 1956, the 8th, that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game.

It’s baseball custom never to mention the words “no hitter” when such a game is underway, and never “perfect game” when one is underway, not in the dugout surely. Mel Allen and Vin Scully who were calling the game made reference only to the number of Dodger batters retired consecutively, 22, 23, 24, through the 8th inning and then in a soft undertone at the beginning of the 9th, “Yankee Stadium is shivering to its concrete foundations.”

Larsen took a break during the 7th inning stretch and smoked a cigarette. With the score 2-0 at the beginning of the 8th, Stengel had Whitey Ford warming in the bullpen.

You know, one can wonder in later years about the shape of time, how time could seem to be not moving, or if moving turning so slowly; even the barn spiders in the high reaches of the Jackels’ barn slowed stringing their strands, holding on to one bright thin thread fearful that if that thread broke whatever was holding that perfect afternoon together that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game would also break, and so no perfect game, and the wicked could then once again dance in circles, and all mankind would become once again aware that our earthbound existence is neither to be exceeded an allotted span, nor to be transcended beyond our provincial vantage point.

In principle, you see, the chronological shape of our philosophical history is time spun and woven even though the more lively intellectual orientation of our day and age might think the shape is circularity, sheer reiteration of similar recapitulations, gyres gyring into cone-like gyres, moments of eternal recurrence, returning to the beginning of things, progressive and even protean, Nietzsche, Toynbee, Spengler, et al...

I wonder, though, if there’s not a competing intellectual and emotional alternative starting from, say, that day in October 1956, the 8th, and then fixing an image frozen in that moment of time, an image of those young boys, legs dangling from that haymow door, listening to that now iconic baseball game, WCCO, and then coming forward in time from that image to see how year-by-year they will have changed, decade-by-decade. One wonders if their lives were in some cases not unlike Ixion in Hades tied to that perpetually revolving wheel. How, for example, can we select an identity for historical man without forcing conclusions on those boys’ lives, lives which seemed tensely to pause in those later innings that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game, October, the 8th, 1956...

Dean, one of the twins, grew up to play some college baseball and study accounting at what was then called Mankato State Teachers’ College, and he is to this day an accountant in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, what's known in the parlance as a CEO.

He never talks too loudly and has this way of walking about with his hands in his pockets and his head down as if he’s studying just the right place to lay down his feet, one after the other. He’s a calculating man, married well, and with good children and now grandchildren. I think these days that Dean in his retirement sits quietly in his backyard when his own accounting chores are done and thinks back to another day, a later spring day, 1964 or so....

Who can figure why?

Identical twins they were, Don and Dean, and yet Don felt one day chaos play with his nerves and those of us who were friends came to know a new word and fear not only the word but its sound and consequence: epilepsy. I remember my own mother telling me and asking me that if Don had a seizure while I was around I was to take my wallet and put it in his mouth and let him bite down on that wallet and thus not bite his tongue, and it happened, and I did put my wallet in his mouth as he jumped and shuddered, my brother Don....

I remember when the seizure passed and he was resting quiet, I stood and looked down at the bite marks on my wallet and can still remember the grass stains on my knees. Who could think that two years later he would stand up in our fishing boat to cast a silvery-bright fishing lure when again as if from nowhere that strange inner anarchy of epilepsy would make its appearance and like the hard leap of a hooked fish my brother Don went out of the boat and into the depths of that cold water of Fish Lake. I can remember quickly getting out of my clothes, too, and going over the edge and diving down as far as I could go, eyes open, diving deeply down, but farther down I could see only his red shirt-tails waving and then only the blurred outlines of a human shape sinking deeper.

I can remember all of that . . . that moment in history . . . go figure.

When I surfaced, Gary was still in the boat, frozen in fear; he’s a very fine minister these days, a pastor with good sermons I’m told, married, too, with beautiful daughters and even grandchildren. He was pastor to my mother in later years, and has enough Swedish to preach her funeral sermon in Swedish. An odd historical day that was, my own eulogy for my mother and his funeral sermon for my mother, the two of us shaking hands at first, and then a warm and close embrace. And then I think un-spokenly conceded some things always best left unspoken or about which my mother would have said, “Say little.”

The way into the future is most often not straight and there are sufferings and confusion too great to surrender to someone else’s conscience, and anyone who doesn't believe that is too far gone to see. Time is now-and-again a moral terrorist and just because a man sometimes fails in his will doesn’t mean he will always fail in his will. Who, after all, knows spiritual anguish better than a Lutheran pastor.
And that, too, is history, is it not?

