April 08, 2020

Portland author examines celebrity, sports and youth

PORTLAND – Fifty years ago Sunday, as a 9-year-old growing up in Indiana, Phillip Hoose only got to watch the first three innings of what many regard as the greatest baseball game ever pitched.

Hoose had a special reason for wanting to stay glued to the television for all of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers: Hard-throwing right-hander Don Larsen, his second cousin, was the starting pitcher for the Yanks.

The games were played in the daytime and Hoose’s school did not permit pupils to listen to the play-by-play during class. But Hoose’s mother and his teacher agreed that he could hurry home by bicycle and watch the action during lunch on condition that he returned before class resumed in the afternoon.

So it was only when the game was over and the principal walked into the classroom to tell the pupils the Yankees had won, 2-0, and Hoose’s cousin had pitched a perfect game, that Hoose learned of Larsen’s amazing feat.

The class broke out in applause for Hoose (pronounced HOSE), who had moved to Speedway, Ind., in the middle of the school year and was having a tough time winning acceptance from his new classmates because he had never played baseball and his ineptitude in the sport was painfully evident.

Hoose’s account of how his distant relative helped him adjust to his new surroundings is spelled out in “Perfect, Once Removed,” a memoir that reflects the magical power of sports on a young boy’s psyche, the impact of celebrity and the special hold that baseball had on America during the 1950s.

“We always tried to be good to him, one way or another,” said Larsen, who had a vague recollection of his first meeting with Hoose in 1956 in Chicago. The author visited Larsen last year at his home in Idaho.

The book, an expanded version of an article that Hoose wrote 16 years ago for Sports Illustrated, was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Larsen’s achievement, the only perfect game ever pitched in postseason play.

But Hoose, a Nature Conservancy staff member and author of seven other books on topics ranging from sports to conservation, also points out that 2006 is a personal benchmark: It’s been 50 years since he began playing baseball and he has never stopped. Arthritis may have slowed him down, but he gamely pops his ibuprofen and takes his shortstop position in Sunday afternoon pickup softball games.

He recalled in an interview that his father never played baseball and he had no older brother to teach him the game. He knew he would have to learn it on his own or remain a social outcast. And to make matters worse, he was, by his own recollection, weak, myopic and mouthy – “a toxic combination.”

He gained a lifeline in the spring of 1956, however, when his mother mentioned in passing that his father had a cousin in the major leagues. Hoose wrote Larsen a letter saying he was having a horrible time learning to play baseball and wondered if the Yankees pitcher might offer some advice.

Larsen’s first reply was a postcard with his photo on one side and a message on the other, offering encouragement and suggesting that the two might meet sometime soon. Then in May, for Hoose’s birthday, Larsen sent a Yankees cap with brownish stains on the sweatband that he had worn in a game.

Hoose and Larsen met that summer for the first time when the pitcher mailed tickets to see the Yankees play the White Sox. But when Hoose and his parents arrived in Chicago, it was pouring and the game was rained out. Hoose stopped crying only when he learned that Larsen had invited them to the hotel where the Yankees were staying; he got to meet manager Casey Stengel and some of the other players.

After that experience, Hoose decided to emulate his cousin by becoming a pitcher.

Still, he didn’t emerge from his pariah status until Larsen caught lightning in a bottle in the pivotal game at Yankee Stadium that put New York ahead, 3-2, in the World Series that the Yanks would win in seven games. Larsen threw only 97 pitches while retiring all 27 Dodgers he faced, a powerful lineup that included Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella.

“It was one of those games when an athlete is in the zone,” Hoose said. “It was almost as if a spell were woven.”

Larsen was featured on national TV and magazines in the days that followed, Hoose’s popularity rose, and other kids in town began to show an interest in helping improve his baseball skills.

“The thing that Larsen’s perfect game did for me was give me some coattails,” Hoose recalled. “I rode his fame for a season. Kids who wouldn’t be seen with me were suddenly willing to uncross my hands on the bat, oil my glove, teach me to throw, spend some time with me. Instead of being a liability, I was, for a while, a mild asset.”

Larsen, 77, said he hasn’t had a chance to read his cousin’s book but is pleased that his perfect game helped turn things around for Hoose back in Indiana.

Larsen, who had an 81-91 record and a 3.78 earned run average during his 14-year major league career, has been preparing for a round of events marking the anniversary of the Oct. 8, 1956, game. After media interviews in New York and appearances with Hoose at book signings in New York and New Jersey, Larsen will be in Kansas City on Sunday for a charity fundraiser with singer Garth Brooks and a son of Dale Mitchell, the Dodgers pinch hitter who took a called third strike for the final out.

On Nov. 4, Larsen is hosting a dinner in New York to commemorate his defining performance. He was hoping to reunite players from that game, but most have died and many of the others are in poor health.

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