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Thu, Feb. 20

Column | Don’t let robo umps ruin baseball

Just a few brief weeks into the 2019 Major League Baseball season, incontrovertible evidence has surfaced that computerized balls and strike calls cannot be far away. Before each game begins, the announcers offer their insights into the home plate umpire's leanings: he'll allow the low or the high strike. Then throughout the game, with the strike zone superimposed on the screen, the announcers unload, and make critical comments such as last innings strike is now this innings ball. Although baseball purists will bemoan robotics' arrival, it's inevitable.

But baseball bugs can be thankful that computers were still a fantasy in 1956 when the New York Yankees' Don Larsen pitched his perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Replays show that Larsen's final pitch to pinch hitter Dale Mitchell was high and away. To mark the MLB Network's 10th anniversary, Bob Costas hosted Larsen and his catcher Yogi Berra for the historic game's inning-by-inning analysis that led up to home plate umpire Babe Pinelli's controversial strike three call.

Only two close fielding plays jeopardized Larsen's perfect game bid. In the second inning, the Dodgers' Jackie Robinson hit a scorcher that deflected off Yankees third baseman Andy Carey and into shortstop Gil McDougald's glove. McDougald's throw to first baseman Joe Collins beat the aging 37-year-old Robinson by a split second. Then, in the fifth, center fielder Mickey Mantle ran down a long Gil Hodges shot that would easily have gotten past slower outfielders. Otherwise, Larsen mowed down the powerful Dodgers' lineup.

When the video clip reached inning nine, Costas asked Larsen what his emotions were as he walked to the mound. Larsen's reply: "The wonder is that I didn't faint." But Larsen easily retired the first two batters. Carl Furillo flied out to Hank Bauer, then Roy Campanella grounded out to Billy Martin. Finally, Mitchell took a called third strike. The debate continues today about whether Pinelli got it right.

For starters, since Mitchell rarely fanned - only 119 strike outs in 3,984-career at bats, a nearly infallible record - it's unlikely he'd leave his bat on his shoulder during a crucial two-strike plate appearance. Throughout his life, Mitchell insisted that Larsen's pitch was off the plate. But after the game, Pinelli, whose vision tested at 20/20, said that "Larsen hit the corner of the plate with a beautiful fast easy call." Larsen's teammates, however, agreed with Mitchell. From third base, Carey said Larsen's pitch was "high," McDougald, "not even close," and Mantle, "looked outside." No matter, without a robot to interfere with baseball history, Larsen's perfect game is in the record book forever.

Postscripts on the four protagonists. After 42 years in baseball that included umping six world series, Pinelli retired following the Yankees 1956 seven-game win, and died at age 82. Pinelli earned his peers' universal admiration and the players' respect - "the Lou Gehrig of umpires," as he was referred to.

Mitchell's strike out represented his last at bat. Eagle-eyed Mitchell compiled a .312 lifetime batting average, then went into the oil business where he prospered. In 1986, the 30th anniversary of the perfect game, "Good Morning America" invited Larsen, Berra and Mitchell to appear on the show. Mitchell refused, and suggested that anyone who expects him to travel across the country to talk about striking out should have his head examined. Mitchell died in 1987, age 65.

Berra, who passed in 2015, told Costas that Larsen never shook him off and that, away from his pitcher's line of vision, Whitey Ford furiously warmed up during the final innings.

Today, Larsen lives in Idaho where he said he thinks about his perfect game "many times" each day. In all, Larsen won four World Series games; two more for the Yankees in 1957 and 1958 against the Milwaukee Braves, and, in 1962 for the San Francisco Giants against the Yankees. In 2012, Larsen sold his #18 perfect game uniform for $756,000.

The most enjoyable moment in the MLB film is the unabashed joyous look that washed over Larsen's face when the image of Berra rushing out to embrace him flashed on the screen. More than 60 years later, Larsen relived his perfect moment as if it happened yesterday.

Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research member.

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