But if I restrict myself, I can't say I would be buoyantly confident about the shape of that philosophical history. I’m no promulgator of earthly progress and take no deep draughts from a philosophy of history as some kind of new science. Some do, you know. Too much religious emotion in this story-like memoir, though, but just the kind to warrant a belief in divine providence, a belief either omitted or pushed into the background these days, or secularized by the prophets of progressivism. Politics, you know.

Did you know that Don Larsen won 81 games and lost 91 over his career and had only two ten-win seasons? From 1953 to 1967, he played for eight different franchises. One year, with the Orioles, he went 3 for 21, which in itself accounts for his losing record. He did win four other World Series games with the Yankees, as I recall, and over the following two years, one each with two classic tilts against my old time favorite Milwaukee Braves and Lew Burdette, and in 1962 with the Giants. He hit well and well enough to be a pinch-hitter at times, a lifetime .242 average with 14 home-runs.

But on that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game, there were two outs in the top of the ninth that day in October, the 8th, 1956; Larsen finally faced pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell, a .311 career hitter. Larsen was finishing by throwing fast balls and got ahead of Mitchell at one ball and two strikes. On his 97th pitch, Larsen threw another fast ball, and a called strike. Mitchell, looking for a change-up or a curve, was the 27th batter up and the 27th batter down, adding up to a perfect game, no walks, no hits, no errors, and thus no one reached first base--and so a perfect World Series game.

I know that back in the 18th century the French thought to tame the future and bring about the idea of perfectibility. I don’t think they had anything like Larsen’s perfect game in mind and it would be an odd combination of history’s events and words if I pressed it; but the French were forming their own cultural personality, as were the Germans, as were the Italians, as were the Yankees and the Dodgers some centuries later.

Did you know that Hegel later pontifically excommunicated all the Latin nations? “With them,” he writes in his The Philosophy of History, “the inner life is a region whose depth they do not appreciate, for it is given over ‘bodily’ to particular absorbing interests, and the infinity that belongs to Spirit is not to be looked for there.”

I should note here that I was never a Yankee’s fan since my heart lay with the Milwaukee Braves and so I believed the same about those New York Yankees as Hegel believed the Latin nations: “...the inner life is a region whose depth they [the Yankees] do not appreciate, for it is given over ‘bodily’ to particular absorbing interests, and the infinity that belongs to Spirit [the Milwaukee Braves] is not to be looked for there.”" I was eight years old when I thought that, and had known for a good time that the Yankees were and are in fact “damned. Did you know that Harold, another of the boys in the haymow that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game, Harold was the finest inside shooter I ever knew and a gangly rebounder; the best of tight ends, he could block and find a crease like no one else. He moved like a startled deer. He landed a full-ride Division I football scholarship to the University of Iowa and then squandered it. He had in time three marriages, the third sticking, but he looks tight-folded these days, and has a tiresome, toothy, defeated quarrelsomeness about him.

Nick, too, went off to play Division II football but missed the farm and so came home and married his high school sweetheart, Patty, and went to work for AT&T as a lineman; three children they had, and then divorced and he’s now remarried to Blanche. He says he’s also been “born again,” for which I’m glad. He was the first in southern Minnesota to cultivate huge fields of sunflowers. He plays Santa Claus every Christmas in that small town, and restores antique tractors the length of Minnesota winters, and he prays.

Jon also went off to war and came home be-medaled, and somehow, so the story goes, had been nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor for something he did somewhere in the highlands, but somehow, so the story goes, the nomination became snafued in red tape, and lost. He said he didn’t care: he really didn't serve so much as survive.

I was in college and one day picked up the Minneapolis Star and Tribune and there on the front page was a color picture of two battle-weary marines carrying another wounded marine back to safety. The place was somewhere in the highlands of Vietnam, and the weary marine on the left in the picture was my friend and brother Jon. He farmed after coming home the days and years after his
time in that war, and tended bar at the Legion Club. I used to imagine sometimes that he would come out of his own farm house and walk toward his own barn, and in early morning light stop in the open, stand still, and then raise both arms toward the sky, grateful the Vietnam haze of his night's dream had faded once again with the morning.

Jon died of cancer now just a few years back, buried and resting in a small Lutheran country church yard, gone to be with God, or so I pray...

Anders went to college to play Division III football and at college studied officer training and then into the army and in time became a two-star general and is very administrative and Pentagonny. His brother, Steven, at 18, senior year in high school, became prey to those weaknesses of the flesh and his hormones and quickly married Janice, a marriage now a half-century in the making, and more children than the earlier accidental child, and more grandchildren than you can shake a stick at, and is retired, and lives in Montana, a sort of compound he built and tends, and with its own zip code by now.

Who could have predicted all of that for those boys, but contemplate history and we see plenty of blind passion, but we also see enlightened reason, and goodness, all in the passing of time. But does the passing of time imply that time is becoming morally better? Were there limits set on those boys even before they quietly sat that day in October, the 8th, 1956, in the haymow north of town at the Jackels’ farm on that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game? If I were of a more dark poetic mind, I might have written in this here reflective memoir that when those boys sat on the floor with their legs dangling over the edge of that haymow loft, I might have written that they were hovering on the brink, right before they all fell into the abderite abyss. I could say that the 1960s were bad but I know they were never that bad. “Abderite”--Now there's a good word ... One I’m glad I got to use, finally...

I think these days, though, that if I were to write a philosophy of history, I would write it and then deny its thesis; I would write it and then demolish it.

I wonder, too, what might have happened if I had subtitled this reflective memoir with that wonderfully fleshy sub-titled, “true to life; based upon history.”

Out of that bunch of boys, you see, I'm the one who grew up to teach literature, stories and all of that with no practical purpose except fun. Or maybe not; I think these days that teaching literature is like the labor of Penelope, weaving and then unraveling. I say that because I own doubts about what good I’ve done in my now 69-odd-dog-trotting years, years appearing and re-appearing in a hundred guises, like nations that come into being and then in time and history pass through their prime, but still persist, dragging our their tired enterprise, hoping for another incarnation of the spirit... Teaching literature; crimmeny, go figure.

Well, that's a bit much like hyperbole. I don’t actually think of myself as a nation coming into being and then passing away, myself as so much debris on the ash-heap of any collective history. Instead, endless novelty invites new impressions and with new impressions the prayer that one’s moral character, my moral character, is not stamped with the mark of decay. There are some who might think so.

Did you know that Mitchell complained to Babe Pinelli, the home plate umpire, that Larsen’s 97th pitch was high and outside. It was Babe Pinelli’s final game behind the plate. He retired that season. Mantle later admitted that from his center field angle the pitch looked high. He must have had good eyes. Dodger outfielder Duke Snider said that he thought Pinelli wanted to go out with a no-hitter.

There's always controversy. Larsen walked off the mound. Yogi Berra leaped into his arms creating one of the great iconic images in all of American sports. After the game, a reporter asked Stengel whether that was the best game Larsen ever pitched. Stengel diplomatically answered, “So far!” Some fifty years later some color home footage was found way down in Jupiter, Florida, and in 2007, Larsen, Yogi Berra, and about 100 others gathered to watch that Zapruder-like unearthed copy even though it lacks the original Gillette commercials which were always superb. After watching the 8MM footage, Larsen was heard to remark, “It ended the way I hoped it would.”

I might write the same some day about teaching literature. It ended the way I hoped it would. Or maybe I just did and maybe it just did.

But Larsen’s fortunes didn't return and in 1960 Larsen became part of a trade with Kansas City that brought Roger Maris to the Yankees and a chapter to another legendary part of baseball history.

There was a pond, by the way, on that Jackels’ family farm north of town. Years later I remember thinking about this pond where I used to hunt ducks, and in later years writing a line in a poems about how this pond was "blue and amazed / With the shape of the wind." I wonder if Curtis in his later years doesn’t come home to that farm place now and again and then walk out to that pond? I wonder if he dreams himself back into being a boy and if he does, does he look down onto the the surface of the water and does he see a boy's facing staring back?

And would it be an act of mercy if along side that boy's face were the faces of his mother and his father?

Did you know Curtis teaches history at a small college in Minnesota .... history, go figure. We haven’t seen each other in years, but if we do get to see one another one day, I want to ask him if he remembers that day, October 8, 1956, the club house, the haymow, the old Philco radio, WCCO, that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game.

I would ask Curtis if he knew then what was happening in our hearts? “Do you remember,” I would like to ask, “what is was like in those later innings when that day began to have a shine to it like no other day before, and maybe like no other day after, excepting each other's wedding days?”

Would we together say that it was just circumstance, just time and place, or would we say together that it was the time and place and circumstance when we came to believe in grace?

Would we say to each other, Curtis and I, that over the more than half-century since that day that Larsen pitched that perfect game that we have done with our lives what those lives called for, knowing that and that alone is good, and that time has been to us a kindness? I would not ask the two of us to predict what's left except to pray that it’s God’s mercy.

What an intricate way time has, you see, in creating time and and distance in our lives, and who knows this better than those we know who are in heaven and in heaven already know our history, already know our stories, and already know what we are waiting for.


Author Daniel J. Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.

